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Putin's claim of fighting against Ukraine 'neo-Nazis' distorts history, scholars say

A mosaic panel depicts the liberation of Kyiv by Russia's Red Army in 1943 at Kievskaya metro station in Moscow.
Alexander Nemenov
AFP via Getty Images
A mosaic panel depicts the liberation of Kyiv by Russia's Red Army in 1943 at Kievskaya metro station in Moscow.

Updated March 1, 2022 at 3:02 PM ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked World War II to justify Russia's invasion of Ukraine, saying in televised remarks last week that his offensive aimed to "denazify" the country — whose democratically elected president is Jewish, and lost relatives in the Holocaust.

"The purpose of this operation is to protect people who for eight years now have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime," he said, according to an English translation from the Russian Mission in Geneva. "To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation."

Russian officials have continued to employ that rhetoric in recent days.

Russia's Foreign Ministry last week accused Western countries of ignoring what it called war crimes in Ukraine, saying their silence "encouraged the onset of neo-Nazism and Russophobia." Russia's envoy to the United Nations reiterated over the weekend that it is carrying out "a special military operation against nationalists to protect the people of Donbass, ensure denazification and demilitarisation."

And Putin has accused "Banderites and neo-Nazis" of putting up heavy weapons and using human shields in Ukrainian cities. Banderites is a term used — often pejoratively — to describe followers of controversial Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, and Ukrainian nationalists in general.

The Russian invasion, and the language of "denazification" as a perceived pretext for it, quickly drew backlash from many world leaders, onlookers and experts alike.

Criticisms of Russia's perceived hypocrisy grew even louder on Tuesday, when Russian strikes hit a memorialto Babyn Yar — the site where Nazis killed tens of thousands of Jews during World War II.

Ukraine's official Twitter account posted a cartoon of Putin and Adolf Hitler gazing lovingly into each others' eyes, writing that "This is not a 'meme,' but our and your reality right now." The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, among others, said Putin "misrepresented and misappropriated Holocaust history."

A lengthy list of historians signed a letter condemning the Russian government's "cynical abuse of the term genocide, the memory of World War II and the Holocaust, and the equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime to justify its unprovoked aggression."

They pointed to a broader pattern of Russian propaganda frequently painting Ukraine's elected leaders as "Nazis and fascists oppressing the local ethnic Russian population, which it claims needs to be liberated."

And while Ukraine has right-wing extremists, they add, that does not justify Russia's aggression and mischaracterization.

Putin's language is offensive and factually wrong, several experts explain to NPR.

It's a harmful distortion and dilution of history, they say, even though many people appear not to be buying it this time around.

Laura Jockusch, a professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, told NPR over email that Putin's claims about the Ukrainian army allegedly perpetrating a genocide against Russians in the Donbas region are completely unfounded, but politically useful to him.

"Putin has been repeating this 'genocide' myth for several years and nobody in the West seems to have listened until now," she says. "There is no 'genocide,' not even an 'ethnic cleansing' perpetrated by the Ukraine against ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in the Ukraine. It is a fiction that is used by Putin to justify his war of aggression on the Ukraine."

She adds that his use of the word "denazification" is also "a reminder that the term 'Nazi' has become a generic term for 'absolute evil' that is completely disconnected from its original historical meaning and context."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a speech next to a menorah at The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv on Aug. 19, 2019.
Sergei Supinsky / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a speech next to a menorah at The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv on Aug. 19, 2019.

The baseless claims are part of a broader pattern

The scholars characterize Putin's claims about genocide and Nazism as part of a long-running attempt to delegitimize Ukraine.

The Soviet Union used similar language — like calling pro-Western Ukrainians "Banderites" — to discredit Ukrainian nationalism as Nazism, explains José Casanova, a professor emeritus of sociology at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

"And now we see [Russia is] doing it every time the Ukrainians try to establish a democratic society, they try to say that those are Nazis," he says. "You need to dehumanize the other before you are going to murder them, and this is what's happening now."

Olga Lautman, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and co-host of the Kremlin File podcast, says Russia amped up the Nazi narrative after seizing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Ukraine is home to ultranationalist movements, including most prominently the Azov Battalion, which formed in 2014 and later joined the country's National Guard after fighting against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.

But Lautman estimates nationalists make up about 2% of Ukraine's population, with the vast majority having very little interest in anything to do with them.

She said the U.S. probably has a higher percentage of white supremacist and Nazi groups, while Casanova also says Ukraine has a smaller contingency of right-wing groups than other Western countries.

They also note that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish, as is the former prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman.

Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 with a whopping 73% of the vote — a considerably larger share than his predecessors — and won a majority in every region, including the most traditional and conservative, according to Casanova.

