(JTA) — In launching Russia’s war on Ukraine late Wednesday night, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited a purported need for “denazification” of Ukraine, a country whose president is Jewish.
“Its goal is to protect people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide… for the last eight years. And for this we will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine,” Putin said in his speech, which was broadcast on state television.
Putin was referring to a claim that he has long made, starting as a justification for his 2014 invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea, that the Ukrainian military is run by secret Nazis.
Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine since 2019, is himself Jewish and had family members died in the Holocaust, in which more than 1 million Jews living in what is now Ukraine were murdered by the Nazis and, in some cases, by their local collaborators.
Some Ukrainian nationalists have increasingly exalted those collaborators, especially a division of the Nazi army formed with local troops, in recent years. Nazi symbols have been on display at nationalist marches.
Zelensky has expressed reservations about efforts to exalt Nazi collaborators, who fought against the Soviet Union, and last year condemned a march featuring Nazi-related symbols.
On Thursday, the Ukrainian government’s official Twitter account shared a cartoon image Thursday morning that showed Adolf Hitler smiling and touching Putin’s cheek. “This is not a ‘meme’, but our and your reality right now,” the account wrote.
Zelensky extended the comparison in a televised address Thursday in which he said that Russia had behaved like Hitler, whose bid to overtake much of Europe began with a shock invasion of a contested territory, in invading Ukraine “in a cunning way.”