Russia has a fascism problem and it’s not Ukraine

There is a rising tide of fascism around the world and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is very much part of that. 

In a 2003 article, political scientist Laurence Britt lists 14 attributes of fascism: extreme nationalism, disdain for human rights, scapegoating enemies as a unifying cause, sexism and homophobia, tightly controlled media, obsessive security in a surveillance state, using religion to bolster political power, pampering economic and corporate elites at the expense of have-nots, suppressing organised labour, limiting intellectual and artistic expression to a narrow orthodoxy, excessive police powers and jailing as political tool, rampant cronyism and corruption, and fraudulent elections.

Russia today under Putin checks all 14 boxes. So what is Putin on about, claiming that his war against Ukraine is “denazification?”

Putin attacked Ukraine without a pretext. Having done so, he is creating one after the fact — otherwise there is no fig leaf of legitimacy to deny the claim that it is a war of aggression and hence a war crime.

In the days leading up to the war, Russia’s official spokespersons repeatedly denied that an invasion was imminent and dismissed such talk as “hysteria”. On 15 February, Russia announced a partial withdrawal of troops from the area of its “exercises”. Preparatory to sending tanks into the Donbas region on 22 February, Putin announced that this was all about unanswered questions about Nato expansion. Since Ukraine is not a member of Nato and has not even applied for membership, treating this as a casus belli — a situation that provokes or causes war — is, at best, premature. But this was only the logic for sending tanks to Donbas, not for the main invasion of Ukraine.

Nato in any case has turned out to be a paper tiger because any member joining the conflict could trigger a generalised European war, risking escalation to nuclear weapons. If anyone is in any doubt about the threat of nuclear escalation, the Russian side has made that risk explicit. Almost all of Europe, aside from countries that are very small or expressly neutral, is already either in Nato or the Russian camp. So it is unlikely that another country will risk direct involvement in the Ukraine conflict. This leaves me wondering what the actual purpose of Nato is, now there is no longer a Warsaw Pact on the other side.

Once the full-scale invasion started, Russia refused to call it an invasion or occupation, and passed a new law that made it a criminal offence attracting a 15-year sentence to contradict the official narrative.

All propaganda contains a kernel of fact to make it plausible and the conventional “Ukraine good, Russia evil” narrative lacks nuance. At a time of conflict there is a tendency for all sides to simplify the picture but we need to understand the wider context to tell propaganda apart from truth.

Does Ukraine have a Nazi problem? On the face of it, the accusation appears to be absurd because the country has a Jewish president and has seen a substantial revival of Jewish culture; a new memorial centre was opened as recently as last year at Babyn Yar, the site of a Nazi massacre. 

But there is a darker side to the Ukrainian state. In 2021, hundreds of Ukrainians marched to commemorate the Ukrainian 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS. To his credit, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy condemned the march and any attempt at rewriting history to glorify Nazism. More seriously, the neo-Nazi Azov regiment, formed to fight separatists, was integrated into the National Guard by former president Petro Poroshenko in 2018. 

Though their numbers are small (about 900 — and they only admit to about 10% of these actually being Nazis), the symbolism of this move is deeply troubling. Zelenskiy has also attempted to jail critics, including Poroshenko. So Ukraine is not the pristine democracy some claim it to be. But it is nowhere near as far down the road to out-and-out facism as Russia is.

Into this sordid mix we add reports of African and Asian refugees fleeing the war zone being given a tough time in Ukraine and across the border in Poland.

All of this makes it hard to keep the message focused on Putin as a war criminal. If we are serious about opposing wars of aggression and fascism, those on the opposing side need to clean up their own act. Otherwise we are into arguing which kind of fascism is better. The correct answer: no kind.

Worldwide, the drift to fascism is deeply troubling. In the US, white supremacist groups are split on the Russia-Ukraine conflict because they see it as a war between states they support — Russia because it is clearly fascist and shares their values and Ukraine because it has a facist movement even if it is not in control of the government. The attempted coup in the US on 6 January 2021 is a small part of the de-democratisation of the US. Included in this is voter suppression targeting ethnic minorities and manipulating supreme court justice appointments to favour a rightward shift.

Another troubling aspect of the conflict is the way Ukrainian refugees with their white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes are treated as “relatable” by Western media in a way that refugees from other conflicts never were. I even heard one reporter saying the Ukraine war is so shocking because the refugees are “civilised”. Hold up there. In my book, racism is what’s not “civilised”.

Countries such as the US, Australia, Britain and France — and for that matter, Russia — that have played a major role in stoking up the number of refugees worldwide refuse to honour their obligations under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees — particularly with regards to conflicts in which they are directly involved. There is no “blue-eyed-blonde” clause in the convention. Right-wing media publish scare stories of hordes of people in leaky boats and this sort of xenophobia is increasingly mainstreamed.

Here in South Africa, it only took Herman Mashaba’s modest success with attacking foreigners to suck the ANC government into xenophobia. Operation Dudula, despite claims to the contrary, creates the atmosphere for xenophobic looting and vigilantism. Although we can rightly shame Western media for regarding blue-eyed blonde Ukrainians as “relatable”, it is hypocritical to do so if we are othering people from the rest of Africa.

So what is to be done?

We need to be clear on the Ukraine issue. It is a war of aggression. Russia is threatening the use of nuclear weapons and this is why they believe they will get away with it. The huge outpouring of sympathy for Ukraine is not out of place.

What is out of place is the lack of similar outrage about other conflicts and the lack of sympathy for refugees who are not considered “relatable” by racist media.

Most importantly, we need to be clear on what fascism is and why any drift in that direction is to be resisted — not only when the victims are “relatable”, whatever that means.

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Philip Machanick
Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University

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