Ukraine: why did Russia do it? (I)

Irina Filatova says the term "de-Nazification" is the key to understanding what is going on

Russia’s reasons for sending its troops into Ukraine and its goals there still seem somewhat mysterious to many. Yet it is important to understand them, for this war is a watershed moment – not just for Ukraine and Russia, but for the whole world.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has postulated two reasons for this war. The first was the need to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine, particularly in Donbas, and to liberate them from the yoke of the Ukrainian “Nazi” regime. The second – to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, for Russia perceived the enlargement of NATO since the collapse of the USSR as a threat to its own security. For these purposes Ukraine had to be “demilitarised” and “de–Nazified”.

Last December Putin sent ultimatums to the USA and NATO demanding that NATO withdraw from the territory of its new (i.e. since 1997) East European members. Putin considered their reply - offering to allay Russia’s security concerns by returning to the discussions about strategic weapons in Europe, inadequate. The war was his reply.

Putin knew full well, that in effect he was demanding NATO’s self–dissolution. He knew that if the USA and/or NATO showed even the slightest sign of an inclination to accommodate his demands, both would have been dead, or weakened beyond reconstruction. Poland, the Baltic states and other East European states had all experienced life under Soviet rule and eagerly sought NATO membership as their way of guaranteeing that that could not happen again. They rely existentially on NATO’s doctrine of collective defence. The slightest wobble over that commitment would have been particularly damaging in view of Trump’s cavalier attitude towards his NATO allies, and America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Thus, the implied main goal of the war has been the significant weakening or even the destruction of NATO by demonstrating its impotence. Putin started the war not merely with Ukraine. He started the war with what he calls “the collective West”. He wanted to cause and maximise any divisions within the NATO camp. Such divisions, by weakening the West, would open the way for a change in the global balance of power, ushering in the new “multipolar world order” which Putin and Xi Jinping declared to be their objective in their Joint Statement signed during their meeting on 4 February.

This “new world order” would be democratic, though with democracy based on the “traditional values” of each country as defined by its government. Such a definition certainly allows both China and Russia to claim that they are democratic – each in its own way. The “new world order” would be peaceful, but it would allow for the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine and a “One China” policy, i.e., the incorporation of Taiwan into China.

The Statement did not give any details about the means by which these goals would be achieved. In effect the “new world order” would mean that the world would be divided into ideological spheres of influence, supported by military might. China, Russia and their allies would constitute one such sphere, and their opponents, the other. Yet, amazingly, the document proclaims the opposition of the signatories to “the return of international relations to the state of confrontation between major powers, when the weak fall prey to the strong”.

The implied meaning of the second goal of the war, the “demilitarisation and de-Nazification” of Ukraine, is usually understood to mean the liquidation of Ukraine as an independent state, either by its incorporation into Russia or by toppling its government and creating a puppet government controlled by Moscow and ready to bow to its demands and wishes.

However, the real meaning of both terms needs to be investigated more closely. Already the first few weeks of the war showed that “demilitarisation” meant the destruction not just of military targets, but also of factories, cities, towns, and villages with all that was there, including clinics and hospitals, cultural objects, and the physical infrastructure.

It also meant thousands and thousands of civilian deaths, millions of refugees and the rising spectre of famine for the rest of the population. Whatever Putin wants to do with the occupied territory – to incorporate it into Russia or leave it as a separate entity with a compliant government – turning it into a wasteland just makes no sense. So, why are the Russians doing it?

The term “de-Nazification”, which is a puzzle to many, is, in fact, the key to understanding what is going on. Why does Putin repeatedly declare that Ukraine is ruled by a Nazi regime? Why do Russia’s official media ignore Ukraine’s legitimate elections, multiple parties, open media (apart from the belated ban on pro–Russian media outlets and parties after the start of the war), and all the normal processes for the transfer of power, and just repeat the mantra that Ukraine is ruled by a Nazi regime?  

It all started in 2014. Putin never recognised the outcome of what transpired in Kiev in late 2013 – early 2014, when the then legitimately elected president Yanukovych renegued on his election promise to lead the country into the EU. He was overthrown by an uprising in which radical right-wing nationalist elements played a very visible and prominent role of enforcers, assisted, the Russians claim, by the Americans.

In the Russian narrative, this uprising amounted to yet another colour revolution organised by the perfidious “collective West”. But this coup or revolution (depending on your point of view), was undoubtedly supported by the majority of the Ukrainian population. There were attempted pro–Russian counter-revolts in the East, accompanied by bloody clashes.

Тhese succeeded only in the Crimea and the Donbas. But, despite their prominent role in 2014, the right–wing parties have not sustained their prominence. In the 2012 elections they had won 10% of the vote but in the 2019 election this fell to 2%. Volodymyr Zelensky who won the last presidential election, is a liberal centrist.

