Where are the Nazis in the Russia-Ukraine war?

Russia argues its Ukraine invasion aims to “de-nazify” a country run by “drug-addled Nazis”.  What does “Nazi” mean today, and who are “Nazis” in the Russia-Ukraine war context?

In 1941 Dorothy Thompson asked who goes Nazi? and identified some pointers you might find in a large gathering of acquaintances.  Today however, “Nazi” is more a loose slur term applied to people “we” may not like.  The term “Nazi” alludes to far-right extremists, especially those with racist (including antisemitic), xenophobic and ethno-nationalist views.  Such extremists tend to be inward-looking rather than internationalist, authoritarian rather than democratic, and to be conservative on family and LBGTQ matters.  

Ethno-nationalism assumes that identity reflects ancestry and this shapes people’s behaviour today.  How a defined group (Jews, Russians, Ukrainians) behaved a hundred years ago is seen as predictive of how it will behave today.  This leads to conflicts over what and how history is remembered.  Statues are raised and toppled, legislation is enacted and repealed, and school history curriculums are developed and fought over.

Vladimir Putin once published an essay arguing that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people,” a “yedinyi narod.”  Putin must surely reflect on how much blood can be spilt before Russians and Ukrainians become bitterly divided for at least the next generation.

What do voting statistics tell us about Ukrainian “Nazism?”  In Ukraine’s 2019 parliamentary elections a coalition of far-right parties secured just over 2% of the vote.  In the 2019 presidential election Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a Russian-speaking Jewish centrist won 73% of the vote in the run-off against the moderate incumbent Petro Poroshenko.  This compares for example with Marine Le Pen winning 41.5% compared to Macron’s 58.6% of the French presidential election run-off vote in 2022.

If Ukraine has a significant far-right or neo-Nazi political movement it is almost invisible in public discourse as well as in elections.  Nor is it obvious on the battlefield.  The Azov Volunteer battalion that formed in reaction to the 2014 invasion of Ukraine did attract extremists, notably Andriy Biletsky.  However, Azov is now part of the Ukraine National Guard and is apolitical.  Biletsky was elected to Parliament in 2014 and he lost his seat in 2019. 

The Azov fighters are melting away in their last stand in the Mariupol steel works.  They are extraordinarily brave.  No war crimes have been attributed to them in this conflict.  In contrast, there is well-substantiated evidence of Russian atrocities against large numbers of Ukrainian civilians.

Since its election in 2019 Zelensky’s government has broken with ethno-nationalism and promoted equal rights for all the country’s citizens.  What matters is Ukrainian citizenship that confers equal rights and which transcends ethnicity, religious and other such identities.

Ukraine is becoming more culturally inclusive and has actively protected minority cultures.  In July 2021 it enacted legislation “On the Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine.”  This granted special protection for the cultural heritage and language of Crimean Tatars as well as Turkic Judaic groups.  Attitudes within Ukraine to LBGTQ issues are becoming more accepting.  These progressive changes are hardly Nazism at work.

Some Russians hold neo-Nazi views and actively promote them.  For example, the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) is an extremist ethno-nationalist group that supports pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and has been involved in conflicts in Libya and Syria. 

Vladimir Putin’s strongest supporters domestically and internationally are at best “far right” and at worst overtly neo-Nazi.  Ramzan Kadyrov who heads the Chechen Republic has been accused of a long list of human rights violations, including multiple murders, and has enriched himself through Putin’s patronage.

Igor Girkin was active in the Crimean annexation and the war in Donbas.  In 2014 he opined that Russia’s “liberal clans” must be destroyed in favour of “law enforcement” ones.  In June 2019, Dutch prosecutors charged Girkin for murder through the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and issued an arrest warrant for him.  Girkin has recently resurfaced advocating general Russian mobilization for the Ukrainian war.

Far-right organisations such as the Wagner Group and the Rusich neo-Nazi unit do some of the “dirty work” for Putin’s regime.  The Wagner Group  functions like a mercenary private army that operates in similar ways to the Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front in WW2.  It is alleged to have tried to assassinate President Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders.  It has also been linked to recent civilian massacres in Mali.

