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Putin's Rhetoric Puts 'Fascism' Back in Vogue

  • Catherine Maddux
  • Mike Eckel

Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum 2014 in St. Petersburg, May 23, 2014.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum 2014 in St. Petersburg, May 23, 2014.

Not long after massive street protests forced Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych from power, Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed troops along the border, and started demonizing the interim government that took power in Kyiv.

Russia's president called members of Ukraine's then-opposition movement "fascist hooligans," accusing them of staging a coup against a democratically-elected president.

As the Ukraine crisis has unfolded, Putin appears to have put fascism in vogue again.

The Kremlin has wielded the word "fascism" and similar terms periodically in the past, in Ukraine and in other former Soviet states, like Latvia and Estonia, where partisans sometimes fought on the side of the Nazis against the Red Army.

In 2010, when then-President Viktor Yushchenko awarded the country’s top honor to Stepan Bandera, the World War II-era nationalist partisan leader who briefly allied with the Nazis, Moscow howled in protest, as did many ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

Yanukovych later rescinded the honor.

Resurgence of fascism

The resurgence of fascism -- the word, the ideas it purveys -- in the public debate over the Ukraine crisis is no accident, said Frida Ghitis, world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review.

"Putin is crafting a narrative for Ukraine that resonates in Russia. Fascism is an enemy that resonates deeply," Ghitis said. "The greatest glory of the Russians, of the Soviets, was in fighting against fascism in World War II, the Great Patriotic War."

As defined in the Encyclopedia Britannica, fascism is extreme militaristic nationalism, contempt for electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism, and a belief in natural social hierarchy and the rule of elites.

British author George Orwell described the term this way in his book Essays: "The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable."

However defined, it is a word that immediately harkens back to Germany's Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, whose title was leader of the National Fascist Party.

For those who lived through it, the word conjures up a world in the grip of the darkest authoritarian aggression.

The Ukraine drama, taking place at warp speed, indicates a disturbing and uncomfortable new reality, much like Hitler's fascist ideology stunned the world, said Ariel Cohen, a Senior Fellow of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

"Russia is going into dark corners it used to be in in the 20th century," Cohen said. "The state 'diktat' - with the German spelling - the state diktat of ideology, history and art makes me deeply uncomfortable. And I think it's very bad for Russia, it's bad for Russian international behavior and it's bad for the Russian people."

Putin's calculation

Columbia University political science professor Robert Legvold said that Putin's use of the word was a calculated choice, knowing how deeply it would resonate with the Russian population living in Ukraine.

And Legvold said Putin is counting on kernels of truth in the accusation.

"It's not entirely off base, so it's not as though he's making an outrageous claim," he said pointing to the ultra-nationalist elements that are part of Ukraine's current political makeup."

"A number of the groups, and certainly membership within those groups that were part of Maidan [the anti-Yanukovich movement] and that support the government and have at least three key positions in the ministry, have [political] positions that for Russians resemble fascism as they knew it," Legvold said. "That is, Nazi Germany."

But Ghitis said Ukraine's nationalist groups are a "very small minority," adding that Putin's narrative is a false one.

"It is a manipulation of reality for political gain," she said. "It's a way to paint Ukraine's quest for independence from Moscow into something that it is not. Yes, there are extremist elements, but they are the tiny grains that Putin has used to conjure up mountains of lies."

The Russian leader is well aware that he is, in fact, lying, using a vast and well-oiled propaganda machine to continually re-emphasize those themes, said Russian historian and author Yuri Felshtinsky.

"Putin should not consider Ukrainian government to be a fascist one... It is especially clear now since less than one percent of voters supported the Right Sector [in Ukraine's May 25 elections]. But if you watch Russian television, they fight Ukraine as if they are fighting Nazis during World War II," Felshtinsky said.

"The irony is that the last person who was 18 in 1945 and was able to fight against Germans is now 87. A person who was 18 in 1941 is now 91. So, we should say that there are not too many people in Russia today who actually participated in World War II," he said.

Deep concerns

Still, there are deep concerns that ultra-nationalism is catching on elsewhere.

Witness the unexpected electoral victory of Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's anti-EU National Front party, in last month's EU parliamentary elections, analysts say.

"This is the Marine Le Pen of France, the extreme right flocking to Putin as an alternative to America," Cohen said.

"The extreme right in Europe, since before the Naziís, doesn't like the Euro-Atlantic liberal world order," Cohen said. "They don't like Americans, they don't like the Brits, they want something else."

Putin's rhetoric has drawn a steady stream of columnists and opinion-makers to write extensively on what they say appears to be a frightening and perhaps growing ultra-nationalistic political trend.

Many of them, like Jonah Goldberg, founding editor of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, accuse Putin of using a very old political trick -- one that dates back to the Stalin era -- by calling his enemies fascists.

And others have taken to Twitter to mock Putin: