by Ramin Mazaheri for the Saker blog
Maybe it’s worked in Russia, but a military operation in Ukraine based on “denazification” has been a total public relations disaster everywhere else. Quite simply: Russia should have known that the use of the word “Nazi” totally shuts down any discussion in the West. Russia is waging a new type of military operation but they lazily or foolishly thought that “denazification” was a new enough concept to base its justification around for non-Russians — they have paid a price of total intellectual defeat so far in the battle for hearts and minds.
They could have known it was coming – I wrote about this issue just two weeks prior to the start of the Ukraine operation, in an article on France’s elections titled, France’s conservatives cry out for National Socialism – Zemmour’s response?:
“Ah, old Adolf – we can’t bring him up in the West, can we?
Many have heard of Godwin’s Law, or the rule of Nazi analogies: an Internet adage asserting that as an online discussion grows longer (regardless of topic or scope), the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Adolf Hitler approaches. However, an important corollary is that whenever someone compares someone or something to Nazism – that person has lost the argument and/or the argument is summarily over.
Essentially, the world is to accept that all discussions of Western politics cannot discuss the anti-Western Liberalism ideology which was German Nazism.”
Yes, Russia should have accepted that in February. Practically nobody west of the Oder River understood what Moscow meant by “denazification”, and they still don’t after a month of Russian explanations.
Russia’s military operation has made much harder by failing to recognise the iron Western cultural reality of Godwin’s Law, and the reality that the West only associates Nazis with anti-Semitism and – not at all! – with Russophobia, despite the 20+ million Russian deaths at the hands of the Germanic Nazis.
This is how iron that law is: Political science PhD holders have responded to me with, “But… Ukraine’s president is Jewish – how can there be Nazis?” If you cannot even get Western political science PhD holders to see where you are coming from – even remotely – you have zero chance to get the average Westerner to understand you.
Thus it’s a total, ongoing public relations catastrophe.
It’s not an easy problem to fix
It’s such a huge problem I actually have to discuss it in detail in my new book on the Yellow Vests, in a chapter titled: “Where the West is stuck: The fascism of the 1930s and the ‘fascism’ of the 2020s”. The West is stuck in misunderstanding what fascism is, and in 2022 Russia has not solved this problem; they have maybe even made it worse?!
It’s not an easy problem to fix, but in April 2014 I must say that I was farther along than Russia is in 2022 – well, at least I tried to propose some solution in a column for PressTV titled, “Ukraine: The Rise of the ‘Nalis’”.
I can’t find a link for it anywhere – I’d complain about how Iran’s PressTV has been so deplatformed but – thanks in part to the awful Russian public relations campaign – Russia has now become even more deplatformed than us, wow! If someone finds a link, great, but these highlights show the idea still holds up: the combination of rabid Nationalism and far-right Liberalism (in economics, politics and in anti-socialism) is still the problem in Ukraine. The column began:
“The combination of ultra-nationalists and ultra-liberals who have overthrown the Ukrainian government is indicative of a new type of political party in the region: National Liberals, or ‘Nalis’. They are to be differentiated from ‘Nazis’ – National Socialists – only by the economic ideology of liberalism (otherwise known as free-market capitalism).
But it is a mistake to call the protesters in Ukraine “Nazis”. Yes, at Maidan Square there was plenty of footage taken of neo-Nazis, fascists, violent anarchists and other types who showed up to a political protest in camouflage and armed with a firearm. But they are actually “Nalis” – National Liberals.
That’s why not all of Ukraine’s protesters should be called Nalis: There are true progressives who were calling for legal, constitutional changes to the corrupt Yanukovych government. Unfortunately, they have been outgunned by the Nalis, who have deposed a president unconstitutionally, voted to ban the Russian language and whose violent tactics have created the real possibility of civil war.
Many of these people are true Nalis: economic nationalists who do not even want to join the EU.
