Editor’s Note: Editorials are articles that present the opinion of the editorial team of the Kyiv Independent.
“We went and killed everyone. There were women, men, seniors, and children.”
These were the words of Azamat Uldarov, an ex-fighter of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group who personally admitted to shooting dead a five or six-year-old girl, speaking to Russian independent outlet Gulagu.net. Uldarov, together with ex-Wagner commander Aleksei Savichev, both described being given and carrying out orders to “clean” entire buildings or areas in Donetsk Oblast of civilians by murdering them all.
The confessions came out on the back of a video of Russian troops, later reported as also belonging to Wagner, beheading a Ukrainian prisoner-of-war with a knife.
Three days after the Wagner confessions, Russian state-sponsored patriotic singer Shaman released a new music video entitled “We,” of him walking down Red Square sporting a full black leather outfit, combed blond undercut, and Russian flag armband.
“Faith and love is with us, God is with us,” he sings.
No, this is not a fever dream, this is fascist Russia in 2023.
Back in May last year, American historian Timothy Snyder invigorated the discussion around the fascist label in his New York Times op-ed “We Should Say It. Russia Is Fascist.”
A personalized totalitarian regime built around the cult of a leader. Countless pieces of evidence of systematic war crimes against civilians. The cult of the dead as a founding national myth. The conquering of foreign land with the open intent to destroy the nation living there. The weird but ominous symbol with which their war of aggression is branded.
Looking at today’s Russia, it’s all there.
It’s true, Putinist Russia doesn’t display itself as a modernizing force like Hitler or Mussolini did, there are no illusions about the war being necessary for the dawn of some kind of racial utopian New Age.
Instead, Russia wants to drag the rest of the world down to its own miserable level of existence.
“What is the point of the world if it is without Russia?” “We (Russians) will go to heaven, and they will simply perish.”
Both phrases uttered first by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin threatening the nuclear option, and both subsequently parroted by state propagandists, whose job it is to take the Kremlin’s diabolical ideology to its logical extreme. This very Russian twang on fascism isn’t enough to change the basic alignment.
Boiled down to its very essence, a modern definition of a fascist state should be simple: a militarized, totalitarian regime expressing self-proclaimed national superiority, in which the violent destruction of another nation or social group is a core part of the state’s ideology in practice, with the active participation and support of much of the population.
Combined with the invasion of a sovereign state, what the world has on its hands in the form of Russia is a fascist state on the march, one that, just like in 1939, seeks to spit on the most basic international agreements and start redrawing the map however it likes.
Of course, it’s not just Ukraine Moscow has its eye on. In the imperialist fantasyland where, in Putin’s words, “Russia’s borders do not end anywhere,” propagandists and lawmakers have threatened Moldova, Kazakhstan, Poland and the Baltic States with their own “special military operations,” never mind the unhinged calls to strike London and Washington with nuclear weapons.
A lot has happened since Snyder’s first attempt to call out Russia for what it really was.
As more and more Ukrainian territory was liberated over autumn, a systematic network of torture chambers was discovered across the previously occupied lands, with even smaller villages hosting cellars where residents were beaten and electrocuted. In liberated Kherson, it was rare to find a local who didn’t know someone who had spent time in a Russian torture chamber.
Around the same time, we slowly found out of a system in which tens of thousands of Ukrainian children were forcibly deported from their homes to a network of temporary facilities in Russia.
Again, what may have seemed at first to be a horrific exception turned out to be the rule.
Bucha showed the extremes of personal cruelty that individual Russian soldiers and officers were capable of when endorsed and covered by the state. The torture chambers and child deportations showed exactly how the Russian state planned to subjugate and assimilate an entire nation.
Then there is Wagner.
“Our business is death, and business is going well,” runs an informal slogan of the group. By now, the group proudly sports another symbol: a sledgehammer, the weapon used to execute Wagner deserter Yevgeny Nuzhin in November.
Wagner as an organization is a factory of death, including for its own: the group’s boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has filmed videos with rooms full of Wagner body bags, looking at them with a proud satisfaction and saying “contract over, you are going home.”
In that context, the latest war crimes revelations only confirm Wagner’s status as a death cult through and through.
On April 23, Prigozhin told his mercenaries no longer to take any prisoners of war, instead to simply “liquidate everyone on the battlefield.” For civilians and soldiers alike, no life remains where Wagner takes over.
In the words of late Russian military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, who had a close relationship with Wagner and Prigozhin, speaking inside the Kremlin: “We’ll rob everyone, we’ll kill everyone, everything will be as we love it.”
These aren’t just extremists on the fringe. In many ways, Wagner is Russia’s most effective and most active fighting force, responsible for most of Moscow’s territorial gains in the last six months.
Over a year into the full-scale war, Snyder’s high-profile voice wasn’t enough for the word fascism to catch on among world leaders or media, which, if brave enough, usually only went as far as to label Russia a “terrorist state.”
It may not always seem that way, but labels matter. A war on terrorism is a vague, politicized idea, but defeating a heavily armed fascist regime on the continent should be an existential issue for all of Europe.
Ukraine’s partners have — very slowly — stepped up to provide much of the advanced weaponry that Kyiv needs to have a chance at liberating all its territories.
But at the same time, with a Ukrainian counteroffensive on the horizon that will likely decide the future of the war, those same partners are openly preparing for some kind of eventual negotiated peace with fascist Russia.
Even some of Ukraine’s biggest supporters, like Czech President Petr Pavel, have said that Kyiv will likely not get another chance if the counteroffensive fails.
As much as this is a war of tanks and artillery, it is also one of history and memory.
It is no coincidence that compared to the size of their economies, Ukraine’s biggest supporters are by far the Baltic States and Poland, for whom the experience of repressive occupation by an imperialist regime in Moscow is in living memory for many.
For the rest of Europe, to understand why they must do everything to ensure Ukraine wins, nations need only to look back a little further.
As much as the Kremlin tries to frame it that way to take charge of the narrative, the free world owes nothing to Russia for the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. With its new fascist invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has forfeited any right to the victor’s legacy.
All over Europe, memorials from the World Wars are marked with “Never Again.” It’s time for those words to mean something.
Ukraine has taken all of Russia’s fascist aggression, all its bombs and bullets and death, upon itself.
Now, with its partners’ help, Ukraine can win this, but only if the free world realizes that if not defeated, fascist Russia will remain a threat to all.