“De-Nazification is an Absolute Must”: Moscow’s Narrative in Ukraine

“De-Nazification is an Absolute Must”: Moscow’s Narrative in Ukraine
Ukraine army cuts off main road to Sloviansk” by snamess is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Russia’s propaganda narrative of ‘de-nazifying’ Ukraine has begun to undergo a linguistic de-securitization of sorts, in parallel with the Kremlin’s focus on more minimalist objectives as part of its ‘special military operation’. Any further linguistic de-vilification of the Ukrainian side will be key to a successful negotiation process between Kyiv and Moscow, since Putin cannot afford to be seen, especially domestically, as negotiating with ‘neo-Nazis’.

Russia’s Propaganda Impasse

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has not been going according to plan; the inability to quickly and decisively capture Kyiv, compounded by Moscow’s tactical and logistical failures in the face of “well-executed” Ukrainian resistance, has meant that Russia’s official ‘denazification’ narrative, which initially focused on Zelensky’s government, has had to undergo a linguistic de-securitization of sorts, in parallel with the Kremlin’s reconfiguration of its stated war aims. What has been evident recently is that Russia’s propaganda surrounding neo-Nazis in Ukraine has begun to shed some of its maximalist components in light of the aforementioned military failures, and the growing presence of a diplomatic ‘way-out’.

If anything, the Kremlin is acutely aware that, in light of its inability to conquer, and sustain, the entirety of the Ukrainian nation, formalized diplomatic negotiations will, ultimately, have to be conducted, and the regime cannot afford to be seen, especially domestically, as having engaged in peace talks with so-called ‘Nazis’. Such considerations are further complicated by the fact that Russia’s ‘denazification’ framework is rooted in the highly salient, and emotive, collective memories of the Great Patriotic War (GPW), and as such requires a gradual process of linguistic de-securitization to be reversed.

Anti-Fascism as Collective Memory in Russia and the Far-Right Problem in Ukraine

The Second World War, known as the GPW in Russia, remains perhaps the “single most powerful element of a “unifying national identity” within the country. The bloody struggle against Nazism has become one of Russia’s “most defining [historical] experiences”, whose intergenerational trauma, in light of the loss of nearly 27 million citizens, has meant that the war’s collective memory continues to strike real resonance with millions of former Soviet nationals, and their descendants. Therefore, concepts such as ‘fascism’ and ‘Nazism’, are not simply perceived as “dry [historical] terms” in contemporary Russia, but rather immediately call up “vivid images” that are saturated with both pain and deep stigma. Ultimately, this reality has also lent itself increasingly well to the securitisation of the Ukrainian crisis by the Kremlin, in that, since 2014, the country’s propaganda narrative has effectively painted the regime in Kyiv as the epitome of Nazism, a process which became heightened in the early stages of the invasion.

This dynamic has heavily relied on the very real far-right problem in contemporary Ukraine. The Euromaidan revolution saw a renaissance of Ukrainian nationalism, empowering extremist groups, such as Pravy Sektor, which has extensively borrowed its ultranationalist stance from Bandera’s controversial Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which, undoubtedly, collaborated with Nazi Germany. The infamous Azov Battalion has also figured extensively in official and public discourse during the invasion, since the group utilizes the SS-linked pagan Wolfsangel as its symbol, with its spokesperson also proclaiming, in October 2015, that “ … 10 to 20% of [our] members are Nazis”. Nevertheless, without diminishing their obvious nature, it is important to note that, as of the current moment, no far right-groups have any formal political power in Ukraine. The ultranationalist political party Svoboda, for example, has seen its share of votes decline from 10% in the 2012 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election, to just 2% in 2019, indicating that, contrary to Putin’s claims, the entirety of Ukraine has not been usurped by ‘pro-Nazi’ elements.

Tracing the Linguistic De-securitization

As mentioned prior, based on the expectation that the war would be won quickly via a “coup d’main” of Kyiv, the Kremlin sought to capitalise on its propaganda-driven securitised narrative of the Ukrainian establishment. In his speech announcing the ‘special military operation’, Putin noted that “neo-Nazis have seized power in Ukraine”, later referring to Zelensky’s government, on 25 February, as a “gang of … neo-Nazis… who took the entire Ukrainian people hostage.” In similar fashion, Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov, on 19 March, suggested that all Ukrainian authorities were the “conniving… manifestation of neo-Nazism”. Nevertheless, by 29 March, as it became evident that Moscow’s advance was stalling, and with the prospect of a potential diplomatic solution, Russia shifted its war aims to the minimalist goal of securing Mariupol and the Donbas, with the propaganda narrative following suit.

From this point onwards, and specifically from the initiation of the Battle of the Donbas on 18 April, the de-securitization of the regime in Kyiv has gone hand in hand with the simultaneous securitization of other, more militarily manageable, components of the Ukrainian nation, including the Azov Battalion, ones which still justified Moscow’s prior ‘denazification’ narrative. In an apparent de-securitizing shift, Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, appealed, on 5 April, directly to Zelensky, calling him the only person on whom the resolution of the conflict “depended” upon. Similarly, insider reports from the peace talks noted that Russia was no longer requesting Ukraine to be ‘denazified’, whilst the propaganda shifted its attention away from the government to the “Azov Nazis”. As such, on 26 April, for example, Moscow stated that the core problem of “Hitlerite fascism” was mainly emanating from the nationalist Ukrainian battalions within the Donbas, whose people needed to be liberated from these “executioners”.

It must be noted, however, that since the Kremlin’s linguistic conceptualization of the Ukrainian side is highly fluid, nothing is stopping Moscow from re-securitizing the Ukrainian state, and population, as the epitome of Nazism, especially if Russia begins to achieve significant territorial victories on the battlefield. Nevertheless, as noted by Mykhailo Podolyak, advisor to Ukraine’s president, any further conflict “all the same, will end [up] at the negotiating table”, meaning that Russia will, ultimately, have to engage in a linguistic de-securitization of its opponent for any peace talks to bear fruit.

Categories: Europe, Security

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