Like most right-minded people, I am horrified by the barbaric and immoral invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s regime. It is not clear what rational endgame Putin could possibly have in mind. He has brought devastation to Ukraine and its people, and is bringing economic catastrophe to his own country. The brazenness of the lies that Putin tells the world to try to justify his invasion is staggering. He falsely claims that his goal is to “de-nazify” Ukraine, and he refers to the Ukrainian leadership as “drug addicts” and “neo-Nazis”. Volodymyr Zelensky, the democratically-elected President of Ukraine, is neither a corrupt drug addict nor a neo-Nazi, but rather a brave wartime leader (when offered an evacuation by the US, he replied, “the fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride”). He is also Jewish. Zelensky lost several relatives to the Holocaust. Additionally, from 2016-2019, Ukraine had a Jewish Prime Minister (Volodymyr Groysman) as well, making it, to the best of my knowledge, the only European country to have simultaneously had a Jewish President and Prime Minister. Putin’s lies and warped claims, casting Jews and Ukrainians as a cabal of corrupt gangsters and Nazis, and Russians as their victims, are an inversion of reality and a misappropriation of Holocaust history. And, as if to ram Putin’s lies and hypocrisy home, Russian missiles have struck the Holocaust memorial at Babyn Yar, the site where tens of thousands of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust were murdered, by Nazis, during the Second World War.
None of this is to deny that Ukraine has its share of far-right groups – ironically, largely encouraged by the years of ongoing aggression emanating from Russia – but there is little evidence of these being any more prevalent than in many other democratic European countries including France and Germany (and considerably less than in Hungary, and, pointedly, Russia). As Jason Stanley – Professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of How Fascism Works (2018) – has pointed out, “Ukraine does have a far-right movement, and its armed defenders include the Azov battalion,” but “no democratic country is free of far-right nationalist groups, including the United States,” and in 2019, the Ukrainian far right received only 2% of the electoral vote, “far less support than far-right parties receive across western Europe, including inarguably democratic countries such as France and Germany” (Jason Stanley, “The Antisemitism Animating Putin’s Claim to ‘Denazify’ Ukraine”, The Guardian, 26 February 2022). It is worth noting that the Azov regiment, which was formed out of the original far-right Azov battalion, is a tiny component of the Ukrainian military (approximately 1,000 soldiers), and is not the same unit as existed back in 2014-15, with the far-right elements today being significantly less prevalent (though admittedly not entirely gone), and with it’s recruitment being open more broadly to Ukrainian society (link to video report by Ros Atkins, BBC, posted on Twitter, 24 March 2022).
Whilst I am relieved that the UK, EU and US have put in place several measures to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, and to sanction and condemn Putin and his inner circle of close supporters, these can, and should, go much further. The UK government should do more to welcome Ukrainian refugees escaping the carnage being inflicted on their country (for example, by easing or waiving the visa requirements and reducing the red tape). Following the lead of Germany and France, the UK should start to actually seize the mega-yachts, properties and money of Russian oligarchs, rather than just talking about doing so. And those seized resources should be quickly liquidated and the proceeds used to help Ukrainians as soon as possible. Sanctions applied by the UK should become active immediately, without allowing Putin’s supporters several weeks or months to move and re-launder their money (the UK needs to act faster before Russian assets are spirited away). Europe need to do more to break its dependence on Russian gas (and oil). And the UK and US need to remember that whilst Ukraine might not be a member of NATO, the UK and US made commitments, as signatories to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, to protect the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine (in return for which, Ukraine gave up its significant stockpile of nuclear weapons).
[Blog post updated 19/04/2022]