Why is Putin Calling the Ukrainian Government a Bunch of Nazis?

March 04, 2022

When Ukrainian nationalists and Jews look at those red and black flags, we see two different things.” – Prof. David Fishman

By Andrew Srulevitch, ADL Director of European Affairs

As the Russian assault on Ukraine has intensified, the Russian president and his government has escalated rhetoric falsely labeling the Ukrainian government and its leaders as “Nazis.” President Vladimir Putin has claimed that the military action is aimed at the “denazification of Ukraine” and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the Ukrainian president “a Nazi and a neo Nazi.”

Earlier this week, I spoke to Dr. David Fishman, a professor of Jewish History at The Jewish Theological Seminary, about how Russian propaganda, including rhetoric linking Ukraine and the Nazis, is being used as part of a campaign of disinformation in an attempt to discredit the democratically elected Ukrainian government.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: Why does Putin think it makes any sense to call Ukrainian leaders Nazis, especially when President Zelensky is Jewish?

Dr. Fishman: “This propaganda is an attempt to delegitimize Ukraine in the eyes of the Russian public, which considers its war against Nazi Germany its greatest moment, and in eyes of the Western publics who may not know much about Ukraine except that it’s next to Russia.”

Q: But why call them Nazis, aside from that being the worst accusation one can make?

 “This propaganda isn’t new.  Russia has for years highlighted the activity of a marginal group of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists as a way of trying to stigmatize all of Ukraine. Yes, some members of these ultra-nationalist groups have used Nazi insignia, made Hitler salutes, and used antisemitic rhetoric, but they are politically insignificant and in no way representative of Ukraine.  The political parties which the ultra-nationalists support received just over 2 percent of the vote in the 2019 elections.  Ukraine is a flawed democracy, but unquestionably a democracy, and in no way a Nazi regime.”

Q: But we’ve seen torchlit marches in the middle of Kyiv with the red and black flags of UPA (the WWII-era Ukrainian Insurgent Army) and pictures of Stepan Bandera, who allied with the Nazis during WWII. Isn’t that evidence of Nazism in Ukraine?

“For Ukrainian nationalists, UPA and Bandera are symbols of the Ukrainian fight for Ukrainian independence. The UPA allied with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union for tactical – not ideological – reasons.  For Jews, however, not only is allying with the Nazis unforgivable under any circumstance, but historians have documented that Ukrainian nationalists participated together with Germans in the murder of many thousands of Jews in Ukraine. 

“We should also not forget that 10 million Ukrainians fought in the Red Army against Nazi Germany and 1.5 million Ukrainians died in combat. The number of Ukrainians who fought the Nazis dwarfs the number who collaborated with them. When Ukrainian nationalists and Jews look at those red and black flags, we see two different things.”

Q: So you wouldn’t term as Nazis even those who march with the red and black flag?

“There are neo-Nazis in Ukraine, just as there are in the U.S., and in Russia for that matter.  But they are a very marginal group with no political influence and who don’t attack Jews or Jewish institutions in Ukraine.  Putin’s propaganda is so far from the truth that it doesn’t survive the first contact with even a little knowledge.”