Opinion |

The Shocking Inspiration for Putin’s Atrocities in Ukraine

There’s never been a shortage of Russian genocidal fantasies about Ukraine but, until recently, they were confined to the political margins. Now, those fantasies and their neo-fascist roots are normalized and put into action

Anton Shekhovtsov
Anton Shekhovtsov
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In the courtyard of their home in Bucha, Ukraine, Vlad, 6, stands by his mother's grave. She died when the family was forced to shelter in a basement during the Russian occupation
In the courtyard of their home in Bucha, Ukraine, Vlad, 6, stands by his mother's grave. She died when the family was forced to shelter in a basement during the Russian occupationCredit: AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd
Anton Shekhovtsov
Anton Shekhovtsov

The photographic evidence of the Bucha Massacre – one of many sites of documented war crimes against Ukrainian civilians, and so far the most brutal – has shocked many in the West. As the Russian invaders were forced to withdraw from Bucha after several weeks of occupying this small town in the Kyiv region, the graphic images of mass graves, of tortured and mutilated bodies, of executed people with their hands bound behind their backs, of streets covered with the corpses of unlucky passers-by, have fuelled international outrage about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Many Westerners on social media expressed the hope that the revelations about the war crimes in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns and cities, including the bombardment of civilians waiting to be evacuated from Kramatorsk, would somehow shock the Russian authorities, force them to come to their senses and stop their war of aggression against Ukraine.

For long-time Russia watchers, this Western rationalism-driven optimism appeared completely unfounded, and the Kremlin wasted little time before killing those optimistic, if not naïve, hopes.

The Kremlin called the Bucha Massacre a "blatant provocation by Ukrainian radicals," a "staged performance" and a "fake attack aimed at undermining Moscow." Russia's Strategic Culture Foundation thinktank went to far as to say that the perpetrators were actually Ukrainians who killed the civilians after the Russian troops had withdrawn from Bucha.

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A cemetery worker guides a crane that lifts the corpse of a man from a mass grave to be taken to a morgue for identification, in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, UkraineCredit: AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

These false claims were refuted by eyewitnesses who managed to survive the massacre, and by open-source satellite images that showed the corpses lying there while the town had been still occupied by the Russians.

The day after the photographic revelations of the Bucha Massacre, the Russian state-owned domestic news agency RIA Novosti published an article that effectively admitted and justified the fact that the Russian war crimes in Bucha and elsewhere in Ukraine were not military excesses or collateral damage at all, but part of the Russian strategy aimed at eradicating the Ukrainian nation.

The article, entitled "What Russia Should Do with Ukraine," and written by Russian political consultant Timofey Sergeytsev, openly admits that "de-Nazification," which Putin named as one of the aims of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, has nothing to do with eradicating any far-right ideology, but is simply a euphemism for "de-Ukrainization" – the destruction of Ukraine as a nation-state by way of atrocities perpetrated on its citizens.

The term "Nazi" is thus used by the Russian propaganda to refer to anyone who identifies as Ukrainian. The internal logic of such an interpretation of "Nazism" is rooted in the Soviet way of understanding fascism: the term "fascism" was effectively a synonym of "anti-Sovietism." Now, the term "Nazi" is understood as "anti-Russian." Last year, Putin’s own article "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians" argued that Ukraine’s very existence was "anti-Russia."

Sergeytsev follows through: Ukrainian national identity is "an artificial anti-Russian construct that has no civilizational content of its own"; it is a "subordinate element of a foreign and alien civilization." Therefore, Ukraine as such equals Nazi.

"What Russia should do to Ukraine," a manifesto of genocidal hatred which envisages the crushing of Ukrainians and the dismemberment of UkraineCredit: Twitter

Russian attempts to "de-Nazify" Ukraine should be seen not only as efforts aimed at "de-Ukrainization," as Sergeytsev himself acknowledges, but also as an attempted genocide of the Ukrainian nation, and what the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti suggests is an actual plan of programmatic genocide.

