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Why the Ukraine ‘Denazification’ Rhetoric Isn’t Working

By Dr. Kelly C. Jordan
Faculty Member, Military Studies and National Security Studies

In a far-fetched attempt to justify his expansionist actions, Russian president Vladimir Putin has used the problematic term “denazification” as part of his rationale for Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. Beyond its fundamental inaccuracy, the use of this provocative term has worked against Putin, locking Russia into an increasingly untenable military situation in Ukraine.

Russia’s Implausible Rationale to Invade Ukraine: ‘To Demilitarize and Denazify’

According to Putin, “The purpose of this operation [in Ukraine] is to protect people who for eight years now have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.”

Doubling down on Putin’s claims, Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine of committing “war crimes” by using “human shields” in Ukrainian cities. The Foreign Ministry also faulted Western countries of not only ignoring the Ukrainian people but also encouraging the rise of neo-Nazism within Ukraine with their silence.

Russia’s Motivations

In terms of context and background, it is important to recognize that Putin feels aggrieved by what he believes to be his undeserved ostracization by the West. He also believes that that Ukraine is not a legitimate independent country and that it has changed very little since gaining its independence in 2014 as a result of the “Revolution of Dignity.”

Applying the long-standing Russian/Soviet ploy of manufacturing perceived, exaggerated threats where none exist to justify actions it desires to take, Russia is using considerable propaganda. The Russian government and state-controlled news media have made the case that Ukrainian neo-Nazis are responsible for repressing Russians and Russian speakers, going so far as committing atrocities and genocide against them.

From the Russian perspective, Ukraine’s rejection of rejoining Russia is incomprehensible, raising significant concerns regarding Ukraine’s existing leadership. Ukraine has chosen to put aside its own nationalist, autocratic traditions and commit to democracy and European Union values. Consequently, Russia contends that Ukraine’s current government has lost its way and is taking the country down a wrong, dangerous path.

Based upon this fanciful rhetoric, Russia has contended that it needs to “liberate” the victims of this ill-advised turn towards Ukrainian separatism, driven by the disingenuous and insidious efforts of neo-Nazis. Accordingly, in response to these egregious actions by Ukraine and based upon a flimsy rationale from ostensible treaty obligations and supposed requests for assistance, the Russian government felt compelled to act. It chose to conduct a “a special military operation against nationalists to protect the people of Donbass [and] ensure denazification and demilitarization.”

What Does Putin Mean by ‘Denazification?’

Putin’s use of the expression “denazification” is certainly intentional, as the term has a weighty history in Eastern Europe. Denazification refers to the difficult, complex, necessary, and sometimes brutal actions to root out hidden Nazis and rid Europe of the influence of Nazism in the wake of World War II.

As used by Putin, “denazification” signals Russia’s intention to rescue Ukrainians from the threat of neo-Nazism. Under this rationale, Russia has no choice but to use military force to replace “corrupt” Ukrainian leaders responsible for leading Ukraine astray from traditional Russian values. Russia would also exchange the Ukrainian government for a new government more supportive of the Kremlin.

Both the traditional and contemporary meanings of “denazification” require Moscow to exert a forceful response. Moscow would also need to show ruthlessness in its attempt to eradicate the influence of Nazism/neo-Nazism in Ukraine.

This powerful rhetoric, if believed by the Russian people, obligates the Russian government to implement a rapid, overwhelming response to prevent Nazism from re-emerging so close to Russia. That Nazism had a devastating impact on Russia during the mid-20th century.

However, the “denazification” policy also restricts Russia’s options in Ukraine. It requires Russia to find a way to succeed in eradicating the Nazism threat, regardless of the challenges encountered in Ukraine. That strategy may require Putin to continue in his invasion efforts well beyond the point of any rational expectation of success, if that has not already occurred.

Russia Has Traditionally Relied on a Brute Force Style Foreign Policy

Throughout its history, Russia has relied on brute force to achieve its foreign policy objectives, since this tactic enables Russia to achieve success on its own terms, regardless of the opponent’s desires. This strategy has been especially evident when Russia was responding to threats it viewed as existential, and it fits well with Putin’s style.

Beginning in 1944, the Soviets/Russians developed a modern pattern of employing brute force to impose their will on others. This pattern employs the same basic steps:

  • Attack, invade or isolate another country
  • Seize the capital rapidly
  • Decapitate – either literally or figuratively – the existing government leadership
  • Install a puppet government favorable to Soviet/Russian interests
  • Use overwhelming force and unrelenting pressure to crush resistance to the new regime

This five-step method has been used repeatedly and with success in multiple areas:

Putin’s Modified Approach to Ukraine: ‘Brute Force Fait Accompli’

Putin has developed his own modified version of the brute force approach, which I refer to as “brute force fait accompli.” This approach is similar to the traditional Russian brute force method of invasion in its first four steps, but it stops short of actually using overwhelming force and unrelenting pressure.

Rather than using overwhelming force and unrelenting pressure, Putin would present the Ukrainian population with a fait accompli to accept Russian demands and support the new, Russian-controlled regime. Ukraine would then face the prospect of having any resistance violently crushed through the invading force. In essence, Putin is relying on coercive force as a way of achieving his desired objectives.

