Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed he invaded Ukraine to "de-Nazify" the county, whose democratically elected leader is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust.
Experts say it's an absurd allegation, not least because although Ukraine has attracted radicals of all stripes, it highlights the activities of a politically marginal group no more representative of Ukraine than of the United States or Western Europe.
In fact, while extremist groups in Russia have expressed a range of views about Putin's invasion of Ukraine, his biggest Nazi problem may be at home where some far-right hate groups sympathize with Ukrainians and threats to their independence, and are having trouble squaring the reality of Putin's assault on Ukraine with their racist beliefs.
"Putin’s war in Ukraine makes no sense. He is not building 'Russkiy Mir,' said Dmitry Demushkin, the former leader of an outlawed skinhead gang called Slavic Union that champions white nationalist, racist and extreme-right neo-Nazi views.
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Russkiy Mir is a quasi-ideology that Putin has over the years used in his speeches to evoke the concept of a "Russian World" united by language, culture and the Russian Orthodox Church. Demushkin spent two years in Russia's notoriously brutal prison colony system after being convicted in 2017 of organizing a banned extremist group and inciting racial hatred online. After his release, Demushkin was elected mayor of a wealthy Moscow suburb, a role in which he lasted just a few months. He now organizes body-building contests. Many participants have far-right tattoos that feature Nazi symbols or refer to anti-Semitic, homophobic and white supremacist slogans.
"Putin’s failure (in Ukraine) is close," Demushkin predicted. "Russian people are like dirt for him. ... He failed at all his goals. ... (Ukraine President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy is now the world’s most popular leader who speaks to parliaments, political leaders visit him, the West gives Ukraine billions of dollars, Finland and Sweden are applying to join NATO. ... Pretty soon the majority of Russians will realize Putin is not fighting against fascists or drug addicts in Ukraine, but with cities who were supposed to embrace us."
Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, an organization that monitors ultra-nationalist activities, hate crimes and hate speech, said that the majority of neo-Nazi groups and their supporters in Russia are now opposed to Putin and the Kremlin because the Russian government is sending Russian men who they consider their "white Slavic brothers" to die in Ukraine.
Members of these groups also object, he said, "to how much Putin promotes Chechen (fighters)" – volunteer militia units deployed alongside Russian troops in Ukraine who are from the troubled Russian republic of Chechnya. These fighters have a reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness honed from years of guerrilla warfare against Moscow in the 1990s and early 2000s. Chechnya is home to a majority-Muslim population.
Verkhovsky said Putin has attempted to crackdown on neo-Nazi groups and that over the last few months Russia's Federal Security Service, the main successor agency to the Soviet Union's KGB, has been arresting far-right extremists all over the country.
One of the most significant, he said, was the arrest of activists from the so-called Nationalist Socialism or White Power group who the Kremlin accused of planning to assassinate Vladimir Solovyov, an anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian TV anchor who peddles propaganda and inflammatory rumors on state media. Solovyov has been sanctioned by the European Union for spreading propaganda. Italian authorities recently seized Solovyov's property – two villas – on Lake Como.
"Putin can't allow Nazis in Russia, when he claims he's fighting them in Ukraine," said Verkhovsky. "The FSB conducts constant special operations against them."
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Still, some neo-Nazi groups have pushed back against Putin's war in Ukraine.
Members of Russian ultra-nationalist hate groups discuss potential unrest and actions against authorities on social media channels such as Telegram, a popular platform in the Russian-speaking world that has offered a more accurate view of the war.
Earlier this month, a Telegram channel called "White Color," popular among Russian neo-Nazi activists, claimed credit for a purported arson attack on a military recruitment office that appeared to be in the central Russian city of Nizhnevartovsk. The text in the post reads: "We are starting the fire of revolt. It's brighter. You won't catch everybody."
SOVA, the monitoring group, says the number of violent attacks by Russian far-right extremists is on the rise despite the increased scrutiny from the Kremlin. There were no recorded murders by ultra-nationalist groups in 2020, for example. But in 2021, there were three murders and more than 70 attacks on homeless people, drug users, anti-fascist activists and anybody who they believe "spoils the white race," said Verkhovsky.
