Putin Claims Denazification As Reason to Oust Ukraine's Jewish Zelensky

More than two decades after first taking office, Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine, unprecedented in scale but far from unique. Russia, for the third time in nearly 15 years, is strategically using its military and diplomatic moves to eat away at the territory of a sovereign nation.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the leader of a government Putin claims is dominated by Nazis, is a Jew and Russian speaker himself, and the grandson of a man whose family was murdered in the Holocaust. Zelensky's family history reveals that Putin's denazification claim is both baseless and cruel.

"It is hard to think of something darker than invading a democracy with a Jewish leader in the name of fighting Nazis," The Boston Globe reported.

"And yet there is a Jew in power who came to the presidency through a free and competitive election," Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow and chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Newsweek.

But the distortion of history as a means of justification is not a new tactic, nor is it exclusive to Putin.

"All facts are being reinterpreted. Everyone's doing that, on both sides," Nikolai Sokov, senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, told Newsweek. "I would not say Putin is unique."

"It's really propaganda for the domestic audience," Sokov added, "to generate support or at least to minimize opposition. "

In spreading this propaganda, Putin is attempting to appeal to a powerful and shared emotion within the Russian population.

"One of the great Russian triumphs of the last century was the victory over Nazi Germany, which came at tremendous sacrifice by the Soviet people," Thomas Graham, distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and cofounder of the Russia, East European, and Eurasian studies program at Yale University, told Newsweek.

"So Putin is trying to sort of recycle this anti-Nazi narrative," Graham said, "to appeal to a very strong emotion as a way of rattling support for what he's doing."

What Putin is doing, experts say, is pursuing a campaign grounded in his own concept of the Russian world.

"The narrative was inherited from the early '90s, the narrative that 'it's ours and it was taken from us unjustly,'" Sokov said. "And that narrative very clearly contributes to the decision to go and take it back."

Though it is conceivable that a calculated response from world leaders would cause Putin to "realize he has gone one bridge too far, and that in invading Ukraine he made a historic miscalculation," Haaretz reported, it is unclear when and at what cost such a realization would come — if at all.

If history is any indication, such a realization, and a resultant course correction, appears highly unlikely.

Vladimir Putin, who has never lost a war, is once again waging war against a former Soviet republic, and appears to be drawing from a decades-old playbook in which he established a grand strategy to restore Russia to its Soviet days and reestablish the country as a superpower.

During the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Russian forces invaded Georgia under the pretext of a "humanitarian" mission. The conflict, which lasted only five days but had consequences still felt to this day, marked Europe's first 21st century war.

And it would not be the last.

In 2014, Putin invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, asserting that he was merely taking back territory that rightfully belonged to Russia. Now, just eight years later, Putin has launched a brutal attack on Ukraine under the guise of "peacekeeping duties."

The buildup to and execution of Putin's war on Ukraine bears a chilling resemblance to Moscow's invasion of Georgia in 2008.

In the days leading up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Moscow recognized the independence of the rebel Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, an act that served as a precursor for the Russian president's attack.

In 2008, Moscow recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Georgian breakaway regions, an act it used to justify an open-ended military presence in the neighboring country.

Recognition of breakaway regions coinciding with misleading claims of military withdrawal is a tried-and-true Kremlin strategy.

Just days before launching its military operation in Georgia, Russia ended the large-scale Kavkaz-2008 exercise and announced a pullback, Foreign Policy reported. In like manner, last month Putin announced a partial withdrawal of troops from the Ukraine border to their permanent bases, falsely signaling de-escalation days before launching the attack on Ukraine in the name of denazification.

The Russian president has shown a consistent talent for exploiting changing U.S. administrations. In August 2008, during the final months of the George W. Bush administration, Putin, then prime minister of Russia, gambled that his aggression in Georgia would be tolerated, and he was essentially proven correct.

Six years later, he sensed weakness in the Obama administration, and seized Crimea. Eight years further on, he is facing off against yet another U.S. president, Joe Biden, whose new administration is still reeling from an exhausting pandemic battle and trying to counter runaway inflation, and once again he is attacking a sovereign country with impunity.

And U.S. options in Ukraine are limited.

"Sanctions are really the only way the West can go," Sokov told Newsweek. "Sanctions alone, at the same time, will not change Putin's behavior, or will not change much."

Moscow's continued offensive bears witness to that.

"Albeit much slower than I think the Kremlin had anticipated, it is still moving forward," Graham said.

"I see nothing that would suggest that Putin is going to back down until he's achieved whatever his minimal objectives might be," Graham added. "It's hard to define what those are, but certainly I think capturing Kyiv and replacing the government is among them."

Zelensky and Putin
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky (left), is a Jew and Russian speaker, and the grandson of a man whose family was murdered in the Holocaust. Vladimir Putin (right) has invaded Ukraine under the pretext of denazification. Getty