When Vladimir Putin launched his murderous assault on Ukraine in the early hours of 24 February 2022, he conjured a parallel reality in an address on Russian television. In this fictional version of the war, he was waging a valiant crusade to save innocent Russian-speaking civilians in Ukraine from the “genocide” being perpetrated by the “extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis” who controlled its government. His “special military operation” was not an imperialist land grab, but a laudable effort to bring about the “demilitarisation and denazification” of Ukraine.
There was a glaring hole in Putin’s argument: Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president and the man supposedly leading this fascist regime, was a Russian-speaking Jew. As Zelensky himself put it in a direct appeal to Russian citizens, in Russian, on the eve of the war, “How can I be a Nazi? Say it to my grandfather, who fought in World War II as a Soviet infantrymen and died a colonel in an independent Ukraine.” He could have added that his great-grandparents died during that war when the Nazis burned down their village, and that his grandfather’s three brothers were killed during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine.
Now, 18 months into the conflict, the Russian president seems to believe he has finally arrived at a convincing explanation that will resolve this logical fallacy: Zelensky’s Jewish heritage is part of a Western plot to disguise the true character of his regime. As Putin explained in an interview with Russian state media on 5 September, “Western managers put an ethnic Jew in charge of Ukraine” in order to “cover up the anti-human nature” of the Ukrainian government.
“This makes for an extremely disgusting situation,” Putin went on, feigning indignation, “in which an ethnic Jew is covering up the glorification of Nazism and of those who led the Holocaust in Ukraine, which brought the destruction of millions of people.”
Putin’s claims are abhorrent – and false – but they should not be surprising by this stage. He has fixated on Zelensky’s Jewish identity before, claiming at an economic forum in St Petersburg in June that he had “a lot of Jewish friends” who told him that Zelensky was “not Jewish” and that he was a “disgrace to the Jewish people”. When Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was asked in May 2022 to explain how Zelensky could be leading a neo-Nazi regime when he was Jewish, Lavrov claimed, falsely, that “Hitler also had Jewish blood”.
As a Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman put it in response to Putin’s latest comments, his “chronic fixation on the Ukrainian president’s ethnic background is another manifestation of the anti-Semitism that’s deeply rooted among the Russian elites”.
The roots of Putin’s Nazi fantasy in Ukraine can be traced back more than a decade to the anti-government protests that convulsed Russia during the winter of 2011-12. In response, the Kremlin’s propagandists insisted the unrest had been orchestrated by the West and attempted to smear the protesters as an “orange plague” – combining the memory of the 2004-05 Orange Revolution in Ukraine with the “brown plague”, as Hitler’s brownshirts were known in Russia. This was set against the Russian president’s efforts to elevate the memory of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia, which has reached the status of a national religion in the country during Putin’s more than two decades in power.
The Russian propaganda machine went into overdrive during the 2013-14 Maidan Revolution – or Revolution of Dignity – in Ukraine, claiming that a Western-backed “fascist junta” had seized power. Putin said in a 2014 speech that “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes” had carried out a coup in Kyiv and plunged the country into “terror, murder and riots”.
Pro-Ukraine far-right groups did take part in the Maidan Revolution and form volunteer battalions after Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and fomented conflict in eastern Ukraine, but these were in the minority and failed to gain meaningful political power. The only far-right candidate to contest the country’s 2019 presidential election won around 1.6 per cent of the vote. Zelensky won the same election in the run-off with more than 73 per cent.
A 2022 statement signed by more than 300 historians who study genocide, Nazism and the Second World War condemned Putin’s rhetoric about Nazism in Ukraine as “factually wrong, morally repugnant and deeply offensive to the memory of millions of victims of Nazism and those who courageously fought against it”.
In reality, it is the Russian military that is murdering civilians in Ukraine, including Boris Romanchenko, a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor who had been imprisoned in multiple Nazi concentration camps, such as Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. He was killed by Russian shelling in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in March 2022. That same month a Russian missile strike also damaged Babyn Yar, the Holocaust memorial site in Kyiv, during an attack that killed five civilians.
Dig deeper into the language that Putin uses to describe his Nazi fantasy and the true meaning is repugnantly clear. He refers to modern Ukraine as “anti-human”. This is not a dogwhistle, it is a plain statement of his repeated insistence that Ukraine is not a real country; that it has no history of “real statehood” and that Russians and Ukrainians have always been “one people”. He expounded on these views over 5,000 words in a rambling ahistorical essay published on the Kremlin’s website in 2021.
When Putin tells us, repeatedly, that he does not believe Ukraine exists and that its citizens don’t have the right to their own identity, we should believe him. So yes, of course, we should condemn his latest grotesque attacks against Zelensky as the hideous lies that they are, but we should also understand what they reveal about the worldview of the man behind them, and what that means for the prospects of any negotiated peace between Russia and Ukraine. Those now urging Zelensky to come to some sort of accommodation with Putin might want to consider how he is supposed to do that when the man on the other side of that arrangement views him as less than human.