Who are you calling a nazi?

Vladimir Putin used ‘de-nazification’ as a bogus justification for Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Richard Swift and Conrad Landin examine the history of far-right currents in both countries.

A rally to mark Defender of Ukraine Day, in Kiev, on 14 October 2017. Activists and supporters of the Azov, Svoboda (Freedom), Ukrainian nationalist parties and Right Sector took part.
GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS

Europe’s neo-nazi problem has been growing. The horror of the Nazis’ atrocities in Europe is fading from living memory with the passing of the last survivors of the Holocaust, and far-right politicians have used this historic distance to manipulate the past like never before. At the same time, fascism has exploited popular discontent with neoliberal capitalism, particularly the ‘status anxiety’ the latter creates. The diminishing influence of the Left, and the disappearance of leftwing intellectual traditions rooted in economic structures, has created a vacuum in which far-right narratives flourish, and where scapegoating often goes unchallenged.

Now the charge of neo-nazism has entered the realm of geopolitics, with Vladimir Putin’s bogus allegation that the Ukrainian government needs ‘de-nazification’ by his tanks and missiles. Putin’s rally cry for his ‘special military operation’ is redolent of the USSR’s Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany in the 1940s – a period that still looms large in the Russian military imagination.

Putin’s authoritarian presidency has tolerated and actively encouraged prejudice - most notably homophobia and racism - and is propped up by state and mercenary violence

It is true there are long histories of intolerance, racism and antisemitism in Ukraine – and indeed in Russia – that have occasionally spilled over into outright neo-nazism. The inaccurate allegation that Zelensky’s government is formed of – or at least propped up by – fascists is often rebutted with the factually-correct assertion that the coalition of far-right movements organized around two parties, The Right Sector and Svoboda, won only 2.5 per cent of the vote and no seats in the 2019 election. Indeed, this is a very low figure compared with the electoral fortunes of the official far right in other European countries, and a marked decline from Svoboda’s 10.5 per cent of the Ukrainian vote in 2012.

But that is not the whole story. Fascists maintain a visible presence in Ukraine’s military through the Azov Regiment, formed as a paramilitary organization in 2014 to defend the eastern Donbas region from separatist forces. It was later incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard. Following Russia’s 2022 invasion, Azov has again played a key role, this time defending the battered port city of Mariupol.

When fascists go mainstream

Azov’s insignia features a Wolfsangel, the German heraldic symbol adopted by a number of Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht units during Nazi rule. Michael Colborne, a journalist who wrote a book about Azov, says the regiment was formed by ‘a ragtag group of far-right thugs, football hooligans and international hangers-on’. While Colborne has argued that the regiment is no longer a neo-nazi force in itself, he believes ‘there are clearly neo-nazis within its ranks’ and situates it within the wider ‘Azov movement’ – a support base which grew around the battalion and remains an independent far-right force, in spite of the regiment’s absorption into the Ukrainian state.

The inclusion of a video message from an Azov soldier in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to the Hellenic Parliament this April led to condemnation from across the Greek political spectrum. The incident followed an earlier controversy in Scotland where politicians applauded Andriy Parubiy, the Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, during his 2018 visit to Edinburgh. It was only after awkward questions from journalists that lawmakers realized Parubiy, by then aligned with a mainstream pro-European centre-right party, had previously co-founded the neo-Nazi Social-National Party of Ukraine, whose insignia – like that of Azov – featured the Wolfsangel.

The debacle highlighted a fundamental aspect of Ukraine’s neo-nazi problem: that some historic far-right leaders have been quietly incorporated into the political mainstream. It’s underlined by the rehabilitation of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist leader who collaborated with Nazi Germany in fighting the USSR during World War Two. Since the 2014 Euromaidan uprising, which forced out the corrupt but elected pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, 34 streets have been re-named after Bandera.

Euromaidan has been characterized by some – notably Putin, but also many on the Western Left – as a fascist (or ‘fascist-backed’) coup. Ukraine’s pro-European political establishment, along with human rights campaigners and Western European governments, firmly reject this depiction and instead see it as an act of people-powered democracy.

The truth lies somewhere in between. The uprising was indeed supported by neo-nazi militias, but it also mobilized thousands of progressive activists who saw a brighter future for Ukraine as an ally of Western Europe, as opposed to a client state of the Kremlin.

The protests can alternatively be viewed as a constitutional coup, like those that forced out Australia’s leftwing Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1976 and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff in 2016 – both of which, like Euromaidan, were egged on by the US State Department.

