Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked the Nazis on Thursday when he announced his decision to launch a large-scale military operation in Ukraine.
The Russian leader said that one of the goals of the offensive was to “denazify” the country, part of a long-running effort by Putin to delegitimize Ukrainian nationalism and sell the incursion to his constituency at home.
The rhetoric around fighting fascism resonates deeply in Russia, which made tremendous sacrifices battling Nazi Germany in World War II. Critics say that Putin is exploiting the trauma of the war and twisting history for his own interests.
In his narrative, the West overlooked the role the Soviet Union, Russia’s predecessor state, played in the fight. In the war’s aftermath, the United States and other Western nations formed the NATO military alliance as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.
Now, Putin sees NATO as an existential threat - and Ukraine’s bid for membership as a red line for Russia’s security.
“When Putin was growing up, the Second World War was at the center of Soviet identity and the enemies were the fascists,” said Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University.
The irony now, Snyder said, is that Putin appears to be “fighting a war the way that actual Nazis did,” invading neighbors on the pretext that their borders are irrelevant.
But his attempt to recast Ukraine’s government as fascist drew widespread condemnation Thursday, including from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is both Jewish and had family members die in the Holocaust.
Three of Zelensky’s great uncles were executed as part of the German-led genocide of European Jews during the war, the president said on a trip to Jerusalem in 2020. His grandfather, who was the brother of those killed, survived.
“Forty years later, his grandson became president,” Zelensky said in an address.
The Ukrainian leader also fired back at Putin’s Nazi claim Thursday, saying on Twitter that Russia had attacked Ukraine just “as Nazi Germany did.”
One of World War II’s worst massacres took place near the Ukrainian capital in 1941, when German-led forces killed tens of thousands of Jews in the ravine of Babi Yar.
“As of today, our countries are on different sides of world history,” Zelensky said on Twitter, addressing Putin. “Russia has embarked on a path of evil.”
According to Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, “there is a history of some Ukrainians fighting on the Nazi side . . . but a very small group.”
McFaul made the remarks in an appearance on MSNBC Thursday.
Putin, he said, “is pulling on that thread from history to say that what you had was a neo-Nazi usurpation of power [in Ukraine] in 2014,” when Ukrainian protesters ousted the Russian-backed leader and the new government pushed to join NATO.
In response to those protests, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and began backing a separatist insurgency in the country’s east. The conflict there has simmered for years.
Now Putin is trying to paint Zelensky’s government as “Nazis supported by NATO,” McFaul said.
According to Putin, he must fight to save the Russian-speaking community in eastern Ukraine.
In his speech announcing the start of the operation, he said that the “goal is to protect the people who are subjected to abuse, genocide from the Kyiv regime.”
“To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine and put to justice those that committed numerous bloody crimes against peaceful people, including Russian nationals,” Putin said, according to Russia’s state news agency.
His language is also a red flag that he intends to overthrow the government in Kyiv, said Sergey Radchenko, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University.
The Kremlin has long tried to “present the whole idea of Ukrainian nationalism as a neo-Nazi movement,” he said, adding that the narrative is historically false.
Following Putin’s logic, Radchenko said, Russia’s end goal in Ukraine could be to rid its government of “Ukrainian nationalists . . . who in their eyes are Nazis.”
At the same time, Snyder said, Putin’s moves to label Ukraine’s government as fascist are “completely emptied of any specificity.”
During the Cold War, the term came to apply to anyone in the West or those who opposed Russia, he said.
“Anyone can be a fascist” in Russian propaganda, Snyder said, adding that it “carries a vague emotion . . . for anyone anti-Russian.”
Ukraine’s state-run Twitter account on Thursday posted an image of what appeared to be a tall Adolf Hitler caressing the face of a smaller Putin.
“This is not a ‘meme’, but our and your reality right now,” the caption read.