David Fishman, a professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York who has done extensive field research in Ukraine, said that Putin's attempt to link Ukraine with Nazis is part of a disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the Zelenskyy government. He said that it was important not to dismiss Ukraine's extreme far-right groups because, like extremists everywhere, they tend to be "armed and prone to violence." But he said that Ukraine's ultra-nationalists have not attacked Jews or Jewish institutions in the country and that "it's not a bigger problem in Ukraine than elsewhere in Europe. It's a problem everywhere in Europe."
Fishman noted a 2018 survey from the Washington-based Pew Research Center "fact tank" that found that in some countries in Central and Eastern Europe, roughly one-in-five adults or more said that they would not be willing to accept Jews as fellow citizens.
In Poland, which has been widely praised for accepting millions of Ukrainian refugees in recent months, the figure was 18%. In Russia, it was 14%. In Ukraine, 5%. Nearly a third of Polish adults say they would not accept a Jewish person as a member of their family.
Russia has accused Ukraine's Azov Regiment, whose injured fighters recently surrendered from a besieged final stronghold in Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant, of being
"Nazi criminals" who should not be included in prisoner exchanges.
It's true the Azov regiment was created in 2014 by far-right activists who wore insignia reminiscent of symbols used by SS units in Nazi Germany. The volunteer battalion was initially deployed against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula. The Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation describes Azov as an "extreme-right nationalist paramilitary organization."
However, it has since been fully integrated into Ukraine's National Guard, a military wing of the interior ministry, and Zelenskyy says the unit has entirely shed its radical past. Today, Azov acknowledges its founder was Andriy Biletsky, a political figure who holds racist and white supremacist views. But it denies allegations of racism or Nazism and points out that Ukrainians and foreigners of various backgrounds, including Greeks, Jews, Crimean Tatars and Russians, all serve in the battalion.
"When there's a foreign enemy, it has a unifying effect," said Fishman, who added that many right-wing personalities and officials in Russia appear to eagerly support Putin's war in Ukraine and don't think he's gone far enough militarily.
Still, Putin's baseless claims that his invasion is aimed at clearing Ukraine of Nazis is difficult to fathom given that Russia has established "filtration" camps where Ukrainian citizens are being forcibly sent for interrogation. Some people who have passed through these camps have been allowed to return to Ukrainian-held territory, but others have been shipped off to remote parts of Russia after facing arbitrary threats and violence, strip searches, family separation and harsh questioning.
Zelenskyy and Ukrainians who have experienced these camps have compared them to Nazi concentration camps.
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Galina Odnorog, a volunteer at the Epicenter refugee center in Zaporizhzhia, in south-eastern Ukraine, said that civilians are asked if they have ever supported the Ukrainian army or publicly spoken in support of Ukraine's language, culture and heritage.
Epicenter began to receive hundreds of internally displaced Ukrainians every day in the first week of March. Many shared their stories of "filtration." Ukraine's Commissioner for Human Rights Lyudmila Denisova says that almost two million Ukrainians, including 200,000 children, have been forced to go to Russia. The “filtration camps” are holding up to 20,000 Ukrainians, Denisova told reporters in a recent briefing.
"There was one 4-year-old girl who ended up in our shelter after a filtration camp because she was separated from her mother who was in the army," said Odnorog.
In late April, a bus driver named Alexander Nesterenko said that "Russians filtrated us at every check point on the way from Energodar to Zaporizhzhia, made us take off our shirts to make sure we did not have any swastika tattoos or bruises from shooting weapons ... Even simple expression of love for Ukrainian nation could cause us serious trouble."
Alexander Etkind, a Russian-born historian who teaches at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, said that regardless of whether neo-Nazi groups and other extremists in Russia back or object to Putin's aggressions in Ukraine, there is no one in the current context who is farther to the right or more extreme than Putin himself.
"He's been willing to kill a lot people in Ukraine. Everyone is a moderate by comparison."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Putin wants to 'de-Nazify' Ukraine but Russia has its own Nazi problem