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The Facts on ‘De-Nazifying’ Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says Russia’s talk of “de-Nazifying” Ukraine is a non-starter in peace negotiations. 

“We won’t sit down at the table at all if all we talk about is some ‘de-militarization’ or some ‘de-Nazification,'” Zelensky said in an interview with independent Russian journalists on March 27. “For me, these are absolutely incomprehensible things.”

Two days earlier, in a speech from Poland, President Joe Biden dismissed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that Russia invaded because it seeks “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. Putin has also talked about “neo-Nazis, who settled in Kyiv and took the entire Ukrainian people hostage.”

“Putin has the gall to say he’s ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine. It’s a lie,” Biden said. “It’s just cynical. He knows that. And it’s also obscene.”

Biden noted that Zelensky was democratically elected — getting 73% of the vote in 2019 — and he is Jewish.

Although historians say Putin’s assertions about the need to liberate Ukraine from the grip of neo-Nazis and genocide against ethnic Russians in Ukraine are false propaganda, the repeated assertions from Putin and other Russian officials had at least one American politician questioning aid to Ukraine.

“It’s shocking to me that Congress is so willing to funnel $14 billion in military equipment over and over again into Ukraine and you have to ask, is this money and is this United States military equipment falling into the hands of Nazis in Ukraine?” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said on March 22.

We’ll explain what these claims are all about and why experts say they are misleading.

A statement signed by more than 300 historians who study genocide, Nazism and World War II said Putin’s rhetoric about de-Nazifying fascists among Ukraine’s elected leadership is “propaganda.”

“We strongly reject the Russian government’s cynical abuse of the term genocide, the memory of World War II and the Holocaust, and the equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime to justify its unprovoked aggression,” the statement says. “This rhetoric is factually wrong, morally repugnant and deeply offensive to the memory of millions of victims of Nazism and those who courageously fought against it, including Russian and Ukrainian soldiers of the Red Army.

“We do not idealize the Ukrainian state and society. Like any other country, it has right-wing extremists and violent xenophobic groups. Ukraine also ought to better confront the darker chapters of its painful and complicated history. Yet none of this justifies the Russian aggression and the gross mischaracterization of Ukraine.”

One of the authors of the statement, Eugene Finkel, an associate professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told us the influence of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi faction is relatively small.

“Neo-Nazi, far right and xenophobic groups do exist in Ukraine, like in pretty much any other country, including Russia,” Finkel said. “They are vocal and can be prone to violence but they are numerically small, marginal and their political influence at the state level is non-existent. That is not to say that Ukraine doesn’t have a far-right problem. It does. But I would consider the KKK in the US and skinheads and neo-Nazi groups in Russia a much bigger problem and threat than the Ukrainian far right.”

‘Political Periphery’

Since Ukraine regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, far-right, ultra-nationalist political groups have struggled to make much headway in Ukrainian politics.

“During much of Ukraine’s post-Soviet history, the radical right has remained on the political periphery, wielding little influence over national politics,” Melanie Mierzejewski-Voznyak wrote for “The Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right,” which was published in 2018.

In the 30 years since Ukraine’s declaration of independence, Mierzejewski-Voznyak wrote, “its radical right’s national electoral support only rarely exceeded 3 percent of the popular vote. Radical right parties typically enjoyed just a few wins in single-mandate districts, and no far right candidate for president has ever secured more than 5 percent of the popular vote in an election.” The far right did, however, for the first time win a proportional share of the parliamentary government in 2012 when it won 10.4% of the popular vote. Since then, the far right’s share in parliamentary elections fell to 6% in 2014 and then to 2% in 2019.

“The claim that neo-Nazi or far-right groups hold any significant power in Ukraine is absurd,” Jared McBride, an adjunct history professor at UCLA whose work specializes in nationalist movements and mass violence and genocide in Russia and Ukraine, told us via email. “The most well-known far-right wing party, Svoboda (similar to say [Marine] Le Pen’s party or other corollaries in Europe) won 2.15 percent of the vote in 2019 election and holds one seat in the Rada – meaning they are politically irrelevant.” (Le Pen is the leader of the French far-right party the National Rally.)

“Despite remaining unpopular with the Ukrainian electorate over the past twenty-five years, radical right-wing political parties and groups have managed to become socially entrenched, have displayed a potential for violent protest actions, and have maintained a strong local presence in some regions, especially in western Ukraine,” Mierzejewski-Voznyak wrote.

Ultra-Nationalist Militias

The far right also gained some traction after popular uprisings in 2013 and 2014 when Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, suspended an agreement passed by Ukraine’s Parliament to establish closer economic ties to the European Union. After Yanukovych ultimately fled the country, Russian troops invaded and then annexed Crimea and supported Russian separatists who fought against Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine.

One of the volunteer paramilitary regiments at the forefront of the battle with Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine was a group called the Azov battalion, which was founded by members of two neo-Nazi groups. One of the group’s organizers, Andriy Biletsky, is a white supremacist, who in 2014 wrote, “The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival. A crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.”

The battalion’s success in 2014 in helping to win back the city of Mariupol from separatists has made them heroes to many in Ukraine, Izabella Tabarovsky of the Wilson Center told us.

“If they [Ukrainian citizens] value them, it is not because of any Nazi ideology,” said Tabarovsky, who manages the Wilson Center’s Russia File and Focus Ukraine blogs. “They value its patriotic stance. They value a group that fights an enemy that thinks their country has no right to exist.”

DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) fighters take cover behind an abandoned tank as the battle between Russian/ pro-Russian forces and the defending Ukrainian forces led by the Azov battalion continues in the port city of Mariupol. Photo by Maximilian Clarke/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Indeed, the Azov regiment was officially enrolled into the Ukrainian National Guard in late 2014. Then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko praised Azov as “our best warriors” and presented a medal to Biletsky.

Experts say the Ukrainian government’s embrace of the Azov regiment is largely pragmatic.

“We have to be honest, they were just good fighters in 2014 and they seem to be good fighters now in Mariupol, that’s why they were taken on the books,” Kacper Rekawek at the University of Oslo’s Center for Research on Extremism told the BBC.

That military success has, in turn, bolstered the far right’s reputation in the country.

“Between 2014 and 2016 there was a marked increase in the social role of previously marginal right-wing radical groups such as Azov, in connection with their participation in military operations,” Mierzejewski-Voznyak wrote for the handbook on the radical right. “The continued Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine has presented them with an opportunity to characterize themselves as defenders of the homeland and thus expand their public authority beyond the lunatic fringe.”

According to Mierzejewski-Voznyak, the profile of the far-right paramilitary groups also received “disproportionate media attention not only in Russia but also in the West. The impact of these and similar organizations on both Ukrainian politics and society has since been greatly exaggerated in Russian state media and also in some West European journalistic accounts.”

The Azov battalion, which has about 1,000 members, represents a small minority of the overall Ukrainian military. As the BBC reported, the Ukrainian armed forces number some 250,000, and the National Guard — of which Azov is a part — has around 50,000 members.

And some say the ultra-nationalist, neo-Nazi leanings of the Azov regiment have become less prevalent. In 2015, a spokesman for the Azov brigade told USA Today that 10% to 20% of the group’s members are Nazis. The leader of the Azov regiment, Biletsky, has since left to start a political party. And while there are still some far-right ties remaining in the unit, there have also been a flow of new recruits “who mostly are not there because of the regiment’s ideology, but because of its reputation as a particularly tough fighting unit,” Andreas Umland, an analyst at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, told us in a Skype interview.

American officials, however, remain wary of the group. For several years, U.S. appropriations bills have specifically prohibited military aid from going to Azov. For example, on March 10, the Senate finalized a spending bill that provides $13.6 billion in new aid for Ukraine but specifically states, “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to provide arms, training, or other assistance to the Azov Battalion.”

Russian ‘Propaganda’

Russian claims about neo-Nazi influence in Ukraine did not begin just prior to the invasion of Ukraine this year. Putin and other Russian officials have been characterizing Ukrainians as neo-Nazi fascists since Russia invaded Crimea eight years ago, Tabarovsky said.

“There has been an intensive campaign of demonization,” Tabarovsky told us. And, she said, referencing Nazism has “a certain resonance for Putin’s core supporters in Russia” because “there is a national historical memory formed around World War II and the victory over Nazis. It is a strong part of the [Russian] national identity.”

Umland, an expert in Ukrainian nationalism who until recently was based in Kyiv, agreed.

“The primary reason that the Kremlin is doing this is because the defeat of the Nazis is the high point of modern Russian history,” Umland said. “It is a major reference point for the Russian national identity. ‘We secured the victory over Hitler’ — is a principal source of Russian pride.”

Putin’s propaganda cherry-picks the problematic parts of Ukrainian civil society and government, Umland said.

“Far right extremists do exist in Ukraine,” he said. “The Ukrainians are not a nation of angels.” But Russian propaganda “gives the altogether minor Ukrainian right-wing extremist groups a disproportionate political relevance as an allegedly dominant phenomenon. In principle, you can do something like that with any country, make minor problematic aspects look salient and demonize every country of the world.”

“It’s a fairly obvious and rather successful political-psychological trick to justify the war among ordinary Russians,” Umland said.

Self-Fulfilling Prophesy?

Ironically, Tabarovsky said, the Russian propaganda efforts have strengthened the far right’s reputation in Ukraine.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy,” she said. “Any time there is a neo-Nazi presence somewhere it is a deeply troubling phenomenon, but because of this war they will certainly come out of this stronger.”

That is something Ukraine is going to have to deal with, Tabarovsky said, but with the country on the precipice, it is “all hands on deck” and not the time to be sorting through some political or militia groups’ ideology.

And, she said, the need to deal with far-right, neo-Nazi ideology is not unique to Ukraine.

For one, she said, “Russia should be de-Nazifying itself,” because there are far-right, fascist elements in Russia, too.

“Ukraine has a far right like most countries of the world have,” Umland told us. “But their organizational strength and electoral support are smaller than in many other European countries, and in Russia.”

Benjamin Nathans, who teaches and writes about imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, modern European Jewish history, and the history of human rights at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees.

“Ukraine has a small, right-wing nationalist contingent like many countries, including France, Germany, the USA, and — not least — Russia,” Nathans told us via email. “Neo-Nazi elements are not present in Zelensky’s government to the best of my knowledge. In my professional view, the alleged threat of neo-Nazism in Ukraine and genocide against ethnic Russians there (Putin used to mention Ukrainian Jews, but he dropped that line after a Jew was elected president), is simply propaganda.”

“It’s just a made-up story,” Tabarovsky said. “It’s not why he went into the Ukraine. Putin needs to justify the war for his people.”

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