Speed Reads

Speed Reads

Why the Kremlin keeps bizarrely insisting Ukraine is run by Nazis

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday repeated Russian President Vladimir Putin's odd claim that Putin's "decision on the operation to demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine was made so that, freed from this oppression, Ukrainians could freely determine their own future." Ukraine freely elected a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in a 2019 landslide.

Ukraine's Jewish community is not happy with the "de-Nazify" rhetoric. Kyiv Chief Rabbi Yonatan Markovitch told Haaretz he has no idea what Putin is talking about, and anti-Semitic "incidents are very rare and the government takes care of them." Putin is "totally nuts," Ilya, a Jewish businessman in Kyiv, told Haaretz. "The Jews of Ukraine are an integral part of Ukrainian society and we never faced Nazism here, or fascism, and we feel safe in Ukraine. We don't feel safe when Russia says there are Nazis here."

This is not a new claim by Putin and his Russian allies, though. And Zelensky tried to head it off on Wednesday, hours before Putin launched his invasion. "You are told we are Nazis, but how can a people support Nazis that gave more than 8 million lives for the victory over Nazism? How can I be a Nazi?" he asked Russia. "Tell my grandpa, who went through the whole war in the infantry of the Soviet Army and died as a colonel in independent Ukraine."

So, what does Putin mean by "de-Nazify?" Stephen Colbert asked journalist and Russia specialist Julia Ioffe on Thursday's Late Show. "Is he speaking in a vocabulary that is for, you know, domestic consumption, that we don't understand?"

Ioffe said that when Ukrainians protesters ousted a pro-Kremlin president from Kyiv's Maidan square in 2014, "there was a very active right-wing nationalist, sometimes neo-Nazi, contingent, but it was a minority on the Maidan. And Russian propaganda took that — they often just take like a little bit of truth and spin it into this, you know, cotton candy of lies." Russian state TV is saying the same thing eight years later, she added, and "I think there are a lot of Russians, especially those who watch state TV, who think it is a country run by Nazis, even though it has a Jewish president."

But the Nazis are a powerful enemy in the imagination of all former Soviet regions, including Ukraine, and Ukraine has been throwing the Nazi label back at Putin, too. 

Arguably, with a little more historical justification.