How Russian Media Spread False Claims About Ukrainian Nazis

In the months since President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia called the invasion of Ukraine a “denazification” mission, the lie that Ukraine’s government and culture are filled with dangerous “Nazis” has become a central theme of the propaganda of the Kremlin on the war.


Russian articles on Ukraine mentioning Nazism

A line chart of Russian articles on Ukraine showing the number of references to Nazism increased significantly after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.





Articles referring to Nazism peaked the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

Fewer articles on Ukraine were published after Russia’s withdrawal from Kiev, but coverage increased again as the war moved to the Donbas River in eastern Ukraine.

How Russian Media Spread False Claims About Ukrainian Nazis

Articles referring to Nazism peaked the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

Fewer articles on Ukraine were published after Russia’s withdrawal from Kiev, but coverage increased again as the war moved to the Donbas River in eastern Ukraine.

How Russian Media Spread False Claims About Ukrainian Nazis

Articles referring to Nazism peaked the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

Fewer articles on Ukraine were published after Russia’s withdrawal from Kiev, but coverage increased again as the war moved to the Donbas River in eastern Ukraine.

How Russian Media Spread False Claims About Ukrainian Nazis

Referenced Articles:

Nazism peaked on the day

Russia invaded Ukraine.

There were fewer articles about Ukraine

published after the withdrawal of Russia

from Kiev, but coverage increased

again when the war shifted to the

Donbas in eastern Ukraine.

How Russian Media Spread False Claims About Ukrainian Nazis

Referenced Articles:

Nazism peaked on the day

Russia invaded Ukraine.

There were fewer articles about Ukraine

published after the withdrawal of Russia

from Kiev, but coverage increased

again when the war shifted to the

Donbas in eastern Ukraine.


Source: Semantic Views

A dataset of nearly eight million articles on Ukraine, collected from more than 8,000 Russian websites since 2014, shows that references to Nazism were relatively flat for eight years, then peaked to unprecedented levels on February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. heights. They have remained high ever since.

The data, provided by Semantic Visions, a defense analysis company, includes thousands of smaller Russian websites and blogs, as well as major Russian state media outlets. It paints a picture of Russia’s attempts to justify its attack on Ukraine and maintain domestic support for the ongoing war by falsely portraying Ukraine as overrun by far-right extremists.

News reports falsely claim that Ukrainian Nazis are using non-combatants as human shields, killing Ukrainian civilians and plotting genocide against Russians.

The strategy was most likely intended to justify what the Kremlin hoped would be a swift impeachment of the Ukrainian government, said Larissa Doroshenko, a researcher at Northeastern University who studies disinformation. “It would help to explain why they are establishing this new country in a way,” said Dr. Doroshenko. “Because the previous government were Nazis, they had to be replaced.”

Multiple experts in the region said the claim that Ukraine has been corrupted by Nazis is false. President Volodymyr Zelensky, who received 73 percent of the vote when elected in 2019, is Jewish, and all far-right parties combined received only about 2 percent of the parliamentary vote in 2019 — less than the 5 percent threshold for representation.

“We tolerate significantly higher rates of far-right extremism in most Western democracies,” said Monika Richter, chief of research and analysis at Semantic Visions and a fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

The general Russian understanding of Nazism depends on the idea of ​​Nazi Germany as the antithesis of the Soviet Union rather than the persecution of Jews, said Jeffrey Veidlinger, a professor of history and Jewish studies at the University of Michigan. “That’s why they can call a state with a Jewish president a Nazi state and it doesn’t seem that contradictory to them,” he said.


A newscaster on a Russian television program stands against a black background.  On one side of her are depictions of a contemporary far-right rally and on the other are historical depictions of a Nazi rally.


During a broadcast on April 3, a presenter on the Russian NTV, which has been under state control since 2001, places images of a far-right demonstration in Ukraine alongside historical images of a Nazi rally.

Despite the lack of evidence that Ukraine is dominated by Nazis, the idea has taken off among many Russians. The false claims about Ukraine may have started in the state media, but smaller news sites have started amplifying the messages.