A man with a dog takes part in the Russian March, organized by nationalists and activists of far-right political groups to mark the National Unity Day in Moscow, ​​​​​4 November 2018.
MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS

Far-right footsie

Ukraine’s acceptance of neo-nazis into mainstream politics is far from unique. Croatia has also rehabilitated Nazi collaborators and Poland has effectively made acknowledging the role of Poles in the Holocaust a criminal act. In the recent elections in Hungary, the Jobbik party swapped its former paramilitary uniforms for blazers as it joined liberals and social democrats in a united opposition against Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz – insisting its neo-nazism was firmly in the past. And in the run-up to France’s recent presidential election Marine Le Pen also insisted she no longer leads a fascist party.

Russia has its own shameful history of xenophobia and antisemitism. And Putin is well known for playing footsie with the far right – both in the Donbas and more generally across Europe. The adoption of the ‘people’s republic’ moniker by the breakaway states in the Donbas has led some in the West to assume they are socialist-led, in the model of Soviet Union member states, but in fact they are governed by nationalists (though not neo-nazis). The team of international observers chosen to legitimate the 2014 independence referendums in these areas even included representatives of the far right from across Europe.

With defeating the Nazis crucial to its national identity, Russia’s neo-nazi problem has different roots – but it is no less real. In the current war, Putin’s declaration that Ukraine is a creation of ‘Bolshevik, Communist Russia’ draws on the thinking of Russian political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. Sometimes described as ‘Putin’s brain’, Dugin has argued that Russia has a ‘future of greatness’ because ‘Russia was always and tried to be a superpower’ – exactly the kind of warped nostalgia on which nazis have thrived.

As in Ukraine, neo-nazi symbols and ideologies were strictly prohibited in Russia during the Soviet period. But in falsely externalizing fascism as an alien force, the Warsaw Pact countries inadvertently contributed to its rebirth after 1991.

Russian neo-nazism most notably reared its ugly head when two neo-nazi outfits formed an unholy alliance with Communists, as well as other rightwing nationalists, during the 1993 constitutional crisis. Their aim was to wrest control of Russia from the dubious, corrupt and frequently inebriated President Boris Yeltsin. But unlike Ukraine’s Yanukovych back in 2014, Yeltsin could count on the support of the White House. He saw off the ‘October Coup’ and pushed through a new constitution that established the Russian president’s unrivalled power. This has given his successor Putin all the tools he needs to rule as an authoritarian strongman.

No place for outsiders

So, where is Russia’s far right now? The neo-nazi groups that took part in the October Coup have long disbanded. But rightwing nationalists have been useful to Putin. When he feared a domino effect from ‘colour revolutions’ in neighbouring countries in the mid-2000s he embraced the far right in an effort to whip up popular support for his own government. Eventually though, groupings of this bent drifted back towards the anti-Putin opposition, and some were subsequently banned.

Nonetheless, some Russian far rightists support Putin in the current conflict. The Russian Imperial Movement, a white-supremacist paramilitary group considered a terrorist organization by the US, has been linked to the shadowy Kremlin-allied Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries, active across Africa and the Middle East (including Syria), as well as Ukraine. The Kremlin denies any knowledge. A group known as Male State – theoretically outlawed by a Russian court – has tens of thousands of members, and its online presence is a hotbed of support for the war.

Putin’s authoritarian presidency has been built upon a nationalism with little place for outsiders. It has tolerated and actively encouraged prejudice – most notably homophobia and racism – and is propped up by state and mercenary violence. These conditions provide prime breeding territory for the far right – and though the state has cracked down on some neo-nazi groups it has done so purely for political convenience, much as it does with leftwing activity.

Russia’s president has also been increasingly lionized by far-right groups and nationalist authoritarian governments across the world. Nick Fuentes, a notorious antisemite and leading white nationalist organizer in the US, called for a ‘round of applause for Russia’ at the America First Political Action Conference in March – which was addressed by hard-right Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green. Putin has also sought to emulate the Western ‘alt right’ in its successful redefinition of the political debate around the ‘culture wars’: he recently decried ‘cancel culture’ and spoke out against criticism of JK Rowling for alleged transphobia.

It’s clear enough that Putin’s current ‘de-nazification’ objective is disingenuous and opportunistic. The presence of neo-nazis in Ukraine should be no barrier to our solidarity with the Ukrainian people in the face of an horrific invasion and increasing evidence of war crimes.

But de-nazification is a necessity nonetheless: in Ukraine and Russia alike. As we have established, this cannot be a project of statecraft; least of all propagated by a global superpower which has made opportunistic alliances with the far right. It instead requires a popular anti-fascist movement built from the ground up, backed by a consistently anti-imperialist Left at home and abroad. And that will only be possible in conditions free from war and authoritarian government.