Pay Attention to Putin’s “Denazification” Claims

By Patrick Fox

A Russian rally in support of the 2014 Crimea invasion.
Image Credit: Agris Semevitz/RIA

The world is watching in shock and dismay as Russian forces push toward Kyiv and Putin plays with lives in a game that no one else seems to understand. Although the Ukrainian forces are currently defying all odds in their patriotic defense, there is no real progress on a ceasefire and it seems increasingly likely that Putin aims to take control of Ukraine entirely. 

By no means does this article intend to be defeatist, but thinking about what Russia might do with an occupied Ukraine could prevent fatal or even genocidal responses.

Predictions that Putin is putting all of this effort into an invasion simply to install a more friendly government next door are naive. They fail to account for Putin’s often-stated rationalization for the invasion: hunting down “Nazis” and eliminating them.

A Full Invasion Or A Test?

Ukraine absolutely deserves to have its sovereignty respected and Ukrainian soldiers have been fighting valiantly in what may be the most just war of the 21st century. However, it is impossible to ignore the unfortunate fact that the Russian military will likely be able to occupy Ukraine and force out the sitting government.

At least as of March 3rd, the Russian military appears to be holding back in a few key ways. Although little is known about Russian military resources and strategies, a few key facts are becoming apparent. The existing Russian force appears to be largely “conscripts” or freshly trained soldiers with little experience or will to endure a protracted conflict. 

Additionally, Russia has been far less aggressive with their airpower than has been previously expected. Observers have found no explanation for their mysteriously “missing” air force. It is possible that Moscow is saving the majority of its airpower until later.

All of this points to the risk that Russia’s current invasion is more of a test. The high casualties reflect Putin’s willingness to send more expendable forces to search for weak points. Russia is yet to deploy its most advanced weapons, with most equipment seen in Ukraine today from the Soviet era.

Russia may be preparing for a second push in Ukraine, fully utilizing their airforce, highly-trained soldiers and most advanced weaponry. There seems to be little explanation for why Russia’s military effectiveness is all that they can manage. While it is comforting to believe that Ukranian valor has defeated Russian forces, this idea is still very much unsubstantiated.

Putin and his “Anti-Nazi” ideology

While Russians and Ukranians alike die in the war that he created, the Russian president has been acting stranger than ever. Since the COVID-19 crisis, the 69-year-old Putin adapted his personalist leadership style by keeping only to a smaller group of friends.

Today, Putin’s inner circle seems to have been filled with “yes-men” that have substantially changed his relationship with hearing hard facts.The end to much-needed hard truths has been one of the many complicated factors that have allowed for Putin’s “denazification” narrative.

Plenty of writers have broken down why this terminology is false and offensive. However, it’s not about what is right. It is about what works. Putin’s dishonest language about “nazis” in Ukraine is meant for domestic audiences, not Western ones.

While the cultural trauma of the Second World War is a defining experience for Russia to this very day, efforts by Putin and his team have turned the experience into something resembling a state religion. The Soviet Union fought the most brutal war in history against an army of Nazis who literally sought to eradicate them.

The complicated aspect of Putin’s use of this language is that there actually are neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine. On the other hand, Putin’s claim that Kiev is a “Nazi regime” is a massive lie. It is an important lie, however, because calling his Ukranian enemies “Nazis” serves to both entirely dehumanize them and appeal to a powerful form of Russian patriotism.

By waging a war for “denazification” in Ukraine, Putin has established a powerful justification for conflict that he will never need to soften, elaborate on or further articulate. While this is certainly evil, it is not unique.

American Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush each declared wars on ideas and the messaging behind them were so powerful that they have transformed the United States entirely. While Nixon’s “War on Drugs” transformed American politics domestically, Bush’s “War on Terror” is a far more pertinent comparison for the modern day.

While America’s fight against “terror” was initiated by real events like the 9/11 terrorist attack and Putin’s war on “Nazis” is invented, both seek to categorize a new form of enemy that is impossible to define but crucial to defend against. 

Putin may choose to label Ukranians who oppose him as “Nazis” or “terrorists” or even both, but the result will be the same: sparking a panic in the Russian people that they must once again defend themselves from an existential threat at any cost.

Occupation and Insurgency

At this point, predictions about a Russian occupation are still largely theoretical. There are, however, three simple predictions for how Putin would handle the situation.

First, Russia would retain a strong troop presence in nearly all parts of Ukraine, regardless of the official outcome. Second, the Ukrainians would mount a large-scale insurgency that would be extremely well supplied. Lastly, Russian anti-insurgency efforts would be extremely violent.

Russia’s decision to maintain a large number of troops locally would be somewhat the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. A large troop presence would inspire insurgent anti-Russian efforts, which would in turn demand an even larger troop presence. Putin clearly believed that Ukrainians would welcome his regime and his armies, and resistance would be almost certainly met with violence.

Russia has long used the presence of its soldiers to achieve its goals, like in Central Asia and in Crimea. Aside from any doomed attempt to suppress Ukrainian resistance, Putin would keep a large troop presence to secure Ukraine’s vast natural resources and ensure protection from NATO rivals.

Conversely, Ukraine has everything in place to mount one of the most ferocious and well-funded insurgencies in modern history. Ukranians are building an identity around a fearless patriotic battle against the Russian invaders. With citizens rushing to defend their country, they would be a population with the will to sustain bloody anti-insurgency efforts for years to come.

Even after the massive amount of weapons flooding into Ukraine, it has long been hinted that the U.S. and its allies would substantially support a Ukrainian insurgency. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s personal charisma has attracted sympathy for Ukranians worldwide. 

Considering how the Taliban in Afghanistan forced out the far superior American military with considerably less substantial means of supporting themselves than military aid from the U.S. and its allies, Ukrainian insurgents would be in a strong position to face down a Russian occupation.

Admiration of the patriotism and courage of the Ukranians aside, this likely bold and resilient Ukrainian insurgency would be met with brutality and mass killings of innocents under the guise of a “denazification” campaign by Russia. 

Applying “Denazification”

A counterinsurgency campaign against a powerful and highly entrenched insurgency that has been labeled (by a dictator) as a historical enemy whose very existence is a threat to national defense–this is the essence of Putin’s promise of “denazification”. 

A campaign to eradicate an invisible enemy could be the basis for war crimes, cultural eradication modeled after China’s violence against Uyghur populations or even ethnic cleansing on a large scale (an eerie reminder of a past genocide against Ukranians). 

The concept of brutal violence against the citizens of an occupied country is painful to even imagine. It’s far too soon to know if Russia even can occupy Ukraine, let alone to understand Moscow’s intentions.

American foreign policy experts must take Putin’s “denazification” language far more seriously, because they could be a subtle promise of terrible atrocities.

Patrick Fox is a regular writer for the Review. He majors in International Relations at Syracuse University, where he is president of the Syracuse John Quincy Adams Society.

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