"When we are told that Ukrainian nationalism and neo-Nazism are a myth, ‘propaganda invented by Russia,’ they are obviously counting on someone who is not familiar with the history of the issue. The roots of Nazism in Ukraine reach deep into past centuries, crippling many of the noble and free souls of the people of Little Russia [Ukraine]" – Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, recently sanctioned by Europe and the U.S.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin offered the world his prolonged alternative history lesson, days before invading Ukraine, he dedicated a significant part of his televised speech to "Ukrainian neo-Nazism." Two days later, when he announced the beginning of his "special operation" in Ukraine designed to protect the "suffering people in Donbas," he mentioned "denazification" as one of its key goals, along with the demilitarization of Ukraine.
For anyone who hasn’t followed Russian TV during the last eight years, Putin’s claims might sound weird. But if you’d absorbed hours of endless debates about "hereditary Ukrainian neo-Nazism," stories about crucified Russian boys and the Ukrainian Russophobe hordes who assault peaceful families in eastern Ukraine – all fake news – it is considerably easier to understand the context of Putin’s rhetoric.
According to a 2018 study by the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, between 2014-2017 a full third of all the news on the main Russian TV channels focused on Ukraine, and more than 90 percent of the mentions were negative. These were the five main narratives most energetically promoted by state-run Russian media platforms:
- There is a civil war in Ukraine: 33 percent
- Ukraine is a failed independent state: 22 percent
- Russia helps Donbas: 15 percent
- Ukraine is full of irrational Russia-haters: 10 percent
- Fascists and extremists are destroying Ukraine: 7 percent
As we can see now, every single one of these narratives are currently used by the Russian government to explain the necessity of the invasion and its uncompromising nature.
Since those fateful days of the Maidan revolution in February 2014, when Putin’s satrap Victor Yanukovich was ousted from power, the Kremlin has depicted Ukraine as a dangerous, radical place run by fascists and neo-Nazis. Over the last eight years the term "neo-Nazis" has been replaced by plain "Nazis," and that’s the toxic term that Russian military correspondents, talk show hosts, analysts and politicians now use in regards to Ukraine.
And it wasn’t just Ukraine that was tarred as "neo-Nazi," "pro-Nazi" or just "Nazi" during the last eight years. Europe at large, and specifically Poland and Germany, were described by Russian propagandists as leaning towards Nazism, while Russia was depicted as the last bastion against it, just like in June 1941 when Hitler attacked Soviet Union.
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This last point is especially significant in creating today’s mirror-narrative of "us [Russia] versus the Nazis [Ukraine]." The memory of the Great Patriotic War, which ‘begins’ in the Russian telling from Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941, is still very much alive in Russian-speaking communities around the world.
Everyone has a grandfather or a grandmother who fought in the Red Army, died by the hands of Nazis in Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, was evacuated to Central Asian republics and barely survived, starved in the siege of Leningrad or joined the partisans in the woods. While Victory Day, the 9th of May, was always a beloved, bittersweet holiday in the Soviet era, in Putin’s Russia it became the calendar’s only truly ideological holiday, since May Day and October Revolution Day had lost their resonance.
In Putin’s Russia, each year the parades became grander, and the rhetoric around them – more aggressive and edgy. A common slogan is: "Mojem povtorit" – We can do it again. It means that modern Russia can repeat the Soviet victory over the Nazis, wherever they are and in which ever form they take.
It contained a threat, and a hidden promise. By promoting the narrative of "Russia against the Nazis," the Russian leadership also exempted itself from any comparisons with fascism, turning assumptions into facts: the victors, those who liberated Europe from the Nazis, cannot be wrongdoers by definition, while the Europe that succumbed to the Nazi invasion and was unable to protect itself still harbored the Nazi virus.
The narrative is black-and-white: The Ukrainians were antisemites and Nazis, while the Russians were Red Army liberators who are still fighting against Nazism today. All this flies in the face of the obvious facts that all Soviet citizens served in the Red Army, including Ukrainians, while antisemitism was widespread in both the Russian Empire and in Soviet Union.
At this point the Israeli connection comes to mind. Among 1.2 million Russian-speaking Israelis, there were and are many Red Army veterans, real heroes who marched all the way to Berlin, who liberated Auschwitz and the capitals of Europe. Victory Day is still celebrated by many Israelis who made aliya from the former Soviet Union, who know well that if not for that hard-won victory, there could be no future for the Jewish people anywhere.
This sentiment, and the recognition of ex-Soviet Jews’ heritage, encompassing not only the Holocaust, but also fighting in the Red Army (over 650,000 Jews fought, many volunteering to go to the front) has been exploited by Moscow to recruit Israel and its institutions in its narrative war against Ukraine and Europe.
While European leaders refused to join the Moscow May Day military parades over the last few years, rejecting Putin’s policies, Israel’s prime minister eagerly cooperated. In 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu was one of just two Western leaders who marched side by side with President Putin on May 9th. The second one was Serbian President Aleksander Vucic.
"We will never allow history to be rewritten, and we will never let anyone forget who saved the world from slavery and extermination. It was the USSR that determined the outcome of the Second World War, but today they [the West/Europe] are trying to rewrite the history, and we will not allow this to be done.
"The same ugly features emerge as new threats: selfishness and intolerance, aggressive nationalism and claims to exclusivity. We understand the gravity of these threats," opined Putin, addressing the Russian people that day.
By involving Israel and Israeli organizations in this narrative, Russia was trying to hold on to a very important card: It had Jews on its side, and so it spoke in their name, too, attacking acts of antisemitism that occurred in the still ‘Nazi-contaminated’ parts of Europe – Ukraine, Poland and Germany, among others.
There is no doubt that in recent years antisemitism has been on the march around the globe – mostly in Europe and in U.S. – as reflected in the data collected by many monitoring organizations. There is no reason to be oblivious to or forgiving of the fact that in Ukraine, in common with many other countries on the continent, there are neo-Nazi and extreme right groups who march with torches, brandish swastika tattoos and incite if not commit violence. These kinds of displays cannot be tolerated, not in Ukraine, not in the U.S., and not in Russia.
However, when these facts are inflated beyond any proportion and interpreted as equal to the Nazi threat to humanity in 1939, Israel should be alarmed. When Russia raises a false "denazification" flag to justify invading a democracy with a thriving Jewish community, a sizable population of Israeli citizens, a Jewish president, Jewish MPs and legislation that criminalizes antisemitism, Israel should stand up and resist.
Putin’s "de-nazification" drive is both false and dangerous. It equates the Ukrainian government led by Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the Third Reich, and the Holocaust to the "genocide" of Russians in Donbas – both unfounded, spurious and revisionist allegations.
And most importantly, when Moscow uses this same rhetoric to bomb Ukrainian cities and kill Ukrainian citizens, Israel, the "Never Again nation," should always be the first to stand up against it, to decline handouts from the oligarchs in Putin’s clique, and to reject rhetoric that leverages Jewish suffering to whitewash atrocities and aggression.
Ksenia Svetlova, a former member of the Knesset, is director of the Israel-Middle East program at Mitvim - the Israeli institute for Regional Foreign Policy, and a policy fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichmann University. She is the author of "On High Heels through the Middle East" (Pardes, 2021). Twitter: @KseniaSvetlova