In late March, Russian troops withdrew in defeat from northern Ukraine. They left behind grim traces of war crimes apparently committed during their occupation. In the town of Bucha, dozens of dead civilians were discovered in the streets and in mass graves. Some had their hands bound behind their backs and appeared to have been deliberately executed.
What followed from Russian officials was a rollercoaster ride of contradictory explanations: the victims were simultaneously said to be crisis actors, and also dead, but too recently deceased for them to have been killed by Russian troops. While it is still too early to know the exact number and circumstances of each of the deaths, a plethora of evidence – such as satellite images and drone footage, intercepted Russian communications and eyewitness accounts from the scene – makes one thing clear: the army committed a range of atrocities against local civilians, including executions, kidnappings, rape and torture.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the discoveries in Bucha are proof that Vladimir Putin’s war is genocidal in nature. While some scholars of genocide share this view, others point out that for war crimes to meet the threshold of genocide as defined by the UN Genocide Convention, they would need to be clearly linked to an intent to destroy, in whole or in part, Ukrainians as a national group.
Either way, the Russian military’s conduct demands we reflect not just the war itself, but the regime that started it. In the run-up to Russia’s full-scale invasion, many commentators, especially on the left, were dismissive of those who saw the warning signs. Much of this scepticism was based on the view that such a war would be a strategic own goal for Russia, and on the assumption that Putin, albeit ruthless, was an essentially rational statesman who would know not to commit such a folly. The fact he did so anyway, and that his troops are now inflicting atrocities on Ukraine’s population that may qualify as genocidal, begs unsettling questions. What are the dynamics driving the Kremlin’s behaviour? Has Putin’s Russia become a fascist regime?
One scholar who has grappled with this question is Marlene Laruelle, an expert on Russian nationalism. In her aptly titled book ‘Is Russia Fascist?’, published last year, she maintains that Russia is certainly illiberal, but lacking several of the key hallmarks of fascism. Rather than relying on mass mobilisation, for instance, Putin has actively demobilised the Russian populace, including independent far right elements. What’s more, whereas fascism typically relies on utopian myths and totalitarian ideological coherence, Putin’s regime had always been rather postmodern, ideologically eclectic, and without any clear vision of the future. “The plan is to not have a plan, and that’s by design,” Laruelle said in a panel discussion last year. “The regime is aware it needs strategic and ideological fluidity.” Indeed, even now official Russian rhetoric invokes disparate narratives, from clericalism to revanchism, and includes ethnonationalist tropes alongside nostalgia for Soviet anti-fascism. That is, the Russian leadership has always appeared to be one that will conveniently juggle any number of contradictory narratives in order to advance its agenda.
Since the beginning of the war, however, there has been a trend toward ideological streamlining. Russian sociologist Greg Yudin, for one, has recently come to reconsider his earlier scepticism that the regime is fascist. “The situation in Russia has changed, and I’m not sure everyone outside Russia understands that”, he said in a recent interview. “There is an ongoing shift here from authoritarianism to totalitarianism,” he explained, pointing to Putin’s obsession with the essence of the Ukrainian nation and his insistence on purging Ukraine (as well as Russia itself) of undesirable elements.
Chillingly, such rhetoric of purification by annihilation has become more and more common in recent Russian state propaganda. One disturbing example is an op-ed published by state news agency Ria Novosti on 4 April which argued that Putin’s goal of “denazifying” Ukraine could only be completed through “de-Ukrainianisation”. Ukraine itself, the author wrote, would need to be abolished, and those Ukrainians who could not be re-educated to embrace Russian dominance “liquidated”.
According to Dr Yuliya Yurchenko, a political economist at the University of Greenwich, the resistance with which Russia was met by the Ukrainian state and population stripped away the war’s legitimating facade. Speaking to Novara Media, she explained that whereas the war was initially said to be about liberating a brethren nation from nazism, now “Ukrainians all have to be punished […] All that is Ukrainian is now seen as evil, to be squashed”.
Russian historian Ilya Budraitskis agrees the article must be taken seriously. “Its publication, immediately after the emergence of all the terrible evidence of what happened in Bucha, which this article is practically justifying, is no coincidence and would have been authorised from above,” he told Novara Media. This, according to him, isn’t to say the article fully reflects the official line. After all, other official statements still take a more reconciliatory tone, corresponding, he suggests, to the interests of those in power who would rather end hostilities as soon as possible than double down on excessive violence.
But while Russia, despite recent ideological consolidation, thus retains a degree of discursive eclecticism, Budraitskis argues this should not be seen as a repudiation of its drift toward fascism. Excessive focus on the regime’s ideological conviction would be a mistake: “This liberal idea, which I honestly also long held onto, that cynics who simply believe in pure self-interest aren’t as dangerous as those who are driven by fanatical convictions, might have been proven wrong.” As he sees it, Putin’s decision to invade can still be seen as a rational, albeit extremely cynical, attempt to externalise and evade various political and economic crises the regime had been facing domestically.
In other words, looking for evidence of fascism in the ideas currently emanating from Russian officials might be the wrong way to go about it. “Sure, Putin believes in some historical mission, but it contains no values other than that Russia is strong and should be respected, that Putin is powerful, and everyone should obey him. There is nothing universal. But what is fascism, if not the denial of universal values?” Budraitskis asks. In this sense, he suggests, the self-interested cynicism that the Putin regime has fostered throughout its existence, and which has come to permeate all levels of society, down to the soldiers now deployed in Ukraine, has become akin to an ideology in itself – and a highly dangerous one.
Whether or not the atrocities committed in Bucha can be tied to explicit genocidal intent, they do appear to fit with this worldview: that might makes right, and the capacity to inflict violence is the legitimation for doing so. Ukrainian resistance has shown the limits of Russia’s military might, but within the coordinates of an ideology of cynicism, mobilising ever more excessive might – if need be against defenceless civilians – looks like the only remaining path to maintaining the ruling order’s legitimacy. For Ukrainians in the country’s east, who still risk falling under Russian occupation, this potentially spells further horrors. “Ukrainians must fight tooth and nail not to forfeit any territory to Russia,” Yurchenko says. “For the sake of the future of its inhabitants.”