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Putin Warned of Fascism in Ukraine, But a Look Across Europe Suggests He’s to Blame

A visit to Kiev’s Jewish institutions reveals Jews there are less concerned about their neighbors at home than the bully next door

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Anti-government demonstrators lift their orange flags with portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in front of the National Museum of Budapest on March 15, 2014. (Attila Kisbendek/AFP/Getty Images)
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According to Vladimir Putin, the revolution that dislodged former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukoyvch this winter was not a popular movement for democracy, European integration, and honest government. It was, rather, he told the world, a “coup” “executed” by “Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites” who “wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing.” Protecting ethnic Russians from a fascist government in Kiev was the pretext for Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea, and it remains the justification for continued meddling in Ukraine’s affairs. In a phone conversation with President Barack Obama late last month, Putin spoke of a “rampage of extremists” across Ukraine, the specter of which Russia cites in dictating terms to Ukraine’s pro-Western government.

The threat of “fascism” has an important historical resonance in Russia, hearkening back to the Soviet Union’s struggle against the Nazis. Soviet leaders continued to use the term long after World War II, deploying it liberally against any and all opponents both foreign and domestic; internal Communist Party dissidents, the United States, NATO, all were tarred with the fascist brush by Soviet leaders and their ideological brethren in the West. But what about today?

Indeed, to hear Ukraine’s Jews tell it, they are being used as pawns in a Russian propaganda war. On a visit to Kiev last week, I stopped at Hesed Bnei Azriel, a community center that serves some 11,000, mostly elderly, Jews. Two unarmed security guards were all that defended the building from the supposed threats outside—light protection compared to the armed policemen and metal detectors usually found at the heavily fortified complexes of Jewish organizations across Western Europe. Inside the building, I found a knitting circle of about two dozen women, who, judging by their laughter and carefree conversation, did not seem particularly worried about “rampaging” fascists on the streets. “The Russians have told us there’s anti-Semitism in Kiev,” one of them, Rima Velichka, scoffed. Russian reports of neo-Nazis running the government in Kiev, she told me, were “contradictory” with her experience.

Last week, a coalition of Ukrainian Jewish leaders took out full-page advertisements in the International New York Times, Canada’s National Post, and Ha’aretz to dispute Putin’s allegations of creeping fascism in their homeland. “The Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine are not being humiliated or discriminated against, their civil rights have not been limited,” the ad states. “Your certainty of the growth of anti-Semitism in Ukraine also does not correspond to the actual facts. It seems you have confused Ukraine with Russia.”

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In an excellent piece last month for The American Interest, former British Ambassador to Russia Andrew Wood listed the defining features of fascism, detailing point-by-point how Vladimir Putin’s government checks most of the boxes. “Fascist movements in power, or near it, have a readily identifiable leader,” he wrote—a description that fits the Kremlin far better than the hastily assembled ad hoc government in Kiev. Moreover, Wood went on, “The fascist leader of a country relies on personal charisma, making succession to the role impossible” and “fascism depends on legends of betrayals that must be avenged.” Fascists also tend to decry “internal enemies” to sustain their power, fuel themselves economically via “corporatism,” and emit “continuous, simplistic, populist, and misleading propaganda.” Sound familiar?

Today’s Russia lacks the sort of coherent ideology provided by Soviet Communism, but if there is a conceptual thread running through Putin’s rhetoric and actions, it is that of Eurasianism—characterized recently in Foreign Affairs by Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn as “authoritarian in essence, traditional, anti-American, and anti-European; it values religion and public submission. And more significant to today’s headlines, it is expansionist.” The man at the forefront of this movement is Alexander Dugin, a “conservative revolutionary” in the fascist mold who frequently appears on Russian state television egging on Putin’s neo-imperialist agenda. In 2005, Putin oversaw the creation of the Nashi youth movement, essentially a personality cult, which, in its idolization of the leader, nationalistic rhetoric, and confrontational approach toward critics bears, as some have noted, more than a passing resemblance to the Hitler Youth.

Ethno-nationalist-inspired discrimination toward minorities is another key feature of fascism. The minority in Ukraine most under threat today is not Russian speakers, but Crimea’s Muslim Tatars. Given its history under Russian occupation, the Tatar community rightly fears for its future under Moscow’s revived tutelage. The Tatars, who have been living in Crimea for centuries, were deported to Uzbekistan under the reign of Josef Stalin; an estimated 46 percent of them perished along the way. In recent weeks, the body of a Tatar activist who had been kidnapped by a pro-Russian mob was found in a forest. “We have asked the Crimean Tatars to vacate part of their land, which is required for social needs,” the region’s new deputy prime minister declared last month. “Another genocide has started already,” Ayla Bakkalli, the American representative for the Crimean Tatar community, said in an interview last week. “The groundwork has been laid. They’re grabbing land, they’re expelling people, and they are painting Xs on the homes of the Tatars to mark them out as fifth columnists. Do you understand how chilling that is for us?”

But it is not only at home where Putin has demonstrated a reverence for Europe’s fascist legacy. Across the continent, Russia has provided support to, and received backing in return from, a host of far-right and genuinely fascist movements. In Italy, the far-right National Social Front party plastered Rome with posters declaring “I’m with Putin.” The party’s leader, Adriano Tilgher, praised the Russian president for his “courageous positions against the powerful gay lobby” and “the world’s financial centers, which want war in Syria,” to whose president, Bashar al-Assad, Putin has supplied weapons and diplomatic cover.