Putin’s strongest international relationships are with far-right politicians and movements.  They include Viktor Orbán and Marine Le Pen who share his ethno-nationalist and culturally conservative views.  The only German political party to oppose military aid to Ukraine is the far-right Alternative for Germany – Russia helps fund it.

Putin’s American supporters include fringe GoP politicians, some Fox News commentators and Alt-Right activists.  Donald Trump’s initial reaction to the Ukrainian invasion was to call Putin “a genius” for what Trump seemed to mistake for an adept real estate transaction.

Vladimir Putin is a far-right authoritarian, however he has never been antisemitic.  In 1998 a communist Duma member Albert Makashov denounced Jews as a “scourge” that should be removed from the country.  Putin, who was then Director of the Federal Security Service, faced Makashov down.  He announced an investigation into the remarks, doing so with the Lubyanka in the background.  This sent a message that hateful antisemitic rhetoric was intolerable. 

On 1 May the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov opined that having a Jewish president (Zelensky) does not preclude Ukraine being run by Nazis.  He then stated that “the biggest anti-Semites were Jewish, including Hitler”.  Israel’s foreign minister Yair Lapid said this “unforgivable” falsehood debased the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust.  Russia’s foreign ministry responded that Lapid’s comments largely explain “why the current Israeli government supports the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv”.  Vladimir Putin apologised to Israel’s Prime Minster for these comments.

Putin has long promoted an ethno-nationalist, traditionalist narrative for Russia.  This is reflected in the 9 May Victory Day celebrating the Red Army’s defeat of Nazi Germany in WW2.  The Red Army was not “the Russian Army”.  All Soviet nationalities served, including seven million Ukrainians, of whom 1.65M died.  Of the Red Army’s greatest WW2 leaders Zhukov was Russian, however Timoshenko was Ukrainian and Rokossovsky was Polish.

In Putin’s narrative WW2 is dated from 22 June 1941 to 9 May 2022.  However, the German-Soviet non-Aggression Pact was signed on 23 August 1939.  A secret protocol to this Pact divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence.  Eastern Poland, LithuaniaLatviaEstonia, and Finland fell within the Soviet sphere. 

German forces attacked Poland on 1 September 1939, with Soviet forces invading on 17 September.  World War Two therefore began as a joint Nazi and Soviet attack on Poland.  Poland ceased to exist as a nation on 29 September 1939.  Around 22,000 Polish citizens later died in Stalin’s Katyn massacre in April-May 1940. 

Victory Day creates a link between the Soviet Union’s glories and Russia today.  It has been used to rehabilitate Stalin, and to validate ruthless leadership, including Putin’s.  Russia’s human rights organisation Memorial International which chronicled Stalin-era crimes was closed by court order in December 2021.  

Some of Stalin’s crimes must never be forgotten.  For example, many Ukrainians argue that Stalin engineered the 1932-33 great famine or Holodomor – “murder by hunger” in which millions of Ukrainians died.  Markevich et al (2021) provide powerful statistical evidence supporting this allegation; that is that Stalin’s government manipulated food shortages to ensure that Ukrainians bore a disproportionate share of the famine burden.

The Russian Constitution states that Russia “united by the millennium history, preserving the memory of the ancestors who conveyed to us ideals and belief in God… honours the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland, ensures protection of historical truth.  Diminution of the heroic deed of the people defending the Fatherland is precluded.”

The Soviet annexation of the Baltic states in June 1940 and Stalin’s invasion of Finland in November 1940 were all mandated in the secret protocol to the German-Soviet Pact.  However, in Russia today references to Nazi-Soviet collaboration are now effectively criminalized.  

Given how important defeating the Nazis in1945 is to Russia’s “story about itself” it is psychologically appealing (though dishonest) to label any other enemies of Russia as “Nazis”.  After weeks of fighting Russia had not identified a Nazi presence in Ukraine and the case for invading Ukraine seemed more and more tenuous.  The arguments for the war then began to change.

On 5 April 2022 the former Russian President and close Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev argued that an important war goal was “to convert the bloodthirsty and the total, fabricated-myth-laden consciousness” of some Ukrainians.  “The goal is peace for future generations of Ukrainians and the possibility of finally building an open Eurasia, from Lisbon to Vladivostok”.