According to this plan, Ukrainian national elites need to be eliminated; Ukraine must cease to exist and be broken up into several areas occupied by Russia that would erase Ukrainian national self-awareness through imprisonment, re-education and censorship; and after the eradication of the Ukrainian national identity, the masses would be assimilated into the "Russian civilization."

Few noticed that Sergeytsev’s article is, to a certain extent, an expanded version of an argument made by Russian columnist Alexander Zhuchkovsky in 2016.

In his article, posted on Russia’s largest social network, Zhuchkovsky wrote that Ukrainians were a "nation completely alien and hostile to the Russians," and that "Ukraine, Ukrainian people and Ukrainian language were deliberately and purposefully created by Russia’s geopolitical adversaries to fragment the Russian people, [and to] weaken and dismember Russia."

To strengthen Russia, Ukrainians should be completely eliminated, and in pursuit of that aim, Zhuchkovsky called for the dehumanization of Ukrainians: "It is natural and right, as we are fighting not against people but against enemies, [...] not against people but against Ukrainians."

Russian neo-fascist nationalists fly the Russian Imperial Movement flag as they march to mark May Day in Moscow, Russia Credit: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Zhuchkovsky is a representative of the Russian neo-fascist National-Democratic Party founded by the late Konstantin Krylov in 2014, and worked closely with the neo-fascist Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) headed by Stanislav Vorobyev.

The RIM, whose leader proudly declares their dedication to fight against "the Jewish oligarchs in Ukraine," granted financial assistance to the Swedish branch of the Scandinavian neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement and provided paramilitary training to international right-wing extremists; two of them carried out a series of terror attacks in Sweden upon returning from the RIM’s training camp. In 2020, the U.S. State Department designated the Russian Imperial Movement as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Group.

There has never been a shortage of Russian genocidal fantasies about Ukraine but, until recently, they were confined to the margins of Russia’s political discourse. The publication in Russian state media of Sergeytsev’s article, which develops an argument pushed by neo-fascist Zhuchkovsky, signals the deliberate mainstreaming and normalization of those fantasies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow at a concert marking the eighth anniversary of the referendum confirming Russia's occupation of Crimea and Sevastopol, seized from UkraineCredit: Vladimir Astapkovich/Sputnik Pool Photo via AP

Together with the denial of genocidal war crimes committed by Russian invaders, they constitute the same kind of manipulative schizophrenia that characterized, in particular, post-war neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers, who considered the Holocaust a fabrication and yet insisted on the need for the genocide of the Jews.

The normalization of these genocidal fantasies about Ukrainians by the Russian state media, especially against the background of the bloodcurdling news about Russian war crimes in Bucha and elsewhere, and its platforming the possible utility of using chemical weapons, is a conscious tactic aimed at maintaining and consolidating popular support for Putin’s regime.

As Russia’s top Kremlin propagandist, Vladimir Soloviev, urged on prime time TV in relation to the "satanic" Ukrainian "devils": "Finish off that Nazi scum."

According to the public opinion polls conducted by the Levada Center, a more or less independent Russian polling organization now considered a "foreign agent" in Russia, Putin’s approval rating soared from 71 percent in February to 83 percent by the end of March 2022.

It is true that results of opinion polling in authoritarian regimes should be taken with a pinch of salt: many people are doubtlessly afraid of speaking their mind. However, we should understand that this fear is the foundation of conformity and then collaboration.

For the victims of Russian war crimes, it matters little whether those who killed, raped, tortured and mutilated them genuinely supported Putin or simply followed illegal orders out of peer pressure or fear of prosecution. A genocide requires something more than the visceral hatred of of "the enemy" – it also needs the willing executioners and the mass compliance of cowards.

Anton Shekhovtsov is Director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity (Austria), Senior Fellow at the Free Russia Foundation (USA), and an expert at the European Platform for Democratic Elections (Germany). His most recent book is "Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir" (Routledge, 2018). Twitter: @A_SHEKH0VTS0V

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