February 25, 2022 - 3:51pm

“Do not let Bandera and neo-Nazis use your children, wives and old people as human shields,” said Vladimir Putin in an address to the Ukrainian people today. “Take power into your own hands, it looks like it will be easier for us to come to an agreement.”

The focus on ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine has been an oft-cited theme in Vladimir Putin’s playbook. When the Russian President declared war on Ukraine, Putin claimed that he was doing so in order to achieve the “demilitarisation and de-Nazification of Ukraine”. The reason Putin does this is to emphasise Russia’s civilisational exceptionalism. It exploits the traumatic history of the Great Patriotic War (the Russian phrase for World War II) by reframing the sacrifice of the Soviet army for geopolitical reasons. In doing so, he delegitimises Ukrainian claims of sovereignty.

This has been a common theme of Putin’s since the Euromaidan in 2013, when he repeatedly referred to Ukraine as ‘fascist’. In 2014, the state justified its annexation of Crimea by noting an upsurge in ‘fascist’ activity, and now a similar kind of thing is happening today. Each day, Russian television refers to fashizm [fascism] and banderovtsy, the followers of Ukrainian nationalist and wartime partisan leader Stepan Bandera. They are thus presented as direct descendants of the Ukrainian Nazi collaborators defeated by the Soviet Red Army at the end of World War II.

It is, however, true that there are some active neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine. Groups like the Azov Battalion are filled with white supremacists and anti-Semites who wear the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel (Wolf’s Hook) symbol on their banner. Some of them are also tattooed with swastiskas. They proved instrumental back in the 2010s when they helped resist rebel groups in the early stages of the occupation of Donetsk and Lukhansk. 

Nevertheless, these militias represent a very small and extreme minority. In fact, the current President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is himself Jewish and lost family members to the Holocaust. Shortly before Putin’s televised address announcing the invasion of Ukraine, Zelensky noted:

The Ukraine on your news and Ukraine in real life are two completely different countries — and the main difference between them is: ours is real. You are told we are Nazis. But could a people who lost more than 8 million lives in the battle against Nazism support Nazism?
- Volodymyr Zelensky

He then turned to his own family history as a rebuttal against Putin’s egregious comments: 

How can I be a Nazi? Explain it to my grandfather, who went through the entire war in the infantry of the Soviet army, and died a colonel in an independent Ukraine.
- Volodymyr Zelensky

Putin’s accusations also overlook the fact that Russia has its own neo-Nazi problem. For example, Russian National Unity is a neo-Nazi political party openly operating in Russia, members of which have even joined pro-Russian forces in occupied areas of Ukraine.

Putin’s claim that the Russian Army needs to “de-Nazify” Ukraine is therefore unfounded. As Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, noted, there is a thick layer of behind Putin’s actions: ‘Putin appears to be ‘fighting a war the way that actual Nazis did’ by invading neighbours on the pretext that their borders are irrelevant.’ Putin’s efforts to delegitimise Ukraine are thus completely hypocritical as well as ahistorical, and we must not let him re-write history.

Isabel Sawkins is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. She is also in the final stages of completing her PhD on Holocaust memory in the Russian Federation.