Russia’s particular ire was directed against the Azov regiment. This was formed in 2014 from those volunteering to fight in Donbas against the separatist Donetsk and Lugansk. The regiment later became a part of the Ukrainian National Guards. Its agenda was, indeed, right–wing and radical nationalist, although, according to the Ukrainians, having become a part of their regular army, the regiment was de–politicised. Whether or not this is, indeed, true one should remember that many countries, including Russia, have fringes of right-wing nationalists. This does not mean that such countries are ruled by Nazis.

Yet for the Russians the Ukrainian government is a usurper and Nazi because of its origins in the revolution/coup eight years and of the role of the right–wing elements in it, subsequent legitimate elections notwithstanding. It turns out, however, that it is not just the government which Russia deems to be Nazi and illegitimate. It is the majority of the population of Ukraine, irrespective of their language preferences, Ukrainian or Russian, or their right or left political inclinations. For Moscow views as Nazis all Ukrainians who want their country to be independent from Russia and to have the right to choose which international organisation to join.

On 3 March the Russian Information Agency News – an official Russian information outlet – published an article entitled “What Russia must do with Ukraine”. It explained in detail – something Putin had not done - what Russia means by “de-Nazification”. According to the author, Ukraine as a national state is a misnomer, because it has no “civilisational content”, unlike, for example, Georgia or the Baltic countries. It is an artificial anti–Russian construct acting on behalf of an “alien” civilisation. What makes Ukraine Nazi in the author’s view, is its desire for independence from Russia, its aspiration to join the EU and (particularly) NATO, and its willingness to defend its territorial integrity.

Russia cannot afford to “de-Nazify” only the government, the author writes, for in the case of Ukraine the hypothesis that “the people is good, but the power is bad” does not work. This is because “a significant part of the population – most probably, the majority – has been drawn by the regime into its policy.” “For this reason,” the author writes, “de-Nazification cannot be done as a compromise, on the basis of the formula ‘NATO – no, EU – yes’”.

According to the author, “the collective West is the designer, source and sponsor of Ukrainian nationalism”. But he also blames the Soviet government for “artificially inflating” Ukraine’s “ethnic component” which led to its Nazification. The process of Nazification, in his view, started in 1989, under Gorbachev, when Ukraine was given “legal forms of political self-expression”.

“People’s republics” created on the occupied territories, the author continues, “cannot be neutral – the atonement of their guilt towards Russia for their attitude to it as an enemy can only be realised through Russia.” “De-Nazification”, he writes, “will necessarily be de–Ukrainisation.”

This de-Nazification, in the author’s view, has to take at least a generation, and it can only be carried out by a victorious Russia – and Russia alone. During that time all the leadership, all those who occupied administrative positions, “all armed Nazi formations” (i.e. the army, volunteers, police – anybody who fought Russia, arms in hand) have to be liquidated, as well as the military, information and educational infrastructure which enabled “Nazism”.

“The social swamp”, the author continues, which “passively supported” the Nazi regime by voting for Poroshenko or Zelensky (the last two Ukrainian presidents) have to be “filtrated” and punished by bearing all the hardships of war and paying the Russians for it. At first people will be shocked by the realities of the war, but they will get used to it. “Historical experience shows”, the author continues, “that war time tragedies and dramas are good for such peoples, who have been seduced and carried away by their role as Russia’s enemy”.

Further steps in this de-Nazification of the “liberated population”, according to the author, should include “the introduction of Russia’s information space; the removal of learning materials and the banning of educational programmes at all levels which contain Nazi sets of ideas”, establishing personal responsibility for the “spreading of the Nazi ideology and the support of the Nazi regime”, “forced labour on the restoration of infrastructure as a punishment for Nazi activities (for those who are not executed or imprisoned)” and the destruction of all cultural objects, associated with “Nazism”, i.e. Ukrainian national culture.

It is this understanding of “de-Nazification” which explains the ferocity with which the population of Bucha was treated. It was an elite town. Representatives of Ukraine’s political and intellectual elite had their country houses there. They, in Russia’s view, were responsible for the “Nazification” of Ukraine. They had to be liquidated.

This vision of de-Nazification also explains the ferocity of bombardments in Eastern Ukraine. The author of the RIA News article writes of the “total Nazi terror against anti–fascists in Odessa, Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk and Mariupol”. This is about 2014 again, when attempts by pro–Russian groups – “anti–fascists” in the author’s eyes – to overthrow the local authorities remaining loyal to Kyiv, were suppressed by the locals.

All these cities are mainly Russian speaking. So, their unwillingness to follow the example of Donetsk and Lugansk and join the pro–Russian forces, was the cause of particular offence to the Russians. Mariupol was not just a strategically important city for Russia. It was also a symbol of the opposition of a mainly Russian–speaking city to Russian rule. And the now famous Azov steelworks factory was defended not only by the border guards, the local police and the marine corps, but also by the hated Azov regiment.