But the moneyed set of the Nalis certainly do. They want to work with the US and the EU to institute IMF-led austerity reforms. They want to reduce pensions, reduce government subsidies on things like heat, reduce wages and increase corporate protections to foster a capitalist society. All you need to do is look at their proposals and it’s clear: they want free market liberalism…but of course for the benefit of themselves and the other moneyed Nalis.
Two things are certain: Western politicians will back the Nalis to the hilt. Of course, always putting the best interest of the EU or US or Germany (or many others) well-before the interests of the Ukrainian people.
And two: The Western media, passionately pro-Nali and just as passionately anti-Russian and anti-Putin, will also be unquestioningly backing the Nalis until the bitter end.”
Did “Nali” catch on? No, but did Russia come up with anything better?
Are they even strenuously pushing the term “Ukrainian Civil War”, which is no longer just a “possibility” but today’s reality, in my estimation?
I understand how Russians would use “Nazism” synonymously with “Russophobia”, just I understand how Jews would use “Nazism” interchangeably with “anti-Semitism”, but clearly most Westerners do not understand the former and only the latter. Given that the “Nalis” have been around since 2014, and given that the US has used shameless Russophobia to distract from the political failures of the two mainstream parties in their 2016 election, I’m surprised that Russia couldn’t come up with a better way to express “pathological and murderous hatred towards Russia”?
“Anti-Russianism”, “Russophobic paramilitaries”, “Nalis” – somebody better come up with something better than “denazification” because it takes more than hating Russians or Jews to make a Nazi, and because “denazification” has clearly not worked. If they don’t come up with something – anything – other than “denazification” they will never explain the situation in Ukraine correctly. Take Nali, or improve upon Nali, but come up with something to increase diplomatic understanding.
However, Russia needs to not only admit they got it wrong, but they need to get at the root of why they got it wrong, and this is actually much harder for Russia.
Russians need to ask why they get – as their failed PR campaign proves – “Nazi” as wrong as the West does
It’s not really that the times have changed and “Nazi” is outdated – it’s that “Nazi” was never accurate to begin with in Ukraine, as I wrote back in 2014.
Racism or xenophobia – the hating of Russia – isn’t enough to make one a Nazi, merely a racist. Germanic Nazism had political and economic components, and to ignore them is only ignorance and only causes more ignorance. The West only associates Nazis with anti-Semitism, and that’s foolish, but some Russians think associating Nazis with anti-Russianism is a complete picture, and that is just as foolish.
Incorrectly believing that it does is to totally ignore the economic factor, and the factor of political structure, and to merely make ethnic/identity politics the only factor – it is also to lay the foundation for total PR failure outside of Russia, and that cannot be denied.
The obvious difference is that Russia is on the right side of being against the “Nalis”, but… they don’t even know what that means, or what being anti-Nail implies for their society going forward – and the implications are revolutionary-big.
The Western and Russian elite leadership both misuse “Nazi” because it serves them – cui bono applies here too.
Both Russian and Western elites do not want to seriously talk about the economic/political aspects of socialism – of any variety – whatsoever. This is because post-1991 both regions’ elites began to wrongly take for granted that Socialist Democracy is a failure (China has emphatically disproven this, thankfully) and thus Russia adopted many aspects of what I term “Western Liberal Democracy”.
I can list a half-dozen synonyms: liberalism, neoliberalism, ultra-liberalism, English parliamentarian oligarchy, Western democracy, Nali-ism, etc. It all comes down to the same thing: liberalism, which is the ideology that emerged after the downfall of absolute monarchy in 1789 and before the establishment of socialist democracy in 1917.
The West is fighting for Western Liberal Democracy, and thus they do not permit honest discussion and honest critiques of Western Liberal Democracy. This explains why there is no admission regarding the historical reality that Nazism and 1930s European fascism won power precisely because so many people realised that Western Liberal Democracy was nothing but awful oligarchy. Most of Russia does not understand this either – not since 1991 – and thus they are stuck between aping Western Liberal Democracy and rejecting Socialist Democracy.
