Vladimir Putin is fighting an enemy that does not exist. He has invaded Ukraine and taken his country to war on an entirely fictional premise. In an address to Russian citizens from the Kremlin on 24 February, he claimed the government in Kyiv had been seized by “extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis” and that he had sent in the Russian military to save innocent civilians from “genocide” and force the “denazification” of Ukraine.
To state the obvious, this is a lie. There are no neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian government and there is no genocide. It is Russian warplanes, tanks and heavy artillery that are killing Ukrainian civilians. “How can I be a Nazi?” asked the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky – who is Jewish and whose grandfather fought for the Red Army against Hitler during the Second World War – in a direct appeal to Russian citizens on 23 February, the eve of the conflict. “The Ukraine in your news and the Ukraine of real life are two entirely different places. The difference is that the latter is real.”
Putin has crafted his grotesque fantasy over decades. Since he first came to power in 1999, he has elevated the memory of Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call the Second World War, to the status of a national religion. He has cast himself as the great leader of a besieged nation, defending Russian citizens against foreign threats and a phantom resurgence of fascism, which he insists is rising in Europe once again.
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“When Putin used the term ‘denazification’ in his declaration of war, he was not speaking to foreign audiences, he was speaking first and foremost to his own public,” said Izabella Tabarovsky, a senior programme associate at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, Washington DC, who studies historical memory and anti-Semitism. “It was an attempt to demonise, to create a false equivalence between Ukraine today and Nazi Germany. The subtext of his message was: ‘Look, we are still the good guys here! It’s a war of self-defence! There is a genocide against our people! We are fighting a just war, just as we did in 1941-45!’”
There is a long history in Russia and in the Soviet Union of those in power exploiting the idea of a fascist threat to serve their own political needs. Rather than acknowledging the horrors of the Holocaust that were revealed in 1945, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin stoked a new campaign of anti-Semitism and co-opted the term “fascism” to insist that Hitler had attacked the USSR and the Soviet people in general, rather than any one group in particular. The American historian Amir Weiner recounts that two decades later in 1965, when researchers at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust centre in Jerusalem, wrote to the Soviet government to request information on the fate of Soviet Jews, they were told that documents “relating to the crimes of German fascism in the Second World War are not organised according to the nationality of the victims”.
Putin himself began cultivating the idea of a fascist resurgence to mobilise popular support during his first term in power, following the “colour revolutions” in neighbouring Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004. But after the Arab Spring swept a series of longstanding dictators from power across the Middle East, beginning in December 2010, and mass anti-government protests were staged in Moscow and other Russian cities in 2011-12, the Kremlin seized on the concept in earnest.
Putin’s supporters organised a series of counter-protests in December 2011, styling themselves as patriots standing up to a Western-orchestrated plot to sow unrest. They invoked the memory of the Great Patriotic War, demanding an end to the “orange plague” – a term that deliberately conflated the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the “brown plague” as Hitler’s stormtroopers, or brown shirts, were known in Russia. Where the anti-government protesters wore white ribbons, the pro-Putin crowd pinned the orange and black ribbon of St George to their lapels, a symbol of the Soviet victory in 1945 that has become popular since Putin came to power. The Russian leader wears the ribbon himself during the country’s annual Victory Day celebrations.
When protesters took to the streets of Kyiv two years later in the winter of 2013-14, in what became known as the Maidan Revolution (named after the Maidan Nezalehnosti, or Independence Square, where the crowds rallied), Putin launched into his familiar script as to who was to blame. Instead of the truth – that Ukrainians were protesting their president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to scrap a trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia – he claimed that Western intelligence agencies were fomenting unrest and that fascists and neo-Nazis were taking power.
Russian state television, which 90 per cent of the population said was their main source of news at the time, screened endless footage of the violence in Kyiv, with a relentless focus on the most radical groups. There were claims of pogroms and reports that people from the predominantly Russian-speaking eastern regions would be sent to a “fascist concentration camp”. The pro-Kremlin coalition that had rallied two years earlier reinvented itself as an “anti-Maidan” movement and claimed to be standing against “21st-century fascism”, just as their ancestors had fought against Hitler.
Putin claimed that “people wearing armbands with something resembling swastikas” were patrolling the streets of the Ukrainian capital. He told a group of journalists the false story of how those rallying in Kyiv had supposedly captured one of their victims and “burned him alive”. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations told a Security Council meeting there was “open terror” in Ukraine. It was true that far-right groups did take part in the protests, and the far-right Azov battalion became part of Ukraine’s national guard. But these radical factions were in the minority, and the idea that a “fascist junta” had seized Kyiv was a fiction created in Moscow.
Still, it was effective propaganda. When I was reporting from Donetsk, the capital of one of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics” in eastern Ukraine, during the conflict that followed, a young boy in a bomb shelter told me that they were being shelled by the “fascists” in Kyiv. When Putin annexed Crimea in March 2014, he claimed to be defending the peninsula’s largely Russian-speaking population from the “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites”, which he said had taken over the Ukrainian government.
The disinformation campaign reached its apogee in July 2014, when the Russian television network Channel One broadcast a report claiming that Ukrainian government forces had crucified a three-year-old boy in a public square in Slavyansk. The channel’s reporter interviewed a woman who claimed to have been there and described how people had fainted at the sound of the little boy’s bloodcurdling screams. It was a monstrous lie that was quickly debunked by other journalists, but viewers were never told that it wasn’t true. The channel merely added a subsequent disclaimer to say that it was “not able to confirm or refute the information” in the report.
Putin has doubled down on his lies over the past eight years, insisting that a fascist regime is perpetrating genocide in Ukraine, with Western powers led by the US pulling the strings. This is the foundation on which he has built his nonsensical claim that Russian forces are now engaged in the “denazification” of Ukraine, instead of the truth that they are waging an unprovoked war of aggression. He does not need all Russians to believe him – and there is good evidence that they do not – just enough of his core supporters and senior officials to go along with the pretence that his actions are justified.
“This is what makes propaganda and demonisation so dangerous,” Izabella Tabarovsky told me. “Once you’ve used a term enough times, the audiences who trust you no longer question its meaning, it becomes part of their consciousness. We can be certain that the very same words that Putin used in his declaration of war have been used to brainwash the Russian troops that are now attacking Ukraine. In this sense, demonisation kills.”
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As those Russian forces now fight their way into Ukrainian cities, they will find there are no “neo-Nazis” holding the population hostage. There will be no grateful crowds throwing flowers in front of their tanks. Instead, Ukrainian citizens are lining up to fight to defend their freedom. Grandfathers are reporting for duty with hunting rifles. Mothers and grandmothers are preparing Molotov cocktails. Villagers are using tractors and sandbags to block the roads. The fiction that this is a war of liberation will be impossible to sustain for long.
“When you will be attacking us, you will see our faces, not our backs,” promised Zelensky in his address on 23 February as he prepared to lead the defence of the capital. Perhaps some of those advancing troops will come to see the lies they have been sold for what they are – and that it is Vladimir Putin, the man who has long claimed to be defending Russia, who represents the greatest threat to them all.
This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times