Russia launched its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine under the slogans of “denazification” and “demilitarization”, but where exactly do these terms come from and what meanings do they carry?
Demilitarization is relatively clear. It means eliminating or banning military capabilities. The most well known example is the 4 kilometre wide strip of land between North Korea and South Korea known as the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone. Antarctica and even outer space are also demilitarised by international agreement.
A demilitarized Ukraine would therefore mean a country without a military capability, both in terms of forces and armaments. However, this is clearly something Ukraine would never agree to without it being forced upon them – if an aggressor like Russia was actually capable – so it is nonsensical because Russia would need to use an occupying military force and would likely seek to weaponise Ukraine against future targets. Therefore, it would mean removing Ukraine’s independent military capability, not a demilitarisation in the style of the DMZ. This is, of course, in complete violation of international law and agreements that Russia signed to respect all countries’ rights to choose their own defencive arrangements and alliances.
But what does denazification mean? The word itself (Entnazifizierung) dates back to the end of World War II and denoted a set of measures implemented after the Allied victory over National Socialist Germany in 1945. According to the Potsdam Agreement, German and Austrian society, culture, press, economy, law and politics were to be “freed” from all influences of National Socialism.
In 1946, the Allied Control Council passed a number of directives on Germany that identified certain groups of people and subjected them to judicial investigation. Denazification courts were set up to clarify responsibility and punish those who collaborated with the Nazis, dividing people into different groups according to the severity of their guilt and imposing punishments ranging from fines to forced labor and imprisonment. In Germany, several million people were investigated, of whom more than 500,000 were imprisoned in so-called “denazification camps”.
As for what exactly Putin meant by the denazification of Ukraine, probably only he knows.
Ukraine’s far right failed to make any breakthrough in the country’s most recent elections and its democratically elected President in a native Russian speaker with Jewish heritage. Ukraine is not seeking any territorial expansion through aggression nor persecuting minorities. All of this is in sharp contrast to the extremism and aggression within Russian political elites.
Despite this, the pro-Kremlin news channel RIA Novosti published an article at the beginning of last April, in which its author Timofei Sergeytsev explains that denazification means measures to remove National Socialist ideology from society and the media.
According to RIA Novosti, denazification is aimed at a society infected with Nazism that cannot yet be directly punished for war crimes. Denazification of Ukraine means de-Ukrainization, which must last at least one human generation, i.e. 25 years, and as a result of which Ukrainians must lose their national identity. After successful denazification, Ukraine can no longer be called Ukraine.
The RIA Novosti article states that a special military operation has brought to light that in Ukraine, the Nazis are not only the top leadership of the country, but a large part of the population. Therefore, all Ukrainians who have taken up arms in defense of their land must be killed. The rest, however, must be reeducated through strict censorship and ideologically charged education. The article states that the Ukrainians have insidiously hidden their Nazism behind “independence” and “Europeanness“, which is even more dangerous than Hitler’s Nazism because it is hidden.
It is certainly not possible to allow Ukraine to join the European Union or other pro-Western international organizations, as the West as a whole supports Ukrainian Nazism, the article states.
Conducting a war of aggression with the aim of eliminating the national identity of a sovereign nation, as Russia is doing, does of course have direct parallels with Nazism itself.
The slogan hasn’t taken off among Russians
Obviously, Putin’s desire to introduce the term denazification was to draw parallels between Nazi Germany and Ukraine – tied to Russia’s heroized mythology of the Second World War. It’s a mythology that omits key details, such as the Soviet Union’s collaboration with the Nazis to agree to divide up territory to conquer between them and also the fact that many Ukrainians died fighting Nazis. Nevertheless, depicting Ukrainians as Nazis has been a key theme among Russian propaganda channels since at least 2014. In 2018, a book with the title Denazification of Ukraine inside was also published.
Denazification as a term was apparently intended for domestic use, as it has been less effective abroad where knowledge of Ukraine as a democratic nation is widely understood, as is the respect for the post-WW2 settlement that prohibited territorial conquest as a tool of statecraft.
Putin, while declaring the goal of the invasion of Ukraine to be denazification, actually admitted that the goal of the invasion was to forcefully change the Ukrainian regime and destroy the Ukrainian national identity and culture. With this, he went into sharp conflict with international law. Ironically, the denazification rhetoric boomeranged on Putin due to the wide international perception that Putin’s actions are comparable to Nazism.
The launch of the term “denazification” did not turn out to be quite successful domestically either, however, evidenced by how infrequently it is now used In Kremlin propaganda. One of the last independent press publications operating in Russia, “Projekt” (banned in July 2021), wrote last May that the Kremlin decided to reduce the use of the term “denazification” in the media.
As only a small group of people knew about Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine under the auspices of denazification, political strategists did not have time to properly decipher the main motives for the invasion and understand how to effectively communicate them to their audiences. Despite its constant use in the media, according to sociological studies, Russians did not understand the meaning of the word, and ordinary people also had problems pronouncing it. To add to the confusion, neo-Nazis are openly fighting for Russia as part of both the regular armed forces and mercenary groups such as Wagner – so it is difficult for members of the public to make sense of why they would go along with the denazification narrative.
Putin also likes to compare himself to Russian Tsars and in recent weeks has been filmed looking over historical imperial maps to argue that Ukraine should not exist. None of this fits with his initial denazification narrative.
While Putin underestimated the Ukrainians’ desire for freedom and their willingness to stand up for it when invading the country, at the same time, he also overestimated not only the capabilities of his army but also the willingness of his people to align themselves with the narrative offered to them.