Putin himself never said anything about liquidations and just a year ago he even wrote of his “respect” for Ukrainian language and traditions. But Ukraine’s sovereignty, he wrote, was only possible “in partnership with Russia” because “we are one people”. He pledged that Russia will never be “anti–Ukraine” and concluded his article with the words: “what Ukraine will be – it is up to its citizens to decide.” Just a few months later Ukraine’s citizens decided to fight for their right to decide what Ukraine will be. This, to the Russians, was a wrong decision, thus showing to what extent Ukraine was “Nazified”.

Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and Putin’s close associate, connected de-Nazification with Eurasianism. “Changing the bloody, full of mythical falsehoods consciousness of a part of Ukrainian population is the main goal – the goal in the name of peace for future generations of Ukrainians themselves and for the opportunity to finally build an open Eurasia – from Lisbon to Vladivostok”.

Indeed, the vision of a Eurasian world “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” with Russian civilization or “the Russian world” at its centre, seems to be an important motivation of Russia’s confrontation with the “collective West”. Ukraine simply must be an integral and indispensable part of the “Russian world”.

From a Soviet communist Putin has evolved into a Russian Orthodox Christian nationalist with Eurasianist ideas. Eurasianism is an old trend in Russian philosophical thought. It appeared in the 1920s among Russian emigres in Europe. Eurasianists think not in terms of states, but in terms of civilisations. Russia, they thought, was not a country, and not an empire, but a unique civilisation, based on culture and geography. It is distinct from both European “Romano–Germanic” civilisation and from Asia. Its historical role is to be the centre of power on the European continent and in parts of Asia. Its characteristic features are an etatist economy, militarised autocracy, religious spirituality, and autarchy.

Eurasianism sees itself as the exact opposite of institutionalised liberal democracy and the culture of individual rights and freedoms. For Eurasianists “Romano–Germanic” and “Anglo–Saxon” worlds or the “collective West”, are the mortal enemy of the Russian world, incomparably more dangerous than the Asian world. Eurasia, according to the believers in this doctrine, is supposed to be a militarised theocracy ruled by a leader and his chosen few associates selected from the most loyal personally to him and to the idea. The population is supposed to be disciplined and totally united around the leader and the idea.

Putin reads and promotes Eurasianists, particularly Ivan Ilyin (1883–1954). As recently as last October when asked, at the prestigious Valdai Club meeting, about his intellectual points of reference, Putin replied: “You know, I do not want to say that it is only Ivan Ilyin, but I read Ilyin, yes, I read him until now”. Ilyin thought that Russia’s Eurasian space is surrounded by enemies waiting for any sign of its weakness in order to tear it apart. And the first act of such a dismemberment, he thought, would be the separation of Ukraine from Russia – unnaturally and artificially, as Russians and Ukrainians, in his view, were one nation. One of Ilyin’s ideas was that the desire of a part of nation to separate from the whole is akin to the wish of a cell to separate from the body.

No wonder that Russian propaganda repeats over and over again that for Russia this war is existential, eschatological and civilisational. With such a vision, there is little hope that Russia will sue for peace with Ukraine until its goals are reached, whatever it takes, and however long it takes.

Putin never quoted or even mentioned Alexander Dugin, Ilin’s more aggressive ideological heir and our contemporary. Politically Dugin is an extremely compromised figure. He was a founder member and, for a number of years, the leader of the fascist National–Bolshevik Party which existed in Russia in the period 1993–2007.

In its own words, it was based on the “withering hatred of the anti–human triad of liberalism, democracy and capitalism” and aimed at building “an empire from Vladivostok to Gibraltar on the basis of Russian civilisation – just, traditionalist and hierarchical”. The party was banned in Russia as an extremist organisation, but Dugin is now a respectable philosopher, whose ideas are popular in some of Russia’s intellectual circles, as can be seen from Medvedev’s quote.

Putin may not even know about Dugin’s existence, but Dugin boasts in interviews that Putin is implementing his, Dugin’s, agenda. Only, in his view, too slowly. He spoke of the need to incorporate the Crimea long before 2014. He has advocated the occupation of Ukraine and the creation of a Russian Eurasia “from Dublin to Vladivostok” since 2014. Russia would not need to occupy all these territories, he argues, it would be enough for them just to be “Finlandised”. They would see for themselves that the “Russian world” is better than what they have now.

Some Eurasian ideas may, indeed, find a receptive audience in Europe and far beyond. Eurasianists see themselves as proud defenders of “traditional values” and rational conservatism not just in Russia, but in the whole world, against the domination of the rotten and depraved permissiveness of the liberal West.

The combination of this “conservative” agenda with Russia’s image as a fighter against the global domination of the West is attractive to many. In Russia’s view, liberalism is, fortunately, dying or dead, and authoritarianism, which is the future, is already on the march.

This is the first article in a two-part series. The second article now be read here