UKRAINE: DEBUNKING RUSSIA'S WAR PROPAGANDA
by Bill Weinberg
The war in Ukraine has left cities in ruins, displaced 12 million people, and brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. Why did Putin invade Ukraine?
Upon launching the invasion at the end of February, Putin said his aims were ensuring that Ukraine is “neutral,” “de-nazified” and “demilitarized.”
Putin has appropriated the rhetoric of anti-fascism, and his state-controlled media have for years portrayed the Ukrainian leadership as “Nazis.” Increasingly, the words “Ukrainian” and “Nazi” are used interchangeably.
The 'Nazi coup' lie
One pillar of this propaganda is the notion that Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution of 2014 was a “Nazi coup.” The role of extreme Ukrainian nationalists in the Maidan protest movement is seized upon, but they were never in the mainstream. The Maidan movement was at heart a pro-democratic popular revolution against the corrupt (Russian-aligned) presidency of Viktor Yanukovich, who had pushed through constitutional changes to concentrate power in the executive, and passed “dictatorship laws” criminalizing protest. After Kyiv’s Maidan Square was occupied by protesters for months over the bitter winter of 2013-14, the transfer of power was finally brought about that February by legal and nonviolent means—a vote of Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada. Ukrainians call it the “Revolution of Dignity.”
Since the Maidan Revolution, Ukraine has actually seen a democratic renewal. The Yanukovich constitutional changes and “dictatorship laws” have been overturned. There have been two changes in government, both by normal electoral means. The current President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, as was the prime minister in the previous administration, Vlodymir Groysman. The far right has largely been marginalized. Of the two most significant far-right parties, one, Svoboda, holds one seat in the 450-seat Rada. The other, Right Sektor, holds none.
Russian propaganda also seizes on the Azov Battalion, which first emerged as a paramilitary force to fight Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region in 2014. Its leadership was indeed far-right Ukrainian nationalist, and it adopted as its insignia the wolfsangel—an ancient Germanic symbol used by Nazi military divisions. However, the Azov Battalion was before the end of 2014 absorbed into the Ukrainian National Guard. At this time the original leadership was purged and far-right politics disavowed, although they kept the insignia. It is but one regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard—not even the regular army. There are also left-wing (anarchist and anti-fascist) militia fighting the Russian occupation forces in Ukraine.
Russian arguments hinge on a disturbing historical figure, Stepan Bandera, the World War II-era nationalist who initially welcomed the German invasion of the USSR as an opportunity for an independent Ukraine—even if as a Nazi satellite state. However, almost immediately after the invasion in June 1941, Bandera was arrested and slapped in a concentration camp by the Nazis for refusing their demand to rescind his declaration of Ukrainian independence. He would spend most of the war in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In the horror and shifting fortunes of World War II, some of his followers would at times collaborate with the Nazis against the Soviets—but also resist the Nazis by arms.
Many Ukrainians honor Bandera as a patriot. There is a monument to him in Lviv. But not all Ukrainians agree. President Zelensky has cautiously criticized the tendency of Ukrainians to name streets after Bandera and other military figures. Said Zelensky: “This is not quite right.”
Ukraine also officially honors the victims of the Holocaust—most prominently with a memorial at Babi Yar, the site of a massacre of 30,000 Jews by Nazi occupation forces in 1941. This memorial was damaged in a Russian air-strike on March 1, 2022.
The NATO subterfuge
Putin’s seemingly more reasonable demand is assuring Ukrainian neutrality, to prevent NATO from expanding and encircling Russia. Yet Ukraine declared its “permanent neutrality” upon independence from the USSR in 1991—one of the first resolutions of the Rada. Under terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine surrendered the thousands of nuclear weapons left on its territory after the Soviet collapse, turning them over to Russia in exchange for Moscow’s commitment to respect its sovereignty and borders.
It was only after the crisis of 2014, when Russia broke the terms of Budapest Memorandum by unilaterally annexing the Crimean Peninsula and backing a separatist rebellion in Donbas, that Ukraine abandoned its former position of neutrality. It was only in 2019, after five years of Russian illegal de facto control of the Donbas and Crimea, that Ukraine enshrined its aspiration to join NATO in its constitution.