Putin definitely doesn’t want to talk about socialism honestly – or even acknowledge its achievements in Russia – because socialists are not just an ideological rival but an actual political one, unlike in the West: The Communist Party is the main opposition party in Russian parliament. Clearly, Western Liberal Democracy still has plenty of detractors in Russia.
But Putin is thus at an absurd and contradictory place in his political outlook: He wants to oppose Western Liberal Democracy’s surprising counter-attack on Russia with… more Western Liberal Democracy in Russia? It’s illogical, and thus it can’t work, and here’s why:
Putin is essentially saying that he wants Russia to take the Iranian road of taking total sanctions war head-on, but… without the influence of 1917? It won’t work. In 1979 Iranian political leaders were aware of Marxism, Leninism and Maoism, and they were also aware that Western Liberal Democracy was an awful economic and political model, and as a result they nationalised the economy to a degree only surpassed by North Korea and (maybe, I contest) Cuba – that’s the only way to beat sanctions!
What Russia is proposing in response to the Western counter-attack is truly radical for them in the sense that it is a total overturning of the economic and political choices of Western Liberal Democracy, and thus of many Russian choices post-1991. I don’t think Russia realizes how radical what they are proposing to do in response to sanctions really is, and how much it requires a complete rethink in political terms and interpretations of history – is Putin willing to embrace the USSR’s political and economic past?
What’s certain is that if Russia wants true sovereignty and independence as a response to the Western sanctions war – if they want to follow the Iranian road, as I first posited here, in an article which deserves way more attention, given that Russia now has 5
Yes, the EU isn’t sanctioning Russian fossil fuels, but France just announced they want no more Russian gas by 2027. The EU sanctions and what they portend are serious.
The Iranian road led to sovereignty – and maybe even an actually-signed JCPOA which would be more proof its correct choices – because Iran rests on totally different (i.e. revolutionary) economic power and political power structures than those of Western Liberal Democracy. Russia cannot defeat a sanctions campaign with Western Liberal Democratic structures – it’s a system geared to protect oligarchs, of course.
Does Russia have oligarchs? Of course, to Western Liberal Democrats west of Russia “oligarchs” only exist in Russia, never in the West – absurdly and falsely. Listening to Westerners, “oligarchs” must only be a region in Siberia, perhaps? But oligarchs are not going to help counter sanctions; they are not going to accept mass nationalisations; they are not going to accept price controls, profit limitations, central planning, etc. and etc. and etc.
If Russia continues to face off with the West a la Iran they can either have a revolution in thinking or they can fail. Western Liberal Democracy will not save them, as Russians were told in 1991.
Perhaps Putin is just bluffing about his totally anti-capitalist response to the Western sanction war? Or perhaps it’s truly a new world, with China-Russia-Iran leading the way?
But the fact that no one in the West can easily grasp Russia’s intellectual campaign for the war indicates a major problem. Russia needs to think and talk honestly about political terms, and I recommend starting with “denazification”. This will, I think, necessarily take them into bigger issues, such as how a “bring on your sanctions” stance necessarily reacquires very revolutionary (or perhaps return-to-revolutionary, for Russia) changes.
Should Russia fail to realise this, it may reveal that they are as intellectually stuck as the West: If the conflict in Ukraine is only about Russia-hating, then they have succumbed to the same identity politics worldview of the West – they have made “race” the end-all be-all of their political-economic discourse. It will be proof that they have ignored the class warfare lens, the imperialist lens and 1979’s “maybe we do need some spiritual morality in our socioeconomic policies?” lens. These are all lenses which came around between 1917-1991, which current Russian leadership has rather disavowed.
These are strong, serious ideas, but they are motivated by the catastrophic failure of the “denazification” idea outside of Russia, which seems like thus far the biggest failure in Russian planning for their military operation.
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. He is the author of ‘Socialism’s Ignored Success: Iranian Islamic Socialism’ as well as ‘I’ll Ruin Everything You Are: Ending Western Propaganda on Red China’, which is also available in simplified and traditional Chinese.