The last surviving member of the International Brigades that fought the fascists in Spain in the 1930s died last year at the age of 101. Josep Almudéver Mateu, born in France, remembered going into battle without any ammunition for his gun. Five kilometers into his march to the front, he was finally able to cadge 10 bullets. It was nowhere near enough. Wounded and then forced underground, Mateu ended up spending three years in Spanish concentration camps and prisons. The fascists, led by Francisco Franco, went on to rule the country for nearly four decades.
The fight against fascism was a heroic but ultimately doomed effort that brought idealistic fighters from around the world to defend the Spanish republic. The Republicans had heart and grit and good rhetoric. They adopted the phrase no pasaran—“they shall not pass” in Spanish—to rally their troops to prevent Franco’s army from seizing Madrid. Supported by Italian and German fascists, Franco’s better equipped forces did indeed pass into the city. Only much later, did Franco himself pass, along with fascism’s hold over Spain.
Today, Ukraine is defending its republic from a Russian military intervention. Even though it has attracted the moral support of the international community, the Ukrainians are vastly outnumbered. In the first week of the war, they too have shown heart and grit in their efforts to slow the Russian advance. But hundreds of thousands have fled the country, and those who remain face a humanitarian crisis.
It’s hard to know what Putin imagined would happen when Russian forces marched on Kyiv and Kharkiv. Ukrainians welcoming the “liberators” as they did during World War II? In any case, the Russian leader didn’t initially send all of the forces surrounding the country into battle, didn’t secure sufficient supply lines to keep the convoys fueled and soldiers fed, and didn’t launch the kind of ruthless carpet bombing of cities that Russian forces most recently implemented over Syria. On top of that, at least some Russian soldiers have surrendered or refused to engage in combat.
That isn’t to say that Russian forces haven’t managed to commit war crimes in their so-far unsuccessful campaign. A Russian missile hit outside a hospital in Vuhledar, killing several civilians. An even more indiscriminate aerial bombing of Kharkiv this week has destroyed non-military infrastructure and killed civilians. The Kharkiv campaign seems to signal a new and more brutal stage of the conflict.
Perhaps Putin also didn’t imagine that the international response would be quite so unified. He has been abandoned even by his European friends in Hungary (Viktor Orbán) and the Czech Republic (Miloš Zeman). Turkey has sided fully with its fellow NATO members against the Kremlin, blocking Russian access to the Black Sea. No less an odious figure like Donald Trump, who started out by praising Putin’s “genius,” has been forced to acknowledge the bravery of Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky. The Republican Party has largely shifted over to Putin-bashing alongside its ritual Biden-bashing.
And although the Russian government has done its best to sanction-proof the economy, international actions are starting to bite. The ruble went into free fall, the Russian stock market had to close, and major investors like fossil fuel companies are cutting their ties.
Russians continue to take to the streets to protest the war even after thousands have been arrested. A Russian-language anti-war petition has garnered more than a million signatures at Change.org. Several major oligarchs and a slew of public figures from newscasters to tennis players have taken public anti-war positions. For years, ordinary Russians could pretend that they still lived nominally in the West, since they could access many of the material pleasures enjoyed by their counterparts in London or New York. The invasion has stripped away that illusion.
“We have left communism 30 years ago, we got accustomed to having a lot of comforts that are also seen in the West,” a Russian entrepreneur told The Guardian. “All of that progress can be gone. We are no longer a member of the international community.”
The contemporary face of fascism
Vladimir Putin has called the Ukrainian leadership “drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” This second charge has been trumpeted around the Internet by Russian trolls and, unfortunately, some on the Left. You can find pieces in some respectable places like Jacobin and The Nation—as well as some thoroughly disreputable rabbit holes like Global Research—that play mix and match with “Ukraine,” “neo-Nazis,” and the “CIA.”
Yes, there are neo-Nazis in Ukraine. The far right participated in the Euromaidan protests, it was part of several paramilitary forces like the Azov Battalion, and even had some important positions in the first post-Yanukovych government. But the political part of the extreme right, Right Sector, today has no influence on the current Zelensky administration and has zero representation in the Ukrainian parliament. In contrast, the pro-Russian party Opposition Platform-For Life has over 40 seats and is the second largest bloc in the parliament. That’s what makes Ukraine a democracy.
The Azov Battalion has not disappeared. The paramilitary movement has split into various factions. Some of its members have gotten involved in criminal enterprises, while others have burrowed into the Ukrainian