Before the full-scale invasion of 2022, Ukraine was still years away from joining NATO, at best. If the invasion was aimed at halting the expansion of NATO, it was completely counterproductive; it has only escalated Western military aid to Ukraine, as well as prompting previously neutral Sweden and Finland to join the alliance.
Russia’s own military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), has long half-encircled Ukraine—Russia to the east and Belarus on the north. Why is there such concern for Russian “security,” but not for Ukraine’s?
The 'ethnic cleansing' libel
Putin also says he is acting to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine, with his state media claiming that ethnic Russians faced “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” in the Donbas.
War crimes may indeed have been committed in the Donbas before the 2022 invasion—by both sides. And this demands investigation. However, there is no evidence of massacres or “ethnic cleansing.”
In December 2021, a report by the UN Human Rights Commission noted the numbers killed in the Donbas conflict up to that point. The total of over 14,000 was divided thusly: 4,400 Ukrainian troops, 6,500 separatist troops, and 3,404 civilians. The civilian deaths were on both “sides” (ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians), and mostly before a 2015 ceasefire that de-escalated the conflict. Nothing suggests ongoing massacres or forced expulsions that could have justified Putin’s military intervention in 2022.
However, Russia has committed massacres and forced deportations since the invasion. Civilian massacres in towns such as Bucha and Borodyanka have come to light since Russian forces withdrew from these places. Human rights groups believe thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been forcibly deported to Russian territory or interned in so-called “filtration camps.”
The separatist “people’s republics” in Donbas—Donetsk and Luhansk—are not liberated zones, but authoritarian mini-states. Rights groups have documented abuses, including forced labor, against the residents of these enclaves.
In Russian-annexed Crimea, the indigenous Muslim Tatar people have been subject to violent attacks that their leaders call “ethnic cleansing.” The autonomous government that the Crimean Tatars maintained under Ukrainian rule has been dissolved, and their leaders persecuted and imprisoned for dissenting from having Russian rule imposed on them against their will. Moscow has broached establishing a concentration camp system for disloyal Crimean Tatars, modeled on that which China is imposing on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Putin's real aims: rebuilding the Russian empire
Putin’s real motives appear to arise from long-standing ideas of pan-Slavic nationalism and Russian imperialism. These ideas took form in the 19th century, when Russia’s role as protector of the Slavic “race” and Orthodox faith fueled campaigns of military conquest and wars with the Turkish empire.
Mikhail Katkov was an important figure promoting these ideas during reign of Czar Alexander III—during whose rule the “pogroms” began, in which 4 million Jews would ultimately flee Russia amid massacres and paramilitary attacks on their villages.
The next great figure in this tradition was Ivan Ilyin, who was exiled from Russia in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and became an admirer of Mussolini and Hitler. Dreaming of a post-Soviet Russia restored to its imperial greatness, Ilyin openly called for “Russian Fascism.” He held that to even acknowledge the existence of Ukraine was to be a mortal enemy of Russia.
These ideas went into abeyance under Lenin, but were partly revived under Stalin—especially in the period of his “non-aggression pact” with Hitler, from September 1939 to June 1941.
Under Stalin’s rule, in 1932, millions of Ukrainians starved to death, although historians argue over the numbers and to what degree it was an intentional genocide of the Ukrainian people. Certainly this mass starvation, known as the Holodomor (death by hunger), was not a mere natural disaster—the grain was forcibly confiscated from Ukraine’s peasants even as they faced famine.
In 1944, Stalin had the entire population of the Crimean Tatars forcibly relocated from their homeland on the peninsula to remote camps in Siberia, where many died. They were not allowed to return to Crimea until after the fall of the USSR nearly 50 years later.
These dangerous ideas of pan-Slavic nationalism and Russian imperialism have now been openly embraced by the regime of Vladimir Putin.
