When Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at dawn on Thursday, he justified the “special military operation” as having the goal to “denazify” Ukraine. The justification is not tenable, but it would be a mistake simply to dismiss it.
Vladimir Putin is himself a fascist autocrat, one who imprisons democratic opposition leaders and critics. He is the acknowledged leader of the global far right, which looks increasingly like a global fascist movement.
Ukraine does have a far-right movement, and its armed defenders include the Azov battalion, a far-right nationalist militia group. But no democratic country is free of far-right nationalist groups, including the United States. In the 2019 election, the Ukrainian far right was humiliated, receiving only 2% of the vote. This is far less support than far-right parties receive across western Europe, including inarguably democratic countries such as France and Germany.
Ukraine is a democratic country, whose popular president was elected, in a free and fair election, with over 70% of the vote. That president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is Jewish, and comes from a family partially wiped out in the Nazi Holocaust.
Putin’s claim that Russia is invading Ukraine to denazify it is therefore absurd on its face. But understanding why Putin justifies the invasion of democratic Ukraine in this way sheds important light on what is happening not only in eastern Europe, but worldwide.
Fascism is a cult of the leader, who promises national restoration in the face of supposed humiliation by ethnic or religious minorities, liberals, feminists, immigrants, and homosexuals. The fascist leader claims the nation has been humiliated and its masculinity threatened by these forces. It must regain its former glory (and often its former territory) with violence. He offers himself as the only one who can restore it.
Central to European fascism is the idea that it is the Jews who are the agents of moral decay. According to European fascism, it is the Jews who bring a country under the domination of (Jewish) global elite, by using the tools of liberal democracy, secular humanism, feminism and gay rights, which are used to introduce decadence, weakness and impurity. Fascist antisemitism is racial rather than religious in origin, targeting Jews as a corrupt stateless race who seek global domination.