'Just Total Fiction': How Putin Is Using Nazi Propaganda to Defend Invasion of Ukraine

"In terms of all of the sort of constituent parts of Nazism, none of that is in play in Ukraine," Jonathan Dekel-Chen, a history professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, told the Associated Press

Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, the military reserve of the Ukrainian Armes Forces, take part in a military exercise near Kiev on December 25, 2021.
Photo: Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty

Neo-Nazism is one of the central claims behind President Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine, despite evidence that the assertion is false.

"In terms of all of the sort of constituent parts of Nazism, none of that is in play in Ukraine," Jonathan Dekel-Chen, a history professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, told the Associated Press.

"Territorial ambitions. State-sponsored terrorism. Rampant antisemitism. Bigotry. A dictatorship. None of those are in play," he added. "So this is just total fiction."

Russia began its invasion of Ukraine earlier this week, according to the Ukraine government. The attack is still evolving, but explosions and airstrikes have been reported, with threats mounting against the capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million people.

In a speech on Monday, Putin suggested that NATO countries are backing neo-Nazis in Russia's latest attempt to delegitimize Ukrainian nationalism.

"It is not surprising that Ukrainian society was faced with the rise of far-right nationalism, which rapidly developed into aggressive Russophobia and neo-Nazism," Putin said, per The Washington Post.

An Ukrainian military medic (C) approaches the bodies of Russian servicemen wearing a Ukranian service uniform lying beside and inside a vehicle after they from a raiding party were shot during a skirmish in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on February 25, 2022, according to Ukrainian service personnel at the scene. - Russian forces are approaching Kyiv from the north and northeast, Ukraine's army said, with rising fears the capital could fall on the second day of Moscow's offensive.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty

In an address on Thursday, Putin said the decision to send troops into Ukraine was done to help "denazify" the country. He also insisted that Ukraine has historic ties to Russia and he is acting in the interest of so-called "peacekeeping."

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"To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine and put to justice those that committed numerous bloody crimes against peaceful people, including Russian nationals," Putin said, per Russia's state news agency.

But there are several flaws in the Russian president's claims.

Ukraine War

There is no evidence to suggest widespread support in Ukraine's government, military or electorate for extreme-right nationalism, as described by Putin before Russia's invasion.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, revealed during a trip to Jerusalem in 2020 that three of his great uncles died in the Holocaust during World War II, according to the Post. His grandfather survived.

Many other Ukrainians lost family members in WWII, as well. More than 20 million Soviet soldiers were killed during the war, according to the World War II museum in New Orleans, when Nazi Germany occupied the region now known as Ukraine.

In an interview with the Post, Yale University professor Timothy Snyder noted that Putin grew up when "the Second World War was at the center of Soviet identity and the enemies were the fascists."

Now, Snyder added, Putin appears to be "fighting a war the way that actual Nazis did."

Ukraine War
Emilio Morenatti/AP/Shutterstock

Putin is preying on the existence of right-wing groups within Ukraine as an avenue to delegitimize Ukraine as a nation. For instance, Ukrainian National Guard is home to the Azov Battalion, a force populated by neo-Nazis, according to NBC News (Under U.S. appropriations laws, spending in support of the Azov Battalion is banned).

Several nationalist paramilitary groups operate in the country, including the Azov movement and Right Sector, per the Post. During the most recent Ukrainian parliamentary elections in 2019, however, ultranationalist right-wing parties failed to gain any power in the nation's 450-member legislature.

Russia is determined to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, which formed following World War II. Putin has warned Ukraine and NATO that "no one should have any doubts that a direct attack on our country will lead to the destruction and horrible consequences for any potential aggressor," per the AP.

Putin's aggression toward Ukraine has been widely condemned by the international community, including with economic sanctions and NATO troops massing in the region.

"The prayers of the entire world are with the people of Ukraine tonight as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces," President Joe Biden said as the invasion began.

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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