Ohen Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at dawn on Thursday, he justified the “special military operation” as aimed at “denazifying” Ukraine. The justification is not tenable, but it would be a mistake to reject it outright.
Vladimir Putin is a fascist autocrat himself, imprisoning leaders and critics of the democratic opposition. He is the acknowledged leader of the global far right, which increasingly resembles a global fascist movement.
Ukraine has a far-right movement and its armed defenders include the Azov Battalion, a far-right nationalist militia. But no democratic country is free from far-right nationalist groups, including the United States. In the 2019 elections, the far right in Ukraine was humiliated, obtaining only 2% of the vote. That’s far less support than far-right parties in Western Europe, including in arguably democratic countries like France and Germany.
Ukraine is a democratic country, whose popular president was elected in free and fair elections with more than 70% of the votes. This president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is Jewish and comes from a family partially destroyed by the Nazi Holocaust.
Putin’s claim that Russia is invading Ukraine to denazify it is therefore absurd on its face. But understanding why Putin is justifying the invasion of democratic Ukraine in this way sheds an important light on what is happening not just in Eastern Europe, but around the world.
Fascism is a cult of the leader, which promises national restoration in the face of the supposed humiliation of ethnic or religious minorities, liberals, feminists, immigrants and homosexuals. The fascist leader says the nation has been humiliated and its masculinity threatened by these forces. She must return to her former glory (and often her former territory) with violence. He offers himself as the only one who can restore it.
At the center of European fascism is the idea that it is the Jews who are the agents of moral decay. According to European fascism, it is the Jews who bring a country under the rule of the global (Jewish) elite, using the tools of liberal democracy, secular humanism, feminism and gay rights, who are used to introduce decadence, weakness and impurity. Fascist anti-Semitism is racially rather than religiously rooted, targeting Jews as a corrupt stateless race that seeks world domination.
Fascism justifies its violence by proposing to protect a supposedly pure religious and national identity from the forces of liberalism. In the west, fascism presents itself as the defender of European Christianity against these forces, as well as against the mass emigration of Muslims. Western fascism is therefore increasingly difficult to distinguish from Christian nationalism.
Putin, the leader of Russian Christian nationalism, has come to see himself as the world leader of Christian nationalism and is increasingly seen as such by Christian nationalists around the world, including in the United States. Putin has become a leader in this movement in part because of the global reach of recent Russian fascist thinkers such as Alexander Dugin and Alexander Prokhanov who laid the groundwork.
It is easy to recognize, in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the road map traced in recent years by Dugin and Prokhanov, major figures of Putin’s Russia. Both Dugin and Prokhanov viewed an independent Ukraine as an existential threat to their goal, which Timothy Snyder, in his 2018 book The Road to Unfreedom, describes as “a longing for the return of Soviet power in fascist form.”
The form of Russian fascism championed by Dugin and Prokhanov resembles central versions of European fascism – explicitly anti-Semitic. As Snyder writes, “…if Prokhanov had one fundamental belief, it was the endless struggle of the empty, abstract sea people against the warm, fair people of the land. Like Adolf Hitler, Prokhanov blamed the world Jewry for inventing the ideas that enslaved his homeland, he also blamed them for the Holocaust.
The mainstream version of anti-Semitism alive in parts of Eastern Europe today is that Jews use the Holocaust to seize the narrative of the victimization of the “real” victims of the Nazis, who are Russian Christians. (or other non-Jewish Eastern Europeans). Those who embrace Russian Christian nationalist ideology will be particularly susceptible to this strain of anti-Semitism.
With this context, we can understand why Putin chose the actions he did, as well as the words he used to justify them. Ukraine has always been the main target of those who seek to restore “Soviet power in a fascist form”. Echoing familiar fascist anti-Semitic tropes, in a 2021 article, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev denounced Zelenskiy as disgusting, corrupt and unfaithful. The free democratic election of a Jewish president confirms in the fascist mind that the fascist bogeyman of liberal democracy as a tool of global Jewish domination is very real.
In claiming that the purpose of the invasion is to “denazify” Ukraine, Putin appeals to the myths of contemporary Eastern European anti-Semitism – that a global cabal of Jews was (and is) the real agents of the violence against Russian Christians and the real victims of the Nazis were not the Jews, but rather this group. Russian Christians are the target of a plot by a world elite who, using the vocabulary of liberal democracy and human rights, attack the Christian faith and the Russian nation. Putin’s propaganda is not aimed at an obviously skeptical West, but rather appeals, on a national level, to this strain of Christian nationalism.
There is a broader moral here. The attack on liberal democracy in the West comes from a worldwide fascist movement, the center of which is Christian nationalism. It will be difficult to disentangle this movement from anti-Semitism (although it is a version of anti-Semitism that allies itself with the forces pushing for a Jewish nationalist state in Israel). Unsurprisingly, proponents of the idea that a Christian nation needs protection and defense against liberalism, “globalism” and their supposed decadence, will be driven to their most violent actions when the faces of free liberal democracy , secular and tolerant will prominently include Jews.