"In no other European country could you have ... a president, a prime minister being Jewish without having a lot of antimseitic propaganda in media and in newspapers," he says. "It never became an issue."

The Holocaust took a personal toll on Zelenskyy's family. Three of his grandfather's brothers were killed by the Germans, he said in a January 2020 speech.

"He survived World War II contributing to the victory over Nazism and hateful ideology," he said of his grandfather. "Two years after the war, his son was born. And his grandson was born 31 years after. Forty years later, his grandson became president."

Protesters rallied outside the Russian Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday, after Russian forces invaded Ukraine.
Lauren DeCicca / Getty Images
Getty Images
Protesters rallied outside the Russian Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday, after Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

Experts and observers criticize Putin's "mythical use of history"

Putin's claims contradict and distort important parts of 20th-century history while furthering his own agenda, the experts tell NPR.

They characterize it as an effort to hark back to the Soviet Union's heroism in fighting fascism during WWII.

But Casanova notes that Ukraine "suffered more than Russia from Nazi tanks," saying it lost more of its population during the war than any other country (without counting Europe's 6 million Jewish victims as a nation).

He calls Putin's tactics "simply a mythical use of history" to justify present-day crimes.

It's true that many Ukrainian nationalists initially welcomed the German invaders as liberatorsduring WWII and collaborated with the occupation, a fact that Ukraine's small far-right movement is quick to emphasize. Putin's claims seize on that kernel of truth but distort it — a classic Soviet propaganda tactic.

Lautman, who is Ukrainian and Russian, says Russia considers WWII its biggest victory and places a big emphasis on its defeat of the Nazis, celebrating WWII Soviet holidays many times a year.

Russian television channels played WWII movies on the day of Putin's announcement about invading Ukraine, Lautman says, which she describes as an appeal to the older generation.

And Russian leaders have successfully rewritten parts of that history, she says. For example, Putin signed a ban on comparisons between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany last July. That means someone could be jailed for mentioning the collaboration between Hitler and Josef Stalin, Lautman explains.

Jockusch notes another gap in Russia's retelling of its 20th-century history. "Stalin perpetrated a man-made famine that can be called a genocide in Ukraine 90 years ago, the 'Holodomor' which Russia still does not recognize and which claimed some 3 million Ukrainian lives," she says.

So why would Putin use this particular language to justify an invasion now?

Lautman says Putin has long mourned the collapse of the Soviet Union and has "nothing to show" despite having been in power for two decades.

"If he's able to reclaim some of this lost territory, on top of having a few satellite states, which he's been attempting to do over the past decade ... then at least he would have a legacy to leave in the history books of Vladimir the Great," she says.

A man walks past a mosaic depicting a World War II battle scene in Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city bordering Ukraine.
Olga Maltseva / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A man walks past a mosaic depicting a World War II battle scene in Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city bordering Ukraine.

What this distortion of history can teach us

While the West may not have been paying close attention before, many critics in Europe and beyond are now pushing back on Putin's claims.

Lautman says Ukrainians are used to this kind of language, since it's consistent with what Russia has been putting into the information sphere over the last eight years. And despite strict media censorship in Russia — where outlets aren't even allowed to refer to the current incursion as a war — citizens are risking imprisonment by protesting in the streets.

Yale historian Timothy Snyder described the charge of denazification as a perversion of values, telling CNN that it is "meant to confound us and discourage us and confuse us, but the basic reality is that Putin has everything turned around."

He said Putin's goal appears to be to take Kyiv, arrest Ukraine's political and civil leaders to get them out of power and then try them in some way. That's where the language of genocide comes in, he added.

"I think it's very likely, and he's said as much, that he intends to use the genocide and denazification language to set up some kind of kangaroo court which would serve the purpose of condemning these people to death or ... prison or incarceration."

Casanova and Lautman praise the strength and determination of Ukrainians, noting they are putting up a resistance. If Russia does succeed, Lautman says she is confident it would round up and execute political leaders and journalists there.

The experts point to the importance of learning from history and the present moment, something that the U.S. and other countries have not always done.

Casanova says the current moment proves that the world must create an equitable security system that is "not manipulated by the superpowers."

And both he and Lautman call for the world to hold Russia accountable, including by trying it for war crimes in international court. (The top prosecutor at the International Criminal Court said on Monday that the body would open a formal investigation into alleged war crimes "as rapidly as possible.")

"[We have to] understand that Ukraine today is the sacrificial lamb for all the unwillingness of the West to act united in defense of its own norms and values, in defense of the world security system that they tried to establish," Casanova says. "And if they can't fight for that, I don't know for what they can fight."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 3, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
This story has been updated to show that the Azov Battalion is a Ukrainian ultranationalist paramilitary movement that formed in 2014 and was later incorporated into Ukraine's National Guard, after fighting Russian-backed groups in eastern Ukraine.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.