How Russian Media Spread False Claims About Ukrainian Nazis

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


Russian articles about Ukraine that mention Nazism

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





Articles referring to Nazism multiplied the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

Fewer stories about Ukraine appeared after Russia withdrew from Kyiv, but coverage picked up when the war moved to Donbass in eastern Ukraine.

Articles referring to Nazism multiplied the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

Fewer stories about Ukraine appeared after Russia withdrew from Kyiv, but coverage picked up when the war moved to Donbass in eastern Ukraine.

Articles referring to Nazism multiplied the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

Fewer stories about Ukraine appeared after Russia withdrew from Kyiv, but coverage picked up when the war moved to Donbass in eastern Ukraine.

Article referencing

Nazism rose day

The Russians have invaded Ukraine.

Fewer articles on Ukraine have been

released after Russia’s withdrawal

of Kyiv, but coverage resumed

again as the war moved to the

Donbass in eastern Ukraine.

Article referencing

Nazism rose day

The Russians have invaded Ukraine.

Fewer articles on Ukraine have been

released after Russia’s withdrawal

of Kyiv, but coverage resumed

again as the war moved to the

Donbass in eastern Ukraine.


Source: Semantic Visions

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

The data, provided by Semantic visions, a defense analytics firm, includes major Russian state media in addition to thousands of smaller Russian websites and blogs. It provides insight into Russia’s attempts to justify its attack on Ukraine and maintain domestic support for the ongoing war by falsely portraying Ukraine as being overrun by far-right extremists.

News reports falsely claimed that the Ukrainian Nazis were using non-combatants as human shields, killing Ukrainian civilians and planning a genocide of Russians.

The strategy was most likely aimed at justifying what the Kremlin hoped would be a quick ouster of the Ukrainian government, said Larissa Doroshenko, a researcher at Northeastern University who studies disinformation. “That would help explain why they are establishing this new country in a sense,” Dr. Doroshenko said. “Because the previous government was Nazi, so they had to be replaced.”

Several experts in the region have said that the claim that Ukraine is corrupted by the Nazis is false. President Volodymyr Zelensky, who won 73% of the vote when he was elected in 2019, is Jewish, and all the far-right parties combined won only around 2% of the parliamentary vote in 2019 – below the 5% representation threshold.

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

The common Russian understanding of Nazism rests on the notion of Nazi Germany as the antithesis of the Soviet Union rather than the persecution of Jews, specifically said Jeffrey Veidlinger, professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan. “That’s why they can call a state that has a Jewish president a Nazi state and it doesn’t sound so jarring to them,” he said.


A presenter of a Russian TV show stands on a black background.  On one side, images of a contemporary far-right rally and on the other, historical images of a Nazi rally.


A host of the Russian channel NTV, who was under state control since 2001, juxtaposes images of a far-right rally in Ukraine with historical images of a Nazi rally during a broadcast April 3.

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

Social media data provided by Zignal Laboratories shows a spike in references to Nazism in Russian-language tweets that matches the rise in Russian media. “You see it on Russian newsgroups and in the comments that Russians make in newspaper articles,” Dr. Veidlinger said. “I think a lot of Russians actually believe this is a war against Nazism.”

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

Mr. Putin alluded to this story in a May 9 speech on the occasion of the Russian holiday commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany. “You are fighting for our homeland so that no one forgets the lessons of the Second World War”, he launched in front of a parade of thousands of Russian soldiers. “So that there is no place in the world for torturers, death squads and Nazis.”

A key feature of Russian propaganda is its repetitiveness, Ms. Richter said. “You just see a constant regurgitation and repackaging of the same things over and over again.” In this case, it means repeating unsubstantiated claims about Nazism. Since the invasion, 10-20% of articles about Ukraine have mentioned Nazism, according to data from Semantic Visions.


Share of Russian media articles on Ukraine that mention Nazism

A line graph showing that since Russia invaded Ukraine, a higher percentage of Russian articles about Ukraine have referenced Nazism.





References increased in 2021 during the Russian May 9 holiday celebrating the defeat of

Nazi Germany.

References increased in 2021 during the Russian May 9 holiday celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany.


Source: Semantic Visions

Experts say linking Ukraine to Nazism can prevent cognitive dissonance among Russians when news about the war in places like Bucha leaks out. “It helps them justify these atrocities,” Dr. Doroshenko said. “It helps create this dichotomy between black and white – the Nazis are bad, we are good, so we have the moral right.”

The tactic seems to be working. Russians’ access to news sources unrelated to the Kremlin has been restricted since the government silenced most independent media after the invasion. During the war, Russian citizens echoed claims about Nazism in interviews and in survey published in May by the Levada Center, an independent Russian pollster, 74% expressed support for the war.


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






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

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

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

Experts said this story makes it easy for Russian media to draw connections between real Nazis and modern far-right groups to make contemporary groups appear bigger and more influential than them.

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

Russian television regularly featured segments on the battalion in April when members of the group defended a steel mill in the besieged city of Mariupol.

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

Russia’s false claim that its invasion of Ukraine is an attempt to “denazify” the country has been criticized by the Anti-Defamation Leaguethe American Holocaust Memorial Museum and dozens of Nazi scholarsamong others.

“The current Ukrainian state is not a Nazi state at all,” said Dr. Veidlinger. “I would say what Putin is really afraid of is 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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