“From Lisbon to Vladivostok” is the slogan of “Eurasian philosophers”, notably Aleksandr Dugin, who argues for Russia to dominate the Eurasian continent extending from Portugal to the Pacific Ocean.  This Russian Eurasian imperial ambition is of course dreamland.  For example, China is much bigger in population, wealthier, and far more technologically advanced and diversified than Russia.  China must surely see that Russia is the weaker party and can never lead Eurasia.

Despite its unreality, Putin is influenced by the Eurasian philosophers.  Dugin is described as “Putin’s brain”.  One hopes he is not also Putin’s science teacher.  In June 2012 Dugin opined that chemistry and physics are “demonic sciences”, and all Orthodox Russians need to “unite around Russia’s president in the last battle between good and evil”.  Dugin may of course be right that Putin is in his “last battle”. 

The theme of “good versus evil” recurs in the Russian rhetoric, sometimes with Orthodox religious imagery.  Vyacheslav Nikonov, Deputy Head of the State Duma declared on 18 April that the conflict in Ukraine “is a metaphysical clash between the forces of good and evil … This is truly a holy war we’re waging and we must win.”  It is difficult to reconcile such rhetoric with the “special operation” language Putin used on 24 February 2022.

Apocalyptic language about holy wars that must be won is disquieting given how often Russian media personalities, officials and politicians allude to nuclear weapons.  In reflecting on nuclear war Putin once said “why do we need this world if there is no Russia?”   

Russia has been investing heavily in “first strike” nuclear weapons that can defeat all countermeasures.  It also has tactical nuclear weapons and military protocols over their use within a conventional conflict.  It now seems to have a nuclear technological edge over the United States. 

Far-right autocracies tend to be strengthened by real or imagined enemies the population can rally against.  Putin has consistently framed “the west”, especially the United States as Russia’s enemy.  He has worked most actively from about 2014 to undermine western democracy and values, and to encourage “identity politics” and separatist movements that weaken the west.

Some Russians are contemptuous of Ukrainians, even while contending they are close family and not strangers or enemies!  Nobel Prize winning writer Joseph Brodsky’s poem On Ukrainian independence is an ill-tempered ethno-nationalistic example.  However, “neo-Nazism” goes beyond contempt and ethno-nationalism and always involves pathological hatred. For example, in New Zealand the He Puapua document that proposes anti-democratic constitutional change is a deeply racialist, ethno-nationalist document.  It is not however a hate-filled document.

What now comes through from the Russian government and media is hatred towards Ukrainian people.  On 3 April 2022 the Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti published an article by Timofei Sergeitsev on what should Russia do with Ukraine  It comes close to inciting mass executions of Ukrainians as occurred at Bucha.  Significantly, after international publicity about the Bucha massacre, Putin bestowed the honorary title of “Guards” on the 64th Motor Rifle Brigade, the unit held responsible for the atrocities.  This is a tacit endorsement, if not encouragement of such war crimes.

In 2000 Putin said that “history proves that all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government are transient.  Only democratic systems are not transient.  Whatever the shortcomings, mankind has not devised anything superior.”  He says quite different things in 2022, perhaps because the mask has slipped and the real Putin has revealed himself, or because autocratic power has corrupted him.

Autocrats concentrate power, which means they can be decisive and effective.  It also means they must take personal responsibility when things go wrong.  Putin’s belief that “Nazis” ran Ukraine implied most Ukrainians would welcome Russians as liberators.  However, the Ukrainian nation united and defeated the Russian army’s attempts to seize Kyiv and other cities.  Putin was accountable for the Russian failure, however so far it has not been too damaging for him politically.

Autocrats may or may not be charismatic, however they attend to their image and the media falls in line with this.  Putin’s image is carefully honed.  Putin bare chested in Siberia, hunting with a high-powered rifle!  Putin holding a candle in church in an outbreak of performative religiosity.  Diving to recover ancient Greek amphora!  Putin wrestling a black bear, or warding off a pack of hungry wolves with a flaming brand.  And so it goes on until he appears more frail and ill-starred by events and his image starts to fade.

We will learn a lot from Vladimir Putin’s speech later today at the 9 May Victory celebration event.