Last year, Gabor Vona, leader of Hungary’s fascist Jobbik party, met with Dugin as well as leaders of the Russian Duma and spoke at Moscow State University. There he said that Hungary should leave the European Union and join Putin’s proposed “Eurasian Union” instead. “The role of Russia today is to offset the Americanization of Europe,” Vona declared. It is “clear that Russian leaders consider Jobbik as a partner,” the party boasted on its website. Jobbik applauded the sham Crimean referendum that led to the region’s annexation as “exemplary,” which is hardly surprising given that it too has revisionist aspirations for Europe’s borders. Jobbik speaks openly of regaining the territories Hungary lost after World War I and in which a significant number of ethnic Hungarians still reside, and Putin’s rationale for seizing Crimea is precisely the sort of reasoning that Jobbik uses in its own, ill-fated quest to restore “Greater Hungary.” When I reported on Jobbik for Tablet two years ago, several Hungarians shared their suspicion that the Kremlin is secretly funding the party.

In France, Putin has found a friend in Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. Le Pen made a pilgrimage to Moscow last year at the invitation of Duma head Sergei Naryshkin, with whom she made common cause on issues as diverse as opposition to Western intervention in Syria, the EU, and gay marriage, which became legal in France last year. RT, the Kremlin’s multilingual propaganda network, recently celebrated the National Front’s success in municipal elections by featuring the party’s spokesman Ludovic De Danne, who has said that “historically, Crimea is part of Mother Russia.” RT regular Nigel Farage, leader of the virulently Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party, alleges that the European Union has “blood on its hands” for “provoking” Putin. The network’s leading German commentator is Manuel Ochsenreiter, editor of a far-right magazine cited by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution—Germany’s rough equivalent of the FBI—for “rail[ing] against the ‘unending de-nazification efforts’ ” and “spread[ing] revisionist theories on national boundaries.”

In Greece, Russia can count upon the support of Golden Dawn, a criminal gang-cum-political party whose members are infamous for inflicting violence upon migrant workers and refugees and whose symbol resembles a swastika. Last year, the Greek government arrested party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos on charges of forming a criminal organization. According to Mitchell Orenstein, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, an expatriate American website affiliated with Golden Dawn reported that Michaloliakos—who allegedly received a supportive letter in prison from Dugin—“has spoken out clearly in favor of an alliance and cooperation with Russia, and away from the ‘naval forces’ ” of the ‘Atlantic.’ ” The party has also castigated “the international usury of Washington and Berlin” for supporting Ukraine’s nascent government. Meanwhile, in Bulgaria, the extreme-right Ataka Party has also come out in favor of Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory.

far-right poster in Rome
A poster reads ‘Rome is with Putin, Obama is not welcome, March 27, 2014’ with the logos of far-right Italian politics parties, on March 26, 2014, in Rome. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

A list of election observers welcomed to monitor the farce in Crimea reads like a who’s who of the European far right. The National Front, Jobbik, Ataka, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Italy’s Northern League, Austria’s Freedom Party—of the late Nazi sympathizer Joerg Haider—all dispatched members to certify Putin’s mockery of democracy. Their visit was organized by a Kremlin cut out organization entitled the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections, which organizes monitoring missions of phony elections in other, Russian-backed separatist territories like Abkhazia and Transnistria, and claims on its website to be “opposed to Western ideology.”

Russia’s support for these groups and individuals is not so much ideological as it is opportunist: All exhibit hostility to the European Union, NATO, and the United States. Moreover, they all tend to be illiberal, homophobic, and admiring of authoritarianism. In other words, perfect partners for Vladimir Putin and his strategy of weakening Europe from within and destroying the transatlantic bond with America. His investment seems to be paying off; next month’s European elections could see far-right anti-European parties win as much as 20 percent of the seats in the European parliament.

None of this is to diminish the role that ultra-nationalists played in ousting Yanukovych. Two groups, the Svoboda (Freedom) party—which has a handful of seats in the new Cabinet—and the Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector) paramilitary, have come under particular scrutiny. Svoboda’s leader, Oleg Tyahnibok, has a history of anti-Semitic remarks. Pravyi Sektor, which venerates the Ukrainian nationalist hero and wartime Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, has actually made a concerted effort to allay the fears of Ukrainian Jews; its leader, Dmitry Yarosh, recently met with the Israeli ambassador. But while the presence of these organizations in post-revolution Ukraine is indeed worrisome, their popularity among Ukrainians is not: A poll for next month’s presidential election finds Tyahnibok earning the support of 2.5 percent of Ukrainians, Yarosh a mere 1.6 percent.

Ultimately, the presence of far-right forces at the margins of the country’s second attempt at a democratic revolution doesn’t tell us much about where Ukraine is heading. What we do know for certain, however, is that fascism is indeed on the rise across Europe—and it is Vladimir Putin’s Russia that is fueling it.

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Putin Warned of Fascism in Ukraine, But a Look Across Europe Suggests He’s to Blame

A visit to Kiev’s Jewish institutions reveals Jews there are less concerned about their neighbors at home than the bully next door