The modern-day successor to Mikhail Katkov and Ivan Ilyin is Alexander Dugin, who has been dubbed “Putin’s Rasputin.” The theorist of a Russian-led “Eurasian” bloc against the Western powers, Dugin has become a semi-official ideologue of the regime. His followers in Russia have been building ties to neo-fascist organizations across Europe.
Putin had the remains of Ivan Ilyin repatriated from Switzerland to Moscow in 2005, and four years later personally consecrated the new resting place. Invoking Ilyin’s own words, Putin said at the ceremony: “It is a crime to even speak of the separation of Russia and Ukraine.” He has since cited Ilyin in speeches to justify “reunification” with Ukraine.
Alexander Dugin, Ilyin’s political heir, has meanwhile literally called on social media for “genocide” of the Ukrainian “race of bastards.”
Shortly after Putin launched his invasion, Russian state media issued what has been dubbed a “blueprint for genocide” in Ukraine—openly calling for dissolution of the Ukrainian state and “punishment” of the civil population, in the perversely paradoxical name of “de-nazification.” Russian state media voices have also called for the “total annihilation” of Ukraine. Such rhetoric has escalated as the war has advanced.
Far-right paramilitary groups—who embrace fascistic ideas far more openly than the Azov Battalion now does—are currently fighting on the Russian side in Ukraine, and have for years been backing the Donbas separatists. These include the Sparta Battalion, the Imperial Legion, the Russian Imperial Movement, Rusich, the Night Wolves, the Wagner Group, and the Gryphon Cossacks.
Restoring the Russian dictatorship
For years Putin has been whittling away at Russian democracy.
While Ukraine has seen peaceful transfers of government, Russia has been ruled by one strongman (either as president or prime minister) continuously since 2000.
With a cultural-conservative agenda, Putin’s bloc in the Duma, Russia’s parliament, have passed laws restricting rights for gays and trans people, and loosened the laws against domestic violence. Putin’s opponents have been imprisoned in penal camps for “insulting authorities.”
In 2019, a “foreign agents” law was passed, calling for the muzzling of media outlets, civil organizations and individuals accused of ties to foreign governments. Even speaking to the foreign press was sufficient to get opposition groups shut down under the law.
Constitutional changes approved in 2020 allow Putin to serve two more terms, essentially setting him up as president-for-life. The same package of constitutional reforms also enshrined “traditional marriage” (banning same-sex unions), and enforced “patriotic education” in public school curricula. Because such measures may violate international human rights standards, the reforms also included a measure giving Russian national legislation precedence over international treaties.
Thousands were arrested in mass protests against the Putin government in 2021.
It is with the invasion of Ukraine that Russia has gone over the edge into an outright dictatorship.
It’s certainly an irony that a dictatorship is consolidating in Russia just as it has invaded Ukraine in the name of “de-nazification.” But war fever and harsh new laws justified as wartime emergency measures have facilitated this.
In the first weeks of the invasion, anti-war protests swept across Russia. But up to 15,000 protesters were arrested, and many face lengthy prison terms. A new law actually imposes a 15-year sentence—not only for protesting the war, but even for calling it a “war” (not the official euphemism of “special military operation”).
Amid this crackdown, Putin made a speech calling for the “cleansing” of Russia, to “spit out like flies the bastards and traitors.”
The country’s most respected human rights group, Memorial, which actually dates to the glasnost era of the late 1980s, has been ordered dissolved by judicial decree. So have most independent media. Dissident journalists have received anonymous death threats, or been sentenced to labor by the courts.
Reports are mounting of systematic use of torture in Russia’s prisons.
Don't believe the hype
Putin’s stated justifications for the Ukraine war are either paranoid delusions or outright lies. His real objectives are to rebuild the Russian Empire, re-establish the Russian dictatorship, and exterminate Ukraine as a cultural and political entity. People around the world must continue to support Ukrainians who are struggling for national survival—and Russians who are struggling for democracy.
A different version of this text is to appear as a graphic zine in collaboration with artist Seth Tobocman.
Photo of Kharkiv via Wiadomosc
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Reprinting permissible with attribution