Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday peddled accusations of Nazi elements within Ukraine to justify the attack on his western neighbor, a move that experts slammed as slanderous and false.
In announcing he had launched Russian forces against key Ukrainian military and logistics posts, Putin said he's striving for "the demilitarization and denazification of" the sovereign democracy in Kyiv.
Putin has long sought to falsely paint Ukraine as a Nazi hotbed, which is a particularly jarring accusation given that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and lost three family members in the Holocaust.
Claiming to fight the Nazis is "really code for replacing the Ukrainian government, which is especially ironic given that the Ukrainian president is Jewish," said Andrij Dobriansky of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, an ethnic advocacy group based in New York City.
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, fought to contain his anger over the Nazi narrative pushed by Putin.
"He's talking about denazification. There are no Nazis in Ukraine," McFaul said Thursday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
"The leader of Ukraine is not a Nazi, he's a democratically elected leader," McFaul said. "He's Jewish. He is not a Nazi. I'm sorry I'm so emotional. But we've to get over the fact that we're going to deal with this guy on some realpolitik, cost-benefit analysis."
Putin hopes to touch upon generations-old scars left from World War II — when an estimated 24 million Soviet citizens died — and conflate modern Ukraine with elements of its problematic past.
During World War II, some Ukrainian nationalists fought with the Nazis, battled the Polish underground and helped the Germans round up Jewish citizens for genocide. Ukrainian collaborators were among Nazi forces that put down the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising.
However, in today's Ukraine, the remaining pro-Nazi movement is far from an open, influential force.
While the Ukrainian National Guard is home to the Azov Battalion — a force populated by neo-Nazi sympathizers — there is no evidence to suggest widespread support for such extreme-right nationalism in the government, military or electorate.
In the most recent Ukrainian parliamentary elections in 2019, a coalition of ultranationalist right-wing parties failed to win even a single seat in the Rada, the country's 450-member legislature.
And for several years, U.S. appropriations laws have included a provision banning spending in support of the Azov Battalion.
David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group, said he's confident that Putin's Nazi narrative "won't work."
"First, Ukraine is led by a Jewish president, who was overwhelmingly chosen by voters in a democratic election. It reflects today's Ukrainian mindset and outlook, a far cry from the past," Harris said.
"And second, the ones behaving like Nazis are, let's be clear, Putin and his regime. Brazenly invading another country, invoking fake grievances, lying incessantly and denying another nation's right to chart its own destiny are all, yes, taken from the Nazi playbook."
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in a written statement Thursday, said Putin has misappropriated Holocaust history with his false claim that Ukraine needs to be “denazified.”
“The Museum stands with the Ukrainian people, including the thousands of Holocaust survivors still living in the country,” Museum chairman, Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, said in the statement. “These survivors are remnants of one of Europe’s largest pre-war Jewish populations that was almost completely decimated by the Germans in World War II. Having suffered terribly as victims of both Nazism and Communism, Ukrainians today are seeking to fulfill their democratic aspirations.”
Yohanan Petrovksy-Shtern, a Ukrainian native and professor of Jewish history at Northwestern University, said Putin's claims about "denazification goes against elemental truth."
"People who believe him and who spread these lies are engaging in slander," Petrovksy-Shtern said. "Ukraine is a multiethnic country in which minorities like Georgians have key government roles and it has a Jewish president."
McFaul said any efforts to link Ukraine to long-ago Nazi movements lack any rationale.
"We've got to treat him (Putin) like an irrational, evil leader who has unjustly and grossly attacked a free and democratic Ukraine," McFaul said.