Russian President Vladimir Putin claims he invaded Ukraine to “de-nazify” the country and “protect people” from “bullying and genocide.” Russians apparently believe him, too; about 68 percent think the purpose of the invasion is self-defense, while 21 percent say it has to do with de-nazification. Though some have been careful to acknowledge that Ukraine does indeed have a Nazi problem, the West has mostly responded to such claims with eye-rolling, rightly arguing that Putin’s so-called de-nazification is nothing more than an excuse for a blatant land-grab.
But there is one glaring point that has been largely overlooked in the discussion about Nazism in Ukraine: the fact that the country’s Nazi problem can be traced right back to Russia.
Moscow recently released a shady video of FSB forces allegedly “thwarting” an assassination attempt by Ukrainian neo-Nazis. The so-called assassins’ lair contained plenty of “evidence” that appears to have been planted, like a new-looking Nazi T-shirt and Sims games, apparently a mistake by Russian agents who had been instructed to bring Sim cards into the apartment but planted the video games instead.
Another item that was “discovered” was a book with a handwritten note, signed with “signature illegible,” suggesting the FSB had erroneously signed those words after having been told to leave an illegible signature. Like everything else, the book was probably a plant, but the signature isn’t as dumb as it looks.
That phrase has special meaning in the Russian ultra-nationalist community. It’s even the title of a grossly antisemitic animated film about a rat (a metaphorical Jew) who gets a job at an office using a reference with an illegible signature. Leonid Volkov, chief of staff for opposition leader Alexei Navalny, wrote on Twitter that the phrase is also tied to Vasily Fedorovich, author of the 2011 fascist manifesto and hate-crime how-to “White Laces.” As Die Welt reported in 2008: “Ukrainian hate groups are believed to be inspired by their counterparts in Russia... Russian skinheads help the local groups, sharing tips and video clips on how to attack and torture victims and how to safely leave the crime scene.”
There are other forms of ultra-nationalist cultural inspiration that have bled into Ukraine from Russia over the years, including neo-Nazi football fan groups, mixed martial arts (MMA), and underground metal bands. The Russian neo-Nazi football hooligan and far-right MMA figure Denis Nikitin has been living in Ukraine for years, where he has been organizing MMA fights in Kyiv, and allegedly using MMA as a neo-Nazi recruitment tool. Another avenue for Russian neo-Nazis to meet and recruit Ukrainians has been the music scene, including the Russian metal band M8L8TX (Hitler’s Hammer), which frequently toured the Kharkiv area. “When you talk to the Nazis themselves,” said independent journalist Leonid Ragozin, “it turns out that they frequently attended those concerts.”
The Russian government has also allegedly played a direct role in sending neo-Nazi mercenaries to Ukraine. That includes Dmitry Demushkin, who has claimed that in February 2014, then-Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin offered to make him the mayor of a city in Donbas if he would agree to lead his followers to fight in Ukraine. A year later, Wagner-affiliated mercenary and neo-Nazi Alexei Milchakov also claimed that he, fellow Russian neo-Nazi Yan Petrovsky, and others were paid by the Russian government to do mercenary work in Ukraine, where he has since founded the neo-Nazi mercenary group Rusich and made headlines by cutting the ears off enemy corpses.
To be fair, Ukraine does have a Nazi history all its own. The nation’s founding fathers were Nazi collaborators: Stepan Bandera was the leader of the far-right Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), Roman Shukhevych was a Nazi auxiliary police captain, and Yaroslav Stetsko once said he supported the “destruction of the Jews.”
The remnants of that kind of historical antisemitism linger to this day: There has been a recent spike in antisemitism in Ukraine over the past few years, including a neo-Nazi march in Kyiv in May 2021. But to the extent that such issues exist, there has been a targeted effort to address them—including in early February of this year, when the Ukrainian government passed a law criminalizing antisemitism.
Then there’s Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, whose founding leader once said Ukraine’s purpose is to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans].” But if Azov is an antisemitic, ultra-nationalist group, and ultra-nationalist influence comes from Russia, why is Azov fighting Russia?
“Throughout the aught years in Russia there were mass beatings of people with the ‘wrong’ skin color or eye shape,” Igor Eidman, the Russian sociologist and political commentator, wrote in September 2020. “But there were practically no political attempts on security officers, officials, oligarchs.”
That was until 2007, when “the Nazi golem began to get out of control of its creator. The Nazis actually switched to mass terror, destabilizing the country. They began to blow up and smash markets,” Eidman wrote. As a result, Russian authorities decided to shut down their pet Nazi project during the Euromaidan uprisings in Ukraine, because “the Kremlin decided that the nationalists could become a fighting force of protests not only in Kyiv, but also in Moscow. Therefore, in 2014, they tried to ship them to the slaughterhouse in the Donbas. And those who refused were imprisoned.”
This rhymes with statements by Demushkin, Milchakov, and others.
Eidman concludes that almost all Russian ultra-nationalist leaders suddenly became enemies of the state and were imprisoned from 2014 to 2015. Many subsequently fled to Ukraine. Alexander Parinov, who is wanted for planning the murder of a lawyer and journalist, is now reportedly a member of Azov. Sergey Korotkikh, who founded Russia’s largest ultra-nationalist group the National Socialist Society, is now a top Azov member. Roman Zheleznov of the far-right Restrukt movement, which hunted gays in Russia, also reportedly serves in Azov. Alexei Korshunov, a member of the neo-Nazi Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists (BORN), which is responsible for many killings, was suspected of killing antifa activist Ivan Khutorskoi and fled to Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.
So Russia helped foster and encourage ultra-nationalist groups to destabilize Ukraine, but when the Kremlin realized these same groups could be a destabilizing force in Moscow and cracked down on them, many fled to neighboring Ukraine. The end result being that you now have anti-Russian neo-Nazis in Ukraine of Russian origin.
“The Kremlin found that the ultra-right may pose a threat to political stability, not only to migrant workers and African students,” Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the Russian think tank SOVA Center, which focuses on nationalism and racism in post-Soviet Russia, told the Daily Beast. “There were several waves of crackdowns. My hypothesis is that our authorities had some fears related to those who participated in the war [in Ukraine] and were returning back very frustrated.”
Verkhovsky says while Russia has influenced Ukrainian groups, they did not create them. “Many Russian neo-Nazis and other ultraright leaders and activists, including militant ones, fled to Ukraine in various years,” he added. “Some of them, not all of them, became a part of the Ukrainian neo-Nazi milieu. But all Ukrainian neo-Nazi groups were created by Ukrainians.”
Political betrayal is only part of the problem. There’s a deep-seated ideological rift as well. “Our ultra-rights are white racists above all,” said Verkhovsky, adding, “Putin is seen as an enemy because he invites millions of non-Slavs from other countries, which is seen as an invasion. So he is seen as a national traitor.”
This explains why, in a 2014 report by the Guardian, one Azov fighter was quoted as saying, “I have nothing against Russian nationalists, or a great Russia. But Putin’s not even a Russian. Putin’s a Jew.”
In a nutshell, this is how you end up with Putin claiming he wants to de-nazify Ukraine and remove its Jewish president, while also having Russian neo-Nazis in Ukraine claiming Putin is a Jew. Either way, Putin’s claim is clearly a case of the Nazi kettle calling the Nazi pot black.