When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin gave a bizarre speech in which he said he wanted to “de-Nazify” the neighboring country. This brutal war is supposed to be the equivalent of the heroic Soviet defense against Nazi Germany.
Putin’s opponents, on the other hand, say this “special military operation” is essentially like the Hitler’s invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1938 or of Poland in 1939. That side also claims to be fighting a war of democracy against fascism.
So who are the fascists and who are the anti-fascists?
Putin’s claims are not entirely false. Ukraine really is ruled by a corrupt, right-wing government that represents the billionaires who control the country (also known as “oligarchs”). The current regime was created by the Maidan protests of 2013–14, which got extensive support from the U.S. embassy.
In recent years, the Ukrainian government has limited the use of the Russian language, which is the native language of a large minority of Ukrainians. The Communist Party of Ukraine and other left-wing organizations have been banned — even “sympathy for communism” is criminalized.
This right-wing regime has plenty of connections to outright fascism. The most infamous example is the Azov Battalion, which fights under swastikas and SS runes. This openly Nazi unit is part of Ukraine’s national guard. Nazis were also in the front rows of the Maidan protests, and uniformed fascists are not an uncommon sight on Kyiv’s streets.
Even worse, the Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera has been transformed into a national hero. Bandera’s gangs massacred tens of thousands of Jews and Poles, and his birthday is now a holiday in Ukraine.
Without a doubt, an extremely nationalist and authoritarian regime is in power in Kyiv. Yet it robs the term of any meaning to call this a “Nazi regime.” Far-right groups are part of the regime, but a relatively small part. It would be very difficult for a fascist government in Ukraine to have a president like Zelensky, who is Jewish and whose mother tongue is Russian. (Not that Jews cannot be fascists, as numerous Israeli politicians remind us — but Ukrainian fascism is hard to divorce from fanatical antisemitism.)
In his speech, Putin resembled a pot giving a lecture on kettles. Like Ukraine, Russia is ruled by a corrupt, right-wing government that rules in the interests of a handful of oligarchs. Any “democracy” is tightly managed by the Kremlin. Opposition parties are allowed only if they support the government’s policies, while actual opposition faces fierce repression.
The chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union and the reintroduction of capitalism has created one of the world’s most unequal societies, where a few billionaires monopolize the wealth created by exporting fossil fuels.
The ideology of Putin’s nakedly corrupt regime is Great Russian chauvinism, which the dictator seems to have adopted directly from czarist times. This is combined with a defense of “traditional values,” a code word for sexism, homophobia, and religious obscurantism.
On this basis, Putin enjoys ample support from Russia’s Far Right. For obvious historical reasons, Russian fascists tend not to wave swastika flags; they might hold up Stalin instead of Hitler as the great leader of the fatherland. But they are fascists nonetheless, thanks to their policies — driven by nationalism, racism, antisemitism — and their drive to destroy any form of self-organization by workers and the oppressed.
This is why the Putin government gets along so well with Europe’s Far Right. Politicians like Marine Le Pen in France, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, and Trump in the United States see Putin’s regime, with its reactionary ideology, as a model. Thus we get the bizarre spectacle as with the TV network Russia Today, claiming that the Russian military is fighting fascism in Ukraine — while they simultaneously promote far-right and fascist elements in other European countries.
This explains the contradictory imagery of the so-called people’s republics in eastern Ukraine. These statelets, controlled by Russia’s secret services, employ old Soviet symbols (including their names). But their flags have the double-headed eagle of the czarist empire. More important, of course, is their brutal repression against the workers’ movements. Antifascist they are not.
So are the Western powers of the NATO opposing a new Hitler and defending democracy? Just like Russia and Ukraine, the NATO countries have a long record of collaborating with right-wing, authoritarian, and fascist forces. Just look at NATO member Turkey, whose government is oppressing national minorities, denying democratic rights, and occupying part of Syria with the help of jihadist forces.
The NATO armies are themselves full of white supremacists and Nazis. In Germany, for example, not a week passes without new reports of German soldiers and police officers with Nazi sympathies. NATO has led far more violent wars than Putin’s in Ukraine, including the attack on Serbia in 1999 and the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
No side in this war is fighting fascism. The “anti-fascism” of both Putin and Zelenskyy is demagogic. Leftists who cite anti-fascism to give political support to either side are seriously mistaken.
Fascism is a specific form of capitalist rule in which petty bourgeois masses are organized to smash the workers’ movement. Fascists are capitalism’s last line of defense when the system is in crisis. That is why every capitalist state integrates Nazis in some way or another (though often at arm’s length). They are held in reserve, in case they are needed in times of crisis to hold down the workers’ movement.
Real anti-fascism means fighting these capitalist states. As Max Horkheimer said, “If you don’t want to talk about capitalism, then you had better keep quiet about fascism.”
In the context of this war, anti-fascists cannot align with the Russian government, the Ukrainian government, or the NATO governments — in each case it would mean aligning with the fascists who are on those sides. It would be the anti-fascism of fools.
The only consistently anti-fascist policy is for the working class to constitute itself as an independent political force, opposing Ukraine’s oligarchic government, Putin’s Bonapartism, and NATO imperialism.