Social media data provided by Zignal Labs shows a spike in references to Nazism in Russian-language tweets that match the resurgence in Russian news media. “You see it in Russian chat groups and in comments Russians make in newspaper articles,” said Dr. Veidlinger. “I think a lot of Russians really believe this is a war against Nazism.”

He noted that the success of this propaganda campaign has deep roots in Russian history. “The war against Nazism is truly the defining moment of the 20th century for Russia,” said Dr. Veidlinger. “What they are doing now is in a sense a continuation of this great moment of national unity from World War II. Putin is trying to incite the population in favor of the war.”

Mr Putin alluded to that history in a speech on 9 May before the Russian holiday commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany. “You fight for our motherland so that no one forgets the lessons of World War II,” he told a parade of thousands of Russian soldiers. “So there is no place in the world for torturers, death squads and Nazis.”

An important feature of Russian propaganda is its repetition, Ms Richter said. “You just see a constant regurgitation and repacking of the same stuff over and over.” In this case, that means repeating baseless accusations about Nazism. Since the invasion, 10 to 20 percent of articles on Ukraine have referred to Nazism, according to Semantic Visions data.


Share of Russian media articles about Ukraine mentioning Nazism

A line chart showing that since Russia invaded Ukraine, a higher percentage of Russian articles on Ukraine refer to Nazism.





How Russian Media Spread False Claims About Ukrainian Nazis

References peaked in 2021 on the Russian holiday of May 9 in honor of the defeat of

Nazi-Germany.

How Russian Media Spread False Claims About Ukrainian Nazis

References peaked in 2021 on the Russian holiday of May 9 in honor of Nazi Germany’s defeat.

How Russian Media Spread False Claims About Ukrainian Nazis


Source: Semantic Views

Experts say linking Ukraine to Nazism could prevent cognitive dissonance among Russians as news of the war trickles down to places like Bucha. “It helps them justify these atrocities,” said Dr. Doroshenko. “It helps to create this dichotomy of black and white – Nazis are bad, we are good, so we have a moral right.”

The tactic seems to be working. Russians’ access to non-Kremlin news sources has been curtailed since the government silenced most independent media outlets after the invasion. During the war, Russian citizens repeated claims about Nazism in interviews, and in a poll published in May by the Levada Center, an independent Russian pollster, 74 percent expressed support for the war.


A collection of headlines from Russian news websites making false claims about Ukrainian Nazis.





How Russian Media Spread False Claims About Ukrainian Nazis

How Russian Media Spread False Claims About Ukrainian Nazis


Headlines from Russian news websites TASS, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Vesti and Pravda show examples of fake Russian stories about Ukrainian Nazism.

Part of what makes accusations of Nazism so useful to Russian propagandists is that Ukraine’s past is entwined with Nazi Germany.

“There is a history of Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis and Putin is trying to build on that history,” said Dr. Veidlinger. “During World War II, there were factions in Ukraine that tried to cooperate with the Germans, especially against the Soviets.”

Experts said this history makes it easy for the Russian media to make connections between real Nazis and modern far-right groups to give the impression that today’s groups are bigger and more influential than them.

The Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian army regiment with roots in ultra-nationalist political groups, has been used by the Russian media as an example of far-right support in Ukraine since 2014. Analysts said the Russian media’s portrayal of the group exaggerates the extent to which its members hold neo-Nazi views.

Russian television regularly showed segments of the battalion in April as members of the group defended a steel factory in the besieged city of Mariupol.

“For Russia, it was a perfect opportunity,” said Dr. Doroshenko. “It was like, ‘We’ve smeared them for so long and they’re still there, they’re still fighting, so we can justify our tactics to destroy Mariupol because we have to destroy these Nazis.'”

Russia’s false claim that the invasion of Ukraine is an attempt to “denazify” the country has been criticized by the Anti-Defamation League, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and dozens of scholars of Nazism, among others.

“The current Ukrainian state is by no means a Nazi state,” said Dr. Veidlinger. “I would say that Putin is actually afraid of the spread of democracy and pluralism from Ukraine to Russia. But he knows that the accusation of Nazism will unite his people.”

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