Putin and Russian media keep claiming that one of the reasons they attacked Ukraine is to de-Nazify it. Their rhetoric claims that the nazi forces were a direct threat to Russia and they had no choice but to attack in order to defend themselves.
When you think of Nazis, what comes to mind? I think most Americans and West Europeans associate Nazis with a racist ideology wielded by a fascist, expansionist government in order to commit genocide. In short, really bad people with repugnant beliefs using violence to accomplish their goals. Nazis are most definitely a bad thing to have on your border.
The thing is, all the stuff that we think of as being bad about nazis aren’t really on Putin’s radar. Let’s go through the list.
1) Racism. How can I put this delicately? Eastern Europe in general is not known as welcoming place for other races, religions, sexualities, etc. Antisemitism is still rife across all of eastern Europe (and far too common in the US sadly). You will never hear any Russian political or news media figure utter any concern over jews. Suffice it to say that Russia isn’t invading Ukraine in order to protect Jews or any ethnicity.
2) Fascism. Fascism is another thing that is generally considered to be a very bad thing. Fascist governments are typically headed by a strong leader buoyed by nationalism run amok, a strong centralized government, strict control over media, and largely concerned about self perpetuation instead of the process of governance. Ukraine doesn’t fit any of that. Russia on the other hand has become the epitome of a fascist state.
3) Expansionist ideals. Hitler wasn’t happy with Germany’s then current borders. He dreamed of reclaiming past German glories and adding to the empire. He clearly had ambitions to have all of Europe. Ukraine has no such ambitions. It is already the largest country in Europe and its government never had any ambitions to expand. Russia? Wow.
Putin has long lamented that the breakup of the Soviet Union was a historical mistake and disaster. He has frequently talked about Ukraine as being a made up country, an accident of Stalin’s making. No, what is referred to as Ukraine is actually a part of Russia according to not only Putin but many “hard liners” in Russian society. Not only that but media figures on state controlled Russian TV are openly calling for the Baltics and Moldova to be incorporated next after they are finished with Ukraine. Naturally Poland would be the next pan Slavic annexation after those had been controlled.
I maintain that Russia is the only European empire not to have been corrected by modern political philosophies. The French were the first European power in “modern” history to feel the rejection of expansionist goals. Napoleon was determined to try to be Charlemagne, Europe wasn’t having it. Later, the Ottoman Empire and Austria/Prussia got broken up. We all know what happened to Germany when they tried again. Russia? They expanded dramatically after World War 2. Sure, in theory there were lots of separate countries but in reality the Soviet Bloc was really just an extension of the USSR.
In many conservative Russian circles, the USSR ran into some unfortunate trouble in 1990 but in an ideal world all of the former colonies soviet bloc countries would still be under Russian control. It’s safe to say that Russia does not consider a nation’s ambitions to expand as being a bad thing.
4) Genocide is a big and ugly word. It should not be used lightly. The nazis were explicit in their goals of wiping out not only the jews but also other “undesirables” like the Roma and many Slavs, especially Poles. As far as I know, the Soviets and now the Russians have never explicitly mentioned anything along the same lines. But, as they say, actions speak louder than words.
While Russia may not have advanced a clear hatred of and desired the elimination of a particular group the military has showed no compunction in eliminating vast numbers of people to accomplish its goals. In the mid 90s Russia showed the world its military tactics in Grozny. It started with them bombing a maternity hospital and attacks on civilian infrastructure. It ended with the Russians agreeing to a ceasefire and allowing the defeated group to leave. The Russians mined the agreed upon evacuation route and ambushed the departing army. The shelling continued and the fighters were killed alongside countless civilians. In 2003 The UN called Grozny the most destroyed city on earth.
Similar tactics are still being used by the Russians in Syria. The Red Cross has stopped providing Russians with the locations of hospitals because it became clear that they were being targeted instead of being avoided. Syria has seen widespread indiscriminate bombing and destruction. Much of it simply to show overwhelming force in order to cower people into surrendering.
A similar pattern has been seen in Ukraine. Indiscriminate targeting of civilian areas, seemingly deliberate strikes on hospitals, schools, and shelters, it’s all looking very familiar. Now we are seeing the torture, rape, and widespread killing of civilians in occupied areas of Ukraine. The horrors of Bucha will unfortunately pale in comparison to what’s to come in places that Russia has occupied for longer.
Official publicans of the Russian military of defense is calling for the elimination of Ukrainians. Many mass graves have been found. When it was reported that invading Russian forces were bringing portable crematoriums everyone snarked that Russia was trying to avoid bad press back home by not shipping home fallen soldiers. Thinking about it a little that doesn’t make any sense. What we have seen in Bucha makes clear is that the Russian military was/is planning on mass killings. We now have information that the Russians are using crematoriums in Maripul.
Russia is not concerned about genocide.
So if Putin and hardliners aren’t offended by racism, expansionism, or genocide and Ukraine wasn’t going to do any of that anyway why do they keep talking about Nazis? You might think that it is just a propaganda talking point. It is certainly that but there is more to it. What Putin really objects to is a bordering country that is democratic and wants to join the EU. A Russian speaking country enjoying the fruits of European citizenship is a moral peril for Putin’s governance. So how do you sell the Russian public on war? You make Ukrainians into the Boogyman.
Fear and hatred of Nazis is hard coded into the Russian psyche. They fear Nazis not because they were racists but because they killed 20 million Russians. That’s over three times the number of Germans killed in the war. In Russian’s eyes, the nazis’ anti Russian tendencies are their biggest sin.
Putin can use the term nazi as shorthand for any western power that is against Russia. Indeed, you hear many Russian pundits referring to the battle in Ukraine as being against the West. Putin and his media have informed the Russian public that the sanctions were bound to happen eventually anyway. The us versus them narrative is simply reinforced as the western sanctions start to bite.