Putin’s focus on imaginary Nazis illustrates his bizarre and dangerous behaviour in his final years. Many political scientists have concluded that the ‘Putinist’ system he has created around himself is, paradoxically, purely fascist.

London: Two weeks ago, Russian rockets destroyed two five-storey residential buildings in the town of Chasiv Yar in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, killing 33 residents. They were mostly women and children and included 4-year-old Liza Dmitrieva, whose pink pushchair lay on its side covered in blood in the playground. Further indiscriminate attacks followed against Kharkiv in northern Ukraine and Mykolaiv in the south. Later that day, Margarita Simonyan, head of the state controlled Russian television network RT, said that all the buildings were targeted because they housed Ukrainian “Nazis”. Really? Women and children Nazis? But then, calling Ukrainians “Nazis” is the bog-standard response by the Kremlin to defend the terror and mass murder being carried out daily across Ukraine by Russian forces.
When President Vladimir Putin unleashed his forces on Ukraine back in February, he claimed that his “special military operation” was to “protect the people that are subjected to abuse, genocide from the Kiev regime for eight years, and to this end we will seek to demilitarise and denazify (sic) Ukraine. Truth and justice are on Russia’s side.” The truth is, of course, that after Russian forces struggled to topple the Kyiv government in the initial hours of the war, Putin mocked Ukrainian authorities as “drug addicts” and “neo-Nazis”. His use of the term “Nazi” shocked many in the West. How could the centrist Volodymyr Zelenskyy, elected in a free and fair election in 2019, be a “Nazi”?
He’s not, of course. Putin’s rhetoric reflects how the Kremlin has repeatedly used traumatic legacies of Russia’s past wars to justify its illegitimate actions, and to pre-emptively discredit those who challenge its authority. Zelenskyy, the leader of a government Putin claims is dominated by Nazis, is a Jew and Russian speaker himself, and the grandson of a man whose family was murdered in the Holocaust. Zelenskyy’s family history reveals how Putin’s denazification claim is both absurd and cruel. This, of course, is not new. For much of his professional career, Vladimir Putin has been absurd and cruel.
In continuing to spread this propaganda, Putin is clearly attempting to appeal to a powerful and shared emotion within the Russian population. One of the great Russian triumphs of the last century was the victory over Nazi Germany, which came at tremendous sacrifice by the Soviet people. So Putin is trying to recycle this anti-Nazi narrative to appeal to a very strong emotion in the Russian psyche as a way of maintaining support for what he is doing. And what he is doing is pursuing a campaign grounded in his own inaccurate concept of the Russian world. Once again, Putin is waging a war against a former Soviet Republic, drawing from a decades-old playbook in which he established a grand strategy to restore Russia to its Soviet days and re-establish the country as a superpower. And unless Russia suffers a clear defeat, it won’t stop at Ukraine.
In May, an influential politician in Moscow’s Duma, Sergey Savostyanov, said that after Ukraine, Russia must “de-Nazify” six additional countries: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Moldova and Kazakhstan. Although this remark might be dismissed as the weird view of one individual in the overheated atmosphere of today’s Moscow, it is clearly more than that. Listen to the words of Vladimir Vinokurov, a prominent professor at the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy. Vinokurov argues that since the West won’t do anything about the resurgence of Nazism, it has been left to Russia to “de-Nazify these countries lest they spread their poison across the world once again”. He claims that “Putin’s decision to launch his special military operation, allows one to hope that ‘this time’ there will be no repeat of Nazism”. He concludes, “today it is Russia that has the mission to block someone else’s global scenario and thus save humanity from the repetition of a bloody war”. In other words, by invading Ukraine, and following up with a war against the six countries, Putin is doing the world a great service.
It would be easy to dismiss these characters as cranks who should be ignored, but they appear to represent a genuine view of what the Kremlin believes Russia’s foreign and defence policy should be. But the word “Nazi” has only ever been used as a label of justification, such as an excuse to build a case specifically for the invasion of Ukraine. In reality, Putin and his allies have attempted to expand the meaning of Nazism to render it essentially meaningless, but still useful to them. Anyone who opposes Putin’s government is labelled a Nazi, representing the worst and most hideous enemies Russia has ever faced in its history, the battle against which cost almost one in six lives, civilian and military. By misrepresenting anyone who disagrees with him as a “Nazi”, Putin is performing a terrible injustice to all those brave Russians who lost their lives defending their country against real Nazis wearing the swastika on their arms.
Putin’s focus on imaginary Nazis illustrates his bizarre and dangerous behaviour in his final years. Many political scientists have concluded that the “Putinist” system he has created around himself is, paradoxically, purely fascist. Stripped to its basics, a fascist state is by definition an authoritarian state ruled by a charismatic leader enjoying a personality cult. Pinochet’s Chile and Franco’s Spain were just your average “authoritarian” states, whereas Mussolini’s Italy and Xi Jinping’s China are clearly fascist, as were Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. So, you can see that fascist states can be on the right and on the left.
Putin’s move towards fascism is easy to track. From the time of the December 2011 protests in Moscow, when as many as 100,000 protesters took to the streets complaining about the corrupt elections that took place under Prime Minister Putin, civil liberties in Russia have all but vanished. Putin had never experienced popular protests like these before. He was rattled and soon completely dismantled all of Russia’s nascent democratic institutions. Elections are now neither free nor fair. Putin’s party, United Russia, always wins and members of the opposition are routinely harassed or killed. The Kremlin controls all media outlets and there is no freedom of speech or assembly, with draconian punishments for anyone who criticises the state. In addition, Putin has built a hypernationalist, imperialist and supremacist ideology that glorifies all things Russian, one which legitimises expansion as Russia’s right and duty. This ideology has been imposed on and willingly accepted by the population, which explains why Putin’s popularity remains high. So, a highly authoritarian regime headed by a popular leader—the classic definition of fascism.
Putin’s over-centralised regime in Russia is also a typical feature of a fascist state, where the information that reaches the supreme leader is often sugar-coated. His disastrous decision to attack Ukraine was almost certainly due to the inaccurate information he received about the condition of the Russian army while hiding in isolation during Covid. Fascist states are prone to wars, simply because members of the secret police and generals, whose raison d’etre is violence, are overrepresented in the ruling elite.
Putin has surrounded himself with the so-called “Siloviki”, many of whom served in the KGB and have maintained conservative, often conspiratorial views. Men such as Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s Security Council and a “hawk’s hawk”; Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service; and Alexander Bortnikov, head of the FSB, the domestic security and intelligence service, have all known Putin since the 1990s when they were all members of Leningrad’s KGB. These Siloviki engage in conspiracy theories, dominate the agenda in the Kremlin, and fuel Putin’s anxieties, provoking and escalating tensions.
One of these is likely to replace Putin when he meets his maker in the near future. None are remotely as popular as Putin, so Russia will revert to being an authoritarian state. Only fascist Putin ticks all the boxes. Only President Vladimir Putin is a true fascist.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK PM John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.