Less horrible interpretations are possible, but not convincing. To be sure, Putin's language might be construed as propaganda for domestic Russian consumption. In Soviet usage, a Nazi was the greatest enemy, and almost anyone could be defined as one. Perhaps Putin means to reactivate the trauma of the Second World War, and position Russia as the victim. Yet this does not seem quite right. The invasion was initiated with little propaganda buildup. It seems to have been conceived as an operation so rapid that no real justification would be needed.
Another reasonable reaction to Putin's words is to note that they distract us from his own quite numerous fascist practices. Putin is a far-right dictator admired by white supremacists around the world. He refers to ancient myths of innocence as a justification for domination. His preference for willful violence over reason and law recalls the fantasies of the 1930s. Atrocity talk about compatriots across the border was Hitler's own propaganda cover when he destroyed Czechoslovakia and Poland. Putin's claims that a neighboring country is an illegitimate creation of the international order also seem plagiarized from Hitler's speeches about those two countries in 1938 and 1939. And yet this does not yet get us to the heart of darkness.
Another approach to Putin's language is to point out that it is factually inaccurate as a description of Ukrainian policy. There has, of course, been no genocide against Russian speakers carried out by the Ukrainian authorities, and nothing remotely justifying the use of such a term. Putin has offered no evidence to support his empty claim, nor even provided any clear idea of what he is talking about. Ukraine is a bilingual country with a tolerance around language that is extremely rare. Russian speakers in Ukraine are more free in every respect than are Russian speakers in Russia. It is important to have these facts established. But getting them clear is still not enough.
We also have to recognize that, for a certain kind of tyrant, being wrong to the point of perversion is actually the point. It is grotesque, for example, for Putin to accuse the Ukrainian government of being Nazis. The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelens'kyi, is a Jew with moderate political views. His grandfather fought the Germans in the Red Army; his grandfather's family was murdered in the Holocaust. He was elected with more than seventy percent of the vote by members of a multicultural society who generally define their nation in civic terms. The far right gets imperceptible percentages of the Ukrainian vote and plays no role in government.
And that is exactly why Putin talks about "denazifying" Ukraine. He doesn't want to make sense. He wants to deprive these crucial concepts -- Nazis and genocide -- of any meaning, to wear them out, to make them impossible to use in a reasonable way. He wants to make it impossible for the Second World War or the Holocaust to provide any sort of general moral lessons. Words such as "genocide" or "Nazi" are to become the playthings of a postmodern dictator. They are to mean whatever he wants, and allow him to do whatever he wants. That is evil enough, but we have still not reached the bottom.
We now see Putin actually wants to do. He is not simply hollowing out the concepts of "genocide" and "denazification." He is apparently planning to mock the judicial institutions created around those concepts. This seems to be the most apt reading of his promise to "to bring to court those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians." If Russian forces capture Ukrainian political and civic leaders, it seems most likely that he will have them show tried before some perversion of a tribunal, and executed or sent to a special regime prison for a long term. It appears that he intends to delegitimate the whole idea of war crimes -- by committing a real one in the name of punishing a fictional one.
Invading a country with no justification really is a crime. And targeting the leaders of a nation really is a genocide. Empty atrocity talk prepares the way for full atrocity. This is the style of the Putin regime: get inside the concepts and institutions that are necessary for decent public life, make a mockery of them, and thereby clear the way for murderous nihilism.
This essay was originally published on Timothy Snyder's Substack. Reproduced here with the author's permission.