In the early hours of Feb. 24, Vladimir Putin justified a Russian military invasion of Ukraine as an attempt to “denazify” the country. After Russian forces struggled to topple the Kyiv government in the initial hours of the war, the Russian president disparaged Ukrainian authorities as “drug addicts” and “neo-Nazis.”
Putin’s use of the term “denazification” shocked many in the West. How could the centrist (and Jewish) Volodymyr Zelensky, elected in a free and fair election in 2019, be a neo-Nazi?
He’s not. Rather, Putin’s rhetoric reflects how the Kremlin has repeatedly used traumatic legacies of Russia’s past wars to justify its illegitimate actions — and to preemptively discredit those who challenge its authority.
In 1939, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler divided Eastern Europe. As Nazi Germany prepared to wage war against Poland, France and Great Britain, it negotiated a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. The treaty came to be known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and in its secret provisions, Germany, in exchange for peace, guaranteed the Soviet Union’s claims to half of Poland as well as the Baltic States and Bessarabia.
Lithuania found itself in the Soviet sphere of influence under this pact. At first, this didn’t mean much for the independence of this southernmost Baltic state. The Kremlin did demand a Mutual Assistance Treaty, which meant allowing Soviet military bases on Lithuanian soil. Stalin framed it as a necessity to defend his country from hostile capitalist states. After all, the Soviets did fight wars on its western frontiers in the past. But that, presumably, was all.
This changed on June 14, 1940, when Lithuanian diplomats received an ultimatum from Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. In the preceding weeks, the Kremlin blamed Lithuania for kidnapping and committing acts of violence against Soviet troops stationed there. Moscow also raised military concerns about the Baltic Entente, a barely functioning cooperative political organization joining Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. “Our government is pro-Lithuanian,” Molotov told the Lithuanian diplomats, “so it is important to us that the Lithuanian government be pro-Soviet.” Of course, his accusations were fiction. The government was already appeasing Moscow at every step. In 1939, it even resisted intense Nazi pressure to join its war against Poland.
There were hundreds of thousands of Red Army troops at the border. The Soviets demanded from Lithuania a new government and arrests of key figures in the national security apparatus. The Lithuanian government in Kaunas had 10 hours to respond to Molotov’s requests. The Soviet minister’s tone made it clear that Lithuanians had no say in the future of their state.
That night and over the next months, Molotov and other Soviet officials would frame their imperial expansion as a selfless act of saving Lithuania from rotten bourgeois-nationalist governance. A flurry of telegrams between Kaunas and Moscow on the night of June 14-15, 1940, could not prevent denationalization and sovietization.
After accepting the ultimatum, Lithuania was remade in Soviet fashion, setting the stage for annexation. President Antanas Smetona fled abroad, making the transition easy. In June and July 1940, local communists, together with advisers from Moscow, worked to delegitimize the previous government by framing it as exploitative, corrupt and pervasively nationalist. The new people’s government was a pro-Soviet socialist entity. It denationalized the country by reframing the local identity in Bolshevik terms. Eventually, the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania.
This heavy-handed Soviet playbook carried on into the Cold War. Soviet leaders also rationalized Operation Danube, the Moscow-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, as a gracious attempt to eliminate the threat of anti-Soviet rightist forces.
Throughout 1968, Czech communist leader Alexander Dubcek attempted to implement a limited liberalization of his country, a process that came to be known as Prague Spring. He carefully worked to reassure the Kremlin at every step that his democratic and civil reforms did not threaten the stability of the Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc.
Yet over the course of the year, Leonid Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders started to doubt Dubcek’s loyalty. A more liberal socialism threatened the legitimacy of Soviet domination, which was based on coercion. So to justify a regime change in Prague, the Kremlin created a narrative about a threat of right-wing counterrevolution that compelled the Soviets to take action. In the wake of World War II and the deadly battle against Nazi Germany, framing of the government in Czechoslovakia as prone to right-wing influences was poignant.
While Brezhnev personally had doubts about the implications of a military operation, the Kremlin deliberately painted Dubcek as weak and prone to right-wing influences. This was enough for Moscow to manufacture a reason to invade. Eventually, in August 1968, local hard-line Czechoslovak communists, led by Vasil Bilak, pleaded for Soviet help. “The very existence of socialism” was under threat “by right wing forces,” they claimed. Assistance was needed to prevent “the imminent danger of counterrevolution.”
On Aug. 20-21, 1968, the Soviet Union led a Warsaw Pact intervention to eliminate the alleged threat of right-wing counterrevolution. Within a year, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was purged. Its new leadership was completely loyal to Moscow.
In 2008, Russia again invoked the threat of Nazism next door as a cause to invade a foreign country. This time, its eyes turned to tiny Georgia, one of the three states in the Caucasus.
After weeks of skirmishes, on Aug. 7, 2008, hostilities at the Russo-Georgian border evolved into a full-scale war. Officially, the Kremlin asserted the right of self-defense. It claimed to be defending its peacekeepers as well as the people in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Soon enough, Moscow took the liberty to push its military operations into the interior of Georgia.
At the same time, Russian politicians and media personalities framed the war in terms of fighting Nazism. Of course, Mikheil Saakashvili, the liberal president of Georgia, was no fascist. Yet as the war broke out, he was accused of made-up war crimes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In this context, Russia framed its war as one against “a ranting Georgian führer” who was the “same as Hitler” and “a foreign spot on the body of the Georgian people.” Three years after a pompous celebration of the 60th anniversary of victory against Nazi Germany, this framing had an effect on the Russian public.
Georgia lost the war. While it avoided complete subjugation by Russia, the country never regained its regions. Due to a lack of territorial integrity, it cannot join Western institutions, allowing the Kremlin to maintain a level of control over Georgia.
Throughout the past century, Moscow has repeatedly used “denazification” as a legitimate reason to invade countries it wants to control. It allows the Kremlin to frame any state as an enemy in a way that is emotionally impactful to the average Russian citizen. It also makes any foreign government think twice before defending whomever Moscow might label as “Nazi.” As bizarre as Putin sounded at the outset of the Russo-Ukrainian War, “denazification” remains a powerful tool of Russia’s foreign policy.