Putin’s emphasis on imaginary Nazis illustrates his bizarre and dangerous behavior in his later years. Many political scientists have concluded that the “Putinist” system he has created around him is, paradoxically, purely fascist.
London: Two weeks ago, Russian rockets destroyed two five-storey residential buildings in the town of Chasiv Yar in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, killing 33 residents. They were mostly women and children, including Liza Dmitrieva, 4, whose pink stroller lay on its side covered in blood in the playground. Further indiscriminate attacks followed against Kharkiv in northern Ukraine and Mykolaiv in the south. Later in the day, Margarita Simonyan, head of the Russian state-controlled television channel RT, said all the buildings were targeted because they housed Ukrainian “Nazis”. Oh good? Nazi women and children? But then, calling Ukrainians “Nazis” is the Kremlin’s standard response to defending the terror and mass murder perpetrated daily across Ukraine by Russian forces.
When President Vladimir Putin unleashed his forces against Ukraine in February, he claimed his “special military operation” was to “protect people who were victims of abuse, genocide by the kyiv regime for eight years, and to that end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify (sic) Ukraine. Truth and justice are on Russia’s side. The truth is, of course, that after Russian forces struggled to overthrow the government of Kyiv in the early hours of the war, Putin mocked Ukrainian authorities as “drug addicts” and “neo-Nazis.” His use of the term “Nazi” shocked many in the West. Could the centrist Volodymyr Zelenskyy, elected in free and fair elections in 2019, be a “Nazi”?
He is not, of course. Putin’s rhetoric reflects how the Kremlin has repeatedly used the traumatic legacy of Russia’s past wars to justify its illegitimate actions and to preemptively discredit those who challenge its authority. Zelenskyy, the head of a government that Putin claims is Nazi-dominated, is himself Jewish and Russian-speaking, and the grandson of a man whose family was murdered in the Holocaust. Zelenskyy’s family history reveals how both absurd and cruel Putin’s denazification claim is. This, of course, is not new. For much of his professional career, Vladimir Putin has been absurd and cruel.
By continuing to spread this propaganda, Putin is clearly trying to appeal to a powerful and shared emotion among the Russian population. One of the great Russian triumphs of the last century was the victory over Nazi Germany, won at the cost of enormous sacrifices by the Soviet people. Putin is therefore trying to recycle this anti-Nazi narrative to appeal to a very strong emotion in the Russian psyche to maintain support for what he is doing. And what he does is pursue a campaign based on his own inaccurate view of the Russian world. Once again, Putin is waging war against a former Soviet republic, drawing inspiration from a decades-old playbook in which he laid out a grand strategy to restore Russia to Soviet times and restore the country to as a superpower. And unless Russia suffers a clean defeat, it won’t stop at Ukraine.
In May, an influential Moscow Duma politician, Sergei Savostyanov, said that after Ukraine, Russia should “denazify” six more countries: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Moldova and Kazakhstan. Although this remark might be dismissed as the odd sight of one individual in the overheated atmosphere of today’s Moscow, it is clearly more than that. Listen to the words of Vladimir Vinokourov, eminent professor at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Vinokurov argues that since the West will do nothing in the face of the resurgence of Nazism, it has been left to Russia to “denazify these countries lest they again spread their poison throughout the world”. He asserts that “Putin’s decision to launch his special military operation gives hope that ‘this time’ there will be no repetition of Nazism”. He concludes: “today it is Russia’s mission to block someone else’s world scenario and thus save humanity from the repetition of a bloody war”. In other words, by invading Ukraine and pursuing a war against the six countries, Putin is doing the world a great service.
It would be easy to dismiss these figures as eccentrics who should be ignored, but they seem to represent an authentic view of what the Kremlin thinks Russian foreign and defense policy should be. But the word “Nazi” was only ever used as a label of justification, as an excuse to build a case specifically for the invasion of Ukraine. In reality, Putin and his allies tried to expand the meaning of Nazism to make it essentially meaningless, but still useful to them. Anyone who opposes Putin’s government is labeled a Nazi, representing the worst and most hideous enemies Russia has ever faced in its history, whose battle has claimed the lives of almost one in six people, civilians and military . By portraying anyone who disagrees with him as a “Nazi,” Putin is doing a terrible injustice to all those brave Russians who have lost their lives defending their country against real Nazis wearing swastikas on their arms.
Putin’s emphasis on imaginary Nazis illustrates his bizarre and dangerous behavior in his later years. Many political scientists have concluded that the “Putinist” system he has created around him is, paradoxically, purely fascist. Stripped of its basics, a fascist state is by definition an authoritarian state led by a charismatic leader enjoying a cult of personality. Pinochet’s Chile and Franco’s Spain were just average “authoritarian” states, while Mussolini’s Italy and Xi Jinping’s China are clearly fascist, as are Hitler’s Germany and Russia. Stalin. So you can see that fascist states can be right and left.
Putin’s evolution towards fascism is easy to follow. Since the December 2011 protests in Moscow, when as many as 100,000 protesters took to the streets to complain about the corrupt elections that took place under Prime Minister Putin, civil liberties in Russia have all but disappeared. Putin had never experienced popular protests like these before. It was shaken and quickly completely dismantled all of Russia’s nascent democratic institutions. Elections are no longer free or fair. Putin’s United Russia party always wins and opposition members are regularly harassed or killed. The Kremlin controls all media and there is no freedom of speech or assembly, with draconian penalties for anyone critical of the state. Moreover, Putin has constructed a hypernationalist, imperialist and supremacist ideology that glorifies all things Russian, an ideology that legitimizes expansion as a right and a duty of Russia. This ideology was imposed and voluntarily accepted by the population, which explains why Putin’s popularity remains high. So a highly authoritarian regime headed by a popular leader – the classic definition of fascism.
Putin’s overly centralized regime in Russia is also a typical feature of a fascist state, where information reaching the supreme leader is often sugarcoated. His disastrous decision to attack Ukraine was almost certainly due to the inaccurate information he received about the state of the Russian military while hiding in isolation during Covid. Fascist states are prone to wars, simply because secret policemen and generals, whose raison d’etre is violence, are overrepresented in the ruling elite.
Putin surrounded himself with so-called “Siloviki”, many of whom served in the KGB and held conservative, often conspiratorial views. Men like Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Security Council and “hawk hawk”; Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Russian foreign intelligence service; and Alexander Bortnikov, head of the FSB, the internal security and intelligence service, all know Putin since the 1990s, when they were all members of the Leningrad KGB. These Siloviki engage in conspiracy theories, dominate the Kremlin agenda and fuel Putin’s anxieties, provoking and exacerbating tensions.
One of them is likely to replace Putin when he meets his creator in the near future. None are as popular as Putin, so Russia will return to being an authoritarian state. Only fascist Putin ticks all the boxes. Only President Vladimir Putin is a true fascist.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in the office of British Prime Minister John Major between 1995 and 1998. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Plymouth.