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Is there any truth to Russia's 'Ukrainian Nazis' propaganda?

Kathrin Wesolowski
December 3, 2022

Russian propagandists are constantly saying Ukraine is full of Nazis, and posting alleged evidence online. DW's fact-checking team has investigated some of this supposed evidence.

A combination photo showing alleged graffiti in Qatar, a swastika on some stairs and soldiers with a Nazi slogan highlighted on a helmet
Nazi symbols and slogans at the World Cup, in a Ukrainian shopping center and on soldiers' helmets — really?

Ever since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and even before, there were stories circulating that claimed many Ukrainians were adherents of Nazism. On well-known propaganda channels such as the German-language Telegram group "Neues aus Russland" ("News from Russia"), run by the allegedly independent journalist Alina Lipp, assertions regarding "Ukrainian Nazis" are rife. Such posts are influential — Lipp's channel alone has more than 183,000 subscribers.

A simple search on the channel shows that the word "Nazi" occurs 285 times, "National Socialism" 22 times and "swastika" 17 times (as of November 25).

But why is there this narrative about Ukrainian Nazis? And what about the alleged evidence spread by pro-Russian accounts on social media?

Claim No. 1: A video in a tweet allegedly coming from the Arab news broadcaster Al Jazeera says three drunk Ukrainians spread Nazi symbols at the football World Cup in Qatar.

DW fact check: False

Russian journalist and propagandist Vladimir Solovyov has also shown this video on his Telegram channel, where it has been watched almost 400,000 times as of November 25. In the style of Al Jazeera, the video reports on how three Ukrainians drew a Hitler mustache on a graffiti image of the FIFA World Cup mascot and wrote a Nazi slogan next to it. The video also claims the three Ukrainians had destroyed 10 posters near the Al Bayt Stadium, and that they were then arrested without protest.

The video and its claims are fake, as our research has shown and Al Jazeera itself said in its own fact check.

Ukrainians in Qatar allegedly scrawled a Nazi slogan next to an image of the World Cup mascot

In the clip, one can see the Al Jazeera logo and fonts that are very similar to the authentic videos of the broadcaster (here an example). The video itself does not show the three specific alleged Ukrainian fans, but only general images of Ukrainian supporters.

Although that is a usual procedure in journalism, it is interesting that no more specific details are given on the men — which is cause for suspicion, as men aged between 18 and 60 have not been allowed to leave Ukraine since mobilization was announced there. What's more, the Ukrainian team did not even qualify for the World Cup.

It is also striking that the name of Al Bayt Stadium was written incorrectly as El Beit. Nor are there any pictures of the allegedly ruined posters to be seen. A scene is also shown in which the Ukrainian fans are allegedly arrested — but the clothing worn by the police is not that used by the security staff on duty at the World Cup, according to the Qatari Interior Ministry.

If the emblem seen on the arm of one of the alleged officers is put into a reverse image search, it leads to various websites that indicate that it is a military badge, though it's not clear from what country.

In conclusion, the video was examined by various fact checkers and is fake. Al Jazeera, the alleged originator, has also confirmed that it is faked.

Claim No. 2: "Some Ukrainian fighters wear the slogan 'Jedem das Seine' ["to each his own" — a slogan written on the main gate of the Buchenwald concentration camp — Editor's note] as a sign of their commitment to neo-Nazism," the above-mentioned Alina Lipp writes on her Telegram channel, publishing a photo that is meant to serve as proof.

DW fact check: False

This manipulated picture allegedly shows Nazi soldiers in Ukraine

The photo has clearly been manipulated, as our research shows. The slogan was superimposed on the soldier's helmet using image-processing software, a reverse image search reveals. What's more, the original photo is turned about as a mirror image.

The men on the photo are also not unknown. They are from the Ukrainian band Antytila, which no longer just sings but also helps defend Ukraine against the Russian invasion. The band became known internationally when they recorded a remix of the song "2Step" with the musician Ed Sheeran. International media such as The Washington Post used the photo, showing the band members in soldiers' uniforms, as a feature image.

On the original photo, no Nazi slogan is to be seen

Claim No. 3: In a Ukrainian shopping mall, there is a staircase with a big swastika on it — that is implied by a video that is spread by this Twitter user, among others.

DW fact check: Misleading

The video, which has often been shared on social media, shows a huge LED swastika shining on a staircase, with a big red heart further up, in a shopping center called Gorodok in Kyiv.

The video is indeed authentic — but misleading. According to a statement by the shopping center that was published three days later on Facebook, the incident occurred back on February 16, 2019, at around 1:30 p.m. Hackers were said to be responsible for the LED swastika. The statement said a security guard had informed managerial staff as soon as he noticed the Nazi symbol on the illuminated staircase, whereupon the shopping center immediately turned off the lighting.

This video is meant to prove that there is a staircase with an LED-swastika in a Ukrainian shopping center

The case was reported to investigating authorities. On July 29, 2019, the Kyiv state prosecutor's office said in a press statement that a 17-year-old had accessed the computer system with the software TeamViewer. The logo of the software can be seen in the video.

According to the state prosecutor, the password of the system could briefly be seen, something the youth exploited to be able to insert the swastika. A large number of fact checks have already been published about the video.

In conclusion, while it is true that a swastika was displayed for a few minutes in a shopping center in Kyiv, it wasn't intentional. It was the result of a hacking attack, and not a permanent LED fixture.

Putin's narrative about 'Ukrainian Nazis'

So the fact is that many of the claims about alleged "Ukrainian Nazis" are invented, or misleading. But the narrative persists because Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian propagandists are constantly spreading false information.

Even in his speech (here subjected to a DW fact check) shortly before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February, Putin spoke of Russia having to "denazify" Ukraine. So-called denazification is a historical term that has to do with the policy of the victorious Allied powers toward Nazi Germany after World War II. They wanted to rid the country of Nazi influences and remove those associated with the ideology from office.

But the comparison with Ukraine does not hold up, Andreas Umland, an analyst at the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies told DW back in February. "The president of Ukraine is a Russian-speaking Jew, who won the last presidential election against a non-Jewish Ukrainian candidate by a huge margin," he said, adding that the talk of Nazism in Ukraine was completely unfounded.

Umland said that although there were right-wing extremists groups in Ukraine, they were relatively weak in comparison with many European countries. "We had a unity front of all the right-wing radical parties at the last [EU] parliamentary elections in 2019, and that unity front received 2.15%," he said.

What about the Azov Battalion?

There has also been criticism of right-wing Ukrainian militia members who were fighting against the separatists in the east of Ukraine earlier this year — above all, the Azov Battalion. Umland said that although it was founded by a right-wing extremist group, it was integrated into forces of the Interior Ministry, the National Guard, in the fall of 2014.

After that, he said, there had been a separation of the movement and the regiment, with the latter still using the former's symbols but no longer being classified as part of the right-wing extremist scene. During military training courses, extremist soldiers had sometimes come to light, he said, but they had then "been revealed and named as a scandal."

This article has been translated from German.

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