For Putin, the use of coercive force is less destructive. It provides Russia with a more effective tool for conquering Ukraine.

This method’s potential for success is high in some respects because it is relatively less brutal than the traditional Russian approach to invasion. Nevertheless, the absence of overwhelming force and unrelenting pressure makes Russia more susceptible to miscalculations, misperceptions, and practical problems to this method’s implementation, rendering it relatively less reliable in practice.

Putin used this modified approach to invasion with remarkable success in Crimea in 2014. After cutting off Crimea from the rest of Ukraine, Russia (using Russian soldiers who were not identified as servicemembers and were instead broadly referred to as “little green men” by the media and defense community) presented the Crimeans with a fait accompli of accepting Russian control.

Faced with little opportunity or the ability to resist Russian invasion (regardless of the Crimeans’ will to do so) and little opposition from the West (due to the surprise and rapidity of the operation), the Crimeans submitted to Russian dominance. As a result, Russia achieved a stunning success at very little cost.

The media-savvy Putin may prefer this modified approach to invasion. It not only allows Russia to achieve the desired objectives on its own terms, but it also permits Russia to retain the veneer of non-violent success via coercion and avoid the imagery of destruction associated with its military force.

This tactic is a win-win scenario for Putin and an effective way for him to succeed in the Ukraine invasion. It enables Russian expansion at the expense of its neighbors, but it’s also important to note that the Russian invasion in Crimea resulted in Putin’s ongoing ostracization by some world leaders and global organizations like the G8.

The Limits of Russia’s ‘Denazification’ Rhetoric

Based upon his own experience and for the reasons I previously mentioned, Putin likely hoped that the operation in Ukraine would proceed like the successful, relatively bloodless seizure of Crimea.

Counting on the power of his rhetoric to justify Ukraine’s invasion and the persuasive impact of the rapid capture of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, (along with other successful actions in the south and in the west of Ukraine), Putin may have thought that the Ukrainians would respond similarly to the Crimeans. In his mind, the Ukrainians would submit voluntarily to his fait accompli out of a desire to avoid destruction and to rid themselves of the supposed “Nazi” influence that Russia contends exists within Ukraine. In pragmatic recognition of the Russian threat of more force, the Ukrainians would feel that their country had little choice but to submit to Putin’s wishes and Ukraine would return to its natural place within the embrace of Mother Russia.

However, to its surprise, Russia soon found that Ukraine had changed quite substantially since 2014. The scope of the Ukrainian invasion, the Ukrainian people’s remarkable and powerful resistance, the inspiring leadership of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and the immediate, unified opposition and support from the West were all far greater than Putin anticipated.

These conditions inside and outside Ukraine have created an entirely different situation from Crimea that is far less favorable to Russia. Consequently, Putin has been prevented from achieving the rapid, relatively bloodless success he seeks in Ukraine.

Since his invasion of Ukraine has not proceeded as planned, Putin has shown that he is quite willing to adopt Russia’s more traditional brute force approach to succeed in Ukraine. Harkening back to Putin’s feeling of aggrievement, his belief that Ukraine is an illegitimate independent country that has changed little since 2014, and a paternalistic desire to punish the misguided Ukrainian population for their wayward tendencies, Putin’s rationale could be “if you won’t act in your own best interest and accept Russian control voluntarily, then I will force you to do so.”  

To achieve his desired outcome and also teach the Ukrainians a lesson about loyalty and their proper place in the Russian Federation, Putin is fully prepared to discard softer attempts to “capture the will of the people.” That strategy is very much in line with the tenets of contemporary hybrid warfare and would enable Russia to resort to older, more brutal methods to terrorize Ukraine and break its will to resist.

This is the geopolitical version of  “Mess with the bull and get the horns,” and it explains why Russia has recently reverted to more old-fashioned military operations in Ukraine. Given the “denazification” rationale offered for the Ukraine invasion, Russia likely feels compelled to continue with this approach, regardless of its cost. Sadly, Putin will cause wanton destruction in Ukraine in a futile attempt to eliminate an imaginary menace, which will only fortify Ukrainian resistance and catalyze world opinion against Putin even further.

Putin Can Go ‘All In’, But It Will Cost Him

In the face of Ukrainian resistance that has been remarkably effective and resolute, unified opposition to the invasion across the globe and an increased desperation to succeed, Putin is showing that he is more than willing to go “all in.” He will probably make use of all available means to maintain the façade of “denazification,” validate the state-sponsored Russian justification for the invasion and make Russian actions in Ukraine match its rhetoric. Ultimately, the Russian invasion of Ukraine may be an instance of “the tail wagging the dog,” showing just how ill-advised and limiting Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been.

Dr. Kelly C. Jordan is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, and he is currently a full-time associate professor of military studies and national security studies. Dr. Jordan received his B.A. from the Virginia Military Institute, graduating with academic distinction and as a Distinguished Military Graduate. He holds a M.A. and a Ph.D. in military history from The Ohio State University and is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. As an academic, Dr. Jordan is an award-winning professor who has served on the faculties of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the United States Army Command and General Staff College, the United States Naval War College, and the University of Notre Dame. As a scholar, he is the author of numerous military history and leadership studies publications.

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