Do fascists truly trouble Putin? Depends which ones you mean.

The Russian president has made repeated warnings about newly empowered fascists and Nazis, both in Ukraine and across Europe. Russian analysts say the issue is serious – but that Putin is ignoring real fascist threats in favor of furthering his own policies.

Darko Vojinovic/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin reacts during a press conference after talks with his Serbian counterpart Tomislav Nikolic in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday.

Vladimir Putin has been talking a lot lately about a dangerous rise of "fascism" in contemporary Europe, which he sees as an ominous echo of the emergence of a Nazi threat to Europe in the 1930s.

For example, in an interview with a Serbian newspaper last month he warned that Europe's "vaccine" against Nazism is breaking down, and that neo-fascist forces were becoming influential again. He singled out Ukraine's pro-European street revolution last February, which he alleged was dominated by "radical forces" as a prime example, but implied a much wider fascist menace is marching across the continent.

Russian analysts agree that the menace of ultra-nationalist revival, especially amid the political turmoil and economic crisis of today's Europe, is serious. But many add that Mr. Putin is actually undermining useful discussion of the problem by failing to put forward any definition of "fascism" that might be deployed to test his arguments.

Instead, they say, Putin cherry-picks his examples to include only political opponents of Moscow, and ignores the increasingly obvious fact that many of the Kremlin's most ardent supporters are the very same anti-liberal, anti-immigration, right-wing nationalist forces he would seem to be inveighing against.

"Putin is not launching a struggle against fascism in all its forms," says Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center in Moscow, an independent monitoring group that tracks extremist movements in Russia, "but mainly against certain manifestations he sees in countries to the west of us."

A convenient fascism...

As geopolitical struggle between East and West heats up, and Western sanctions against Russia's economy begin to bite, the Kremlin is trying to frame an appeal that might keep Russians united behind Putin, say analysts. The former Soviet Union's victory against Nazi Germany in World War II is the single achievement that Russians from every walk of life solidly agree upon as a triumph of good over evil.

Hence Putin, and the Russian media, highlight supporters of sometime Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera among Kiev's anti-Moscow revolutionaries to suggest that they run the government. Likewise, ex-Nazi legionaries in the former Soviet Baltic states get blanket coverage from Russian TV though they are mainly ignored elsewhere.

"Putin is using the term 'fascism' in a very loose way, just to build a list of ugly political forces and individuals that we can all be against," says Masha Lipman, an independent political expert. "Since the main consolidating event in Russian history involved defeating fascism, it's no surprise that current events are being interpreted through this prism, as if they were a replay of that great struggle. It's us against them, all over again."

For example, a law passed by the State Duma last week will ban the display of Nazi or Nazi-collaborationist symbols, almost 70 years after the war's end. But no political grouping in Russia currently utilizes any of the listed symbols.

...and an inconvenient one

At the same time, the Kremlin is embracing anti-Europe nationalists, such as Hungary's increasingly authoritarian but pro-Moscow government, and many rising illiberal parties around the continent.

"It's ironic that while Putin emphasizes the dangers of nationalist forces rebounding in Europe, the actual new militant right-wingers are glowingly pro-Putin. These tend to be the main ones who support Russia's actions in Ukraine, and send their members to observe pro-Russian elections," such as the Crimea referendum and the rebel polls in eastern Ukraine last week, says Ms. Lipman.

"This can't be seen as coherent anti-fascism, but rather as Putin pursuing his own Russian nation-building project by utilizing some anti-fascist rhetoric," she adds.

Russia's own ultra-nationalists have been split by the Kremlin's aggressive policies in Ukraine, with many dropping their former anti-Putin stance to applaud Russia's annexation of Crimea and backing for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. On Russia's national Unity Day holiday this week, nationalists for the first time held two separate demonstrations, with the larger one being pro-Kremlin.

"The biggest danger here, which goes largely unremarked, is that government policy is moving in a nationalist direction," says Mr. Verkhovsky. "We really need to look more closely at what's going on in this country, rather than searching for fascists everyplace else."

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