July 11, 2022
One of the Kremlin’s most common disinformation narratives to justify its devastating war against the people of Ukraine is the lie that Russia is pursuing the “denazification” of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has referred to Ukraine’s democratically elected government as a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” while Russian state media and propagandists have repeatedly called for the “denazification” of the entire population of Ukraine.
By evoking Nazism and the horrors associated with World War II and the Holocaust, the Kremlin hopes to delegitimize and demonize Ukraine in the eyes of the Russian public and the world. The Kremlin attempts to manipulate international public opinion by drawing false parallels between Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine and the Soviet fight against Nazi Germany, a source of pride and unity for many people of the former Soviet republics who made enormous sacrifices during World War II, including both Ukrainians and Russians.
More than 140 international historians have denounced Russia’s “equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime to justify its unprovoked aggression,” calling Moscow’s propaganda “factually wrong, morally repugnant and deeply offensive” to the “victims of Nazism and those who courageously fought against it.” Renowned Holocaust remembrance institutions Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also condemned Russia’s “completely inaccurate comparisons with Nazi ideology and actions” and the false claims that “democratic Ukraine needs to be ‘denazified’.”
Targeting Ukraine’s Jewish President
The Kremlin’s propagandists have found it tough to sell the fabricated “denazification” pretext for the Ukraine war to many outside of Russia. They have resorted to increasingly ridiculous — and often self-contradictory – justifications. When critics point out that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who won the 2019 election in Ukraine with 73% of the votes, is Jewish himself, with family members who were killed by Nazis, the Kremlin disseminates false narratives attempting to delegitimize his Jewishness. The Kremlin falsely claims the worst Nazis were actually Jews, and seeks to downplay the role of antisemitism in Nazi ideology.
Russia’s corrupt former president and the deputy chairman of the country’s Security Council Dmitri Medvedev has argued that Zelenskyy has “lost” his Jewish identity. One of the Kremlin’s most prominent propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov, even claimed Zelenskyy was not really Jewish, while Solovyov’s associates and state-owned media falsely accused Ukraine’s president of betraying his Jewish family and ancestors.
In May, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attempted to counter an Italian journalist’s question about Zelenskyy’s heritage with an antisemitic conspiratorial rant and a Holocaust distortion, speculating that Adolf Hitler “had Jewish blood, too,” and adding that the “wise Jewish people say that the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews.” Government of Israel officials immediately demanded an apology for Lavrov’s “unforgivable, outrageous” remarks and “lies…meant to blame the Jews themselves” for the Holocaust. Israel’s Foreign Minister at the time Yair Lapid wrote that the “lowest level of racism against Jews is to accuse Jews themselves of antisemitism.” Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) subsequently doubled down, accusing Israel of making “anti-historical statements” and alleging Israel supports a “neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.”
Well before Lavrov’s remarks, Russian intelligence-linked outlets and Kremlin propagandists have long spread disinformation and propaganda targeting Zelenskyy’s Jewishness and Ukraine’s relations with Israel. Contradicting more recent disinformation, President Putin’s former economic advisor Sergey Glazyev accused Zelenskyy in 2019 of planning to replace the Russian-speaking population of eastern and southern parts of Ukraine with Israeli Jews.
Defending the Indefensible
Following Lavrov’s remarks, Solovyov and other pundits on Russia’s state television asserted Nazism does not necessarily imply antisemitism, but can instead reflect so-called “Russophobia.” Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem then sought to buoy officials’ false claims by further attacking Zelenskyy, alleging Hitler’s alleged Jewish origins, and attempting to discredit Israeli leaders. A disinformation outlet linked to Russian military intelligence, One World, described Lavrov’s critics as “Hitler-like” racists for suggesting “one’s ethno-religious identity at birth” predetermines one’s political views.
Slinging the Nazi Slur as a Propaganda Technique
There is no better way to understand the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation than to “peek behind the curtain” and see what goes on inside the apparatus. On June 5, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) published what it identified as a report from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on disinformation themes the Russian government should promote to improve the “informational-propagandistic support” of its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The FSB concluded Russia had inadequately supported the “denazification” claim and recommended a “massive injection” of allegations accusing Ukrainian nationalists of killing children in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” — parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk provinces that Russia has controlled since 2014. The FSB also called for the creation of a “network of propagandists” to spread the fabrications, including using Russian and Ukrainian World War II veterans in staged videos where participants would call on Russia to “stop fascism in Ukraine.” Lastly, the FSB recommended establishing “anti-fascist” front groups in the post-Soviet space and targeting the European Union with disinformation claiming life in Europe is worsening because of its support for Ukrainian “Nazis.”
President Putin and his disinformation and propaganda apparatus exploit the historical memory of the Soviet fight against Nazi Germany to fabricate a pretext for their unprovoked brutal war against Ukraine. To serve its predatory ends, the Kremlin is exploiting the suffering and sacrifice of all those who lived through World War II and survived the Holocaust. In the process, the Kremlin is detracting from critically important global efforts to combat antisemitism and is instead propagating one of antisemitism’s most insidious forms, Holocaust distortion. With antisemitism on the rise around the world, it is imperative for all to call out this particularly pernicious kind of Russian disinformation.