March 7, 2014 5:38 pm
Updated: March 7, 2014 8:54 pm

Is Putin acting like a Nazi or trying to stop Nazism in Crimea?


WATCH: The world is watching to see what Vladimir Putin’s next move will be in Crimea. World leaders, including Canada’s foreign minister, have said Russia has invaded Ukraine’s territory and compared Russian involvement to Nazi invasions. Eric Sorensen reports.

Whether it’s western leaders or the Russian president, all sides now involved in the crisis in Ukraine have been lobbing comparisons to Nazi Germany or making allegations of neo-Nazism.

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Foreign Minister John Baird drew comparisons this week between the Russian intervention in Crimea, where the majority of people speak Russian, to Nazi Germany’s 1938 invasion of Czechoslovakia under the guise of protecting the German population in the region of Sudetenland.

Meanwhile, Russia and those opposed to the newly reorganized Ukrainian government have said there are neo-Nazis in the ranks and have warned of fascism on the horizon.

Both of those claims are rooted in truths, to some degree. But the allegations aren’t as cut and dry as labelling the actions of opposing sides as Nazi-like.

READ MORE: Blind eye turned to influence of far-right in Ukrainian crisis: critics

The mere mention of the word Nazi brings to mind images of Adolf Hitler, swastikas and millions of Jews killed during the Holocaust.

But finding similarities between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hitler isn’t about fear-mongering that another genocide is on the horizon, according to a prominent Canadian Jewish community leader.

“We tend to be very myopic sometimes, not just Jews, but when we think of WWII we think of it in terms of things like the Holocaust or all of the civilians that died,” said Shimon Vogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

READ MORE: Harper, Obama denounce proposed Crimean referendum

He said we need to be looking at the geopolitics of the Nazi era to understand what Baird – and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for that matter – are getting at when they referenced Nazi Germany.

“We sometimes don’t pay enough attention to the sort of geo-strategic drama that was going on at the time,” Fogel said. “So I don’t think that it’s inappropriate to be pointing to precedents of military adventurism that turned out very, very bad.”

But the Russian argument that it’s protecting its interests in Crimea and the Russian-speaking minority of Ukraine does bear similarities to Hitler’s justification for the Sudentenland invasion.

It has also led Russia, among others, to say that there are neo-Nazis among the ranks of Ukraine’s current Parliament and that the west is supporting fascists.

READ MORE: This week on 16×9: Csanad Szegedi and the rise of Europe’s far right

That has a lot to do with the far-right and ultra-nationalist groups that were elected in the 2012 parliamentary election, mainly the Svoboda (Freedom) Party.

Svoboda’s leader Oleh Tyahnybok and his party rose to prominence in the 2012 election, winning 37 seats in Parliament and later forming the coalition that opposed Yanukovych and his Party of Regions.

But, that was eight years after former President Viktor Yushchenko booted Tyahnybok from Parliament for controversial comments he made, calling on Ukrainians to rise up against a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia” and about the “Jewish-Russian mafia, which rules in Ukraine.”

And the next year he was one of 18 people to sign a letter titled “Stop the Criminal Activities of Organized Jewry,” BBC reported.

“One of the things that really differentiates Ukraine is the emphasis that has been put on cultural nationalism as a kind of mobilizing ideology for building the national community,” said Dr. George Perlin, a professor emeritus of political studies at Queen’s University in Kingston Ont.

The ideology may be far-right leaning, but he says neo-Nazi elements of parties such as Svoboda are on the fringe.

Six members of Svoboda hold posts in the new government. But whether or not they hold extreme ideologies doesn’t matter. Perlin said the appearance of it is enough to do damage.

“One of the things the new government did which was really stupid… was to repeal a piece of legislation which the Yanukovych regime had introduced to establish minority language rights,” Perlin said.

About 17 per cent of Ukraine’s 46 million people are ethnically Russian (24 per cent of the population is Russian speaking). Those people reside mainly in the south and east. The further east you go, in Crimea for example, the Russian population grows denser.

It’s estimated that 47 per cent of Crimea is Russian or Russian-speaking.

Perlin said the repeal of the legislation – even though it was poorly drafted and implemented as a wedge issue to win votes – did offer some sense of protection to the Russian-speaking minority, but the moment it was rescinded it sent a very powerful message to that segment of the population.

“Ultimately, the new interim president vetoed that legislation [days later]. … But by that time, the harm had been done,” Perlin said. “This provided the critics of the whole Maidan movement [and] the critics of the new government with a kind of issue which is permitting the use of this kind of extremism, this extremist rhetoric.”

“[And] it gave Putin a justification for intervening in Crimea, to protect Russian interests, to protect the Russian-speaking people.”

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