Markevich, A. et al 2021. The Political-Economic Causes of the Soviet Great Famine, 1932-33.  NBER Working Paper 29089.

About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
This entry was posted in History, Maori, Politics, Russia. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Where are the Nazis in the Russia-Ukraine war?

  1. Roy Edwards says:

    Peter, I suggest you look at non Western influenced reports regarding your comment.

    “”The Azov fighters are melting away in their last stand in the Mariupol steel works. They are extraordinarily brave. No war crimes have been attributed to them in this conflict. “”

    The Azov Battalion have been blamed for many Russian “”sympathizer”” executions.
    A little bit of research, re their actions pre invasion will depict them as brutal!!

    Of course you will not read any of that in the Western media.
    You will of course understand the propaganda war is an immense organization by all parties.
    Finding reality is extremely hard…
    However some brave souls are posting actual events via Social media. Some that support allegations and some that debunk.

    I find it very difficult to understand, in this day of mobile phones and internet, that Putin would allow some of the reported atrocities as he, more than most, will understand the negative propaganda that would cause. Whatever you think Putin is not an idiot.

    I should also remind you that Many Russians, especially younger Russians, still access facebook and other social media via VPNs

    And yes I do have some Russian friends, some support some do not support the current invasion.
    Those who support Russians actions, blame it on the US !!!

    • Peter Winsley says:

      Thanks Roy, yes I agree that there is a huge amount of misinformation, bias and propaganda out there. The Azov battalion certainly started out with some very dubious members, including some quite racist people. I agree Azov had a brutal reputatin pre-invasion. However the Urkrainian army has cracked down on extremists and the Azov unit does not appear to have “fought dirty” in this conflict.


      • David Lillis says:

        The Azov fighters are quite capable of murder and their capabilities were well known before the present “operation”. However, right now they are defending their nation. Some unpleasantness to captured Russians is not justifiable but, unfortunately, is to be expected.

  2. David Lillis says:

    For most of us it’s hard to accept the negative truths about our own people. I was born a Protestant in the Republic of Ireland, though I have no religious beliefs whatsoever. However, I do no-one a service if I choose to grandstand on behalf of my own lot and pretend that Northern Irish Protestants have comported themselves impeccably over the last century. They certainly have not. They have treated Roman Catholics very poorly at times though, to be fair, nationalistic Catholics have been nasty too and the election of Sinn Fein recently is most astonishing and potentially dangerous.

    Today we fear that the Russian people do not wish to accept that their country has behaved monstrously since the beginning of a minor military operation in the Ukraine. That Putin must go is fatuous. The manner of his departure must set diverse and exciting examples to other would-be tyrants.

    How stupid are these so-called demagogues? The last century has shown us that many end up not-so-nicely. Stalin may have been fed rat poison. Beria received an early Christmas present of nine grams of lead from General Pavel Batitsky. Mussolini spent quality time dangling from the girders in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan. Saddam Hussein exited the world though the trapdoor. Hitler took no chances and made sure of things, at once biting cyanide and pulling the trigger. Heydrich had a bad hair day in a Mercedes Benz. Pol Pot died peacefully after ingesting a lethal dose of valium and chloroquine. Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were introduced to the bullet, as was Vidkun Quisling. Other assorted members of the Nazi party had a bad time at Nuremburg when their hangings were quite unintentionally botched. In January of the year 41 AD, following his journey back from Gaul to Rome, Caligula was knifed over thirty times at the Palatine Games and each knifing must have been even more pleasant than the previous.

    History will yield many others who, at the end, may have regretted not having more friends and making too many enemies.


    • Peter Winsley says:

      Beautifully written David!

      • David Lillis says:

        Thanks, Peter. Actually – Marie Antoinette may not have deserved her fate and possibly her disregard for the people was exaggerated a little. In the event, the five foot three-inch
        Maximilien Robespierre kept his own appointment with Madame Guillotine.

        All of the low-life I mentioned above deserved an unpleasant endgame. Of the lot of them, the one for whom we may feel the most profound disgust is Lavrenti Beria – mass murderer and both rapist and murderer of young girls. In our mind’s eye, we can picture this despicable individual crawling on the floor of his cell, crying and imploring his executioner for a mercy that he never showed to others.

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