Egged on by the language of annihilation and extermination, Russian soldiers have become willing executioners.
A mass grave is exhumed by local authorities as they attempt to identify the bodies of civilians killed during the Russian occupation in Bucha, Ukraine, on April 8.
On Feb. 26, only two days into the war, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti published an op-ed titled “The Coming of Russia and of the New World.” Its author, without a trace of irony, praises Russian President Vladimir Putin for the timely “solution of the Ukrainian question.” A few hours later, the article was removed and is now only available in web archives. It’s unclear why it was removed—whether because of its uncomfortable proximity to the lexicon of systematic mass murder or because it described a plan for dismantling Ukrainian statehood after a successful invasion presented itself as an accomplished fact when, in reality, Russian forces were being routed.
But this op-ed wasn’t a fluke or an editor’s oversight. Putin’s hatred of Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign state is well known: He reportedly complained that “Ukraine is not even a real country” to then-U.S. President George W. Bush back in 2008. The same conviction is evident in his later treatises and, finally, his bizarre televised speech three days before he launched the war. Since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine’s eastern regions, television rhetoric has followed Putin’s cues and been extremely derogatory toward Ukraine and its leadership—but not so much ordinary Ukrainians as a people.
That has dramatically changed. Since the failure of Putin’s apparent plan to rush into Kyiv, decapitate the Ukrainian government, and install a puppet regime became evident—and it became clear to him that ordinary Ukrainians weren’t waiting to be liberated by Russia—the language on Ukraine and Ukrainians has turned much more radical and toxic.
Prior to the invasion and in the first weeks of the war, Putin and his loyalist media insisted that the goal of what they called a “special operation” was the liberation of Ukrainians suffering under the yoke of alleged Nazi usurpers. The war didn’t have anything to do with the Ukrainian people, they insisted, because Russia was fighting NATO and the West, which had undermined Russia by supporting Ukraine’s “nationalist junta.”
But in Russia, the idea that the country is fighting Nazis again is a rhetorical weapon of mass destruction. Putin’s Russia derives much of its legitimacy from claiming the mantle of the Soviet Union’s decisive triumph over Europe’s ultimate 20th-century evil. The regime has turned the annual celebration of Nazi Germany’s capitulation in 1945 into a quasi-religious holiday; comparing Joseph Stalin to Adolf Hitler is now a criminal offense. Thus, the Nazi slur against Ukraine—endlessly repeated in the Russian media—was well chosen and has made the war a righteous cause to many Russians. It’s a godsend to Russian propagandists that Ukraine has a paramilitary unit that bears stylized runes as insignia and shows an affinity for the World War II-era Ukrainian independence movement with its antisemitic and Russia-hating leaders. (Russian soldiers and mercenaries bear Nazi symbols as well, most prominently Dmitry Utkin, the founder of the notorious Wagner Group.)
The Kremlin’s annihilationist propaganda is giving Russian troops a clear conscience for killing Ukrainian civilians.
Of course, Russian claims that its military is “denazifying” Ukraine are an absurdity; Ukrainian Jews (of whom their president is one) are, of course, siding with their country, and Ukraine’s right-wing Svoboda party only gathered 3 percent of the vote in the last election. Moscow plainly has nothing against openly fascist views at home or abroad, as its well-documented covert and overt support of far-right and ultra-nationalist leaders, parties, and movements in Europe and elsewhere shows. Russian state propaganda has long stripped the word “Nazi” bare of any meaning.
When Ukrainians fought back ferociously, stood fully behind their allegedly evil leadership, and showed no desire to be so-called liberated by Russia, the Kremlin’s propaganda switched gears—and went into full genocidal mode.
On March 26, as the Russians were being pushed back around Kyiv but still controlled Bucha, Ukraine, and its other northern suburbs, RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyan said on another pro-Kremlin channel that to her “horror,” a “significant part of the Ukrainian nation was in the grip of the Nazi frenzy.” It was a marked departure from the earlier trope of a captive nation with a few Nazi apples at the top. Dmitry Medvedev, once Russia’s liberal president and now the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, rages about Ukraine on his Telegram channel, calling it a “completely fake” nation and “a copy of the Third Reich” that doesn’t deserve to exist.
Kremlin-owned and controlled media—the only media still permitted to work—broadcast these messages to millions upon millions of Russians. On Rossia-1’s flagship talk show, host Vladimir Solovyov said, “Vladimir Zelensky is Ukraine’s last president because there won’t be any Ukraine after that.” The audience cheered.
A more recent RIA Novosti op-ed by Timofey Sergeytsev describes the planned extermination of an entire nation in a matter-of-fact manner. He not only describes “Ukronazism” as a more dangerous global threat than Hitler but casts much of the Ukrainian nation as accomplices and legitimate targets of terror. “A significant part of the masses of the people, who are passive Nazis, are accomplices to Nazism,” he writes. Ukraine’s elites “must be liquidated as they cannot be reeducated and the social swamp that backed them must be subject to the terror of war and made to pay for their crimes.” After the war, Ukraine should be carved into Russian-controlled statelets, their people and culture Russified, and the name “Ukraine” erased from the map. In short, “denazification” of Ukraine has come to mean nothing short of annihilation.
It is not clear whether Russian troops committing mass murder and mass rape in occupied Ukrainian villages, towns, and cities actually read Medvedev’s and other propagandists’ diatribes. But by making it clear that a “significant part of the masses” are allegedly Nazis and thereby the worst enemy Russia could possibly have, the propagandists incite those who do absorb the rhetoric to extreme violence—and absolve them from any need to feel guilty for these crimes.
Judging by what survivors of Russia’s atrocities are now telling journalists, it’s safe to assume Russian forces have been exposed to some version of this rhetoric. Survivors report how Russian soldiers were hunting for nonexistent “Nazis” among the terrified locals they claimed to be liberating. Egged on by the language of annihilation and extermination, Russian soldiers, Rosgvardia troops, and mercenaries have become willing executioners of ordinary Ukrainians.
The increasingly vicious propaganda version of Russia’s war appears to be terrifyingly effective. In numerous reports, many Russian-Ukrainian families are fractured, with Russian relatives simply refusing to believe their сhildren and siblings on the other side of the border. In videos distributed by the Ukrainians, Russian prisoners of war call home; their mothers, instead of comforting them, unload grotesque monologues about Ukrainian biolabs allegedly concocting deadly viruses to exterminate Russians. When denying war crimes committed by its army, Russia now repeats the talking points employed by other regimes fighting a genocidal war; during World War II, the real Nazis dismissed foreign reports about the mass killing of Jews and Soviet prisoners of war as “atrocity propaganda.”
Long after losing World War II and having the horrors of their atrocities revealed, many Germans still believe the Holocaust was faked by their country’s enemies. The Kremlin’s annihilationist propaganda is giving Russian commanders and troops a clear conscience for killing Ukrainian civilians. And its effects on Russians will likely linger long after this war is over.
(c) 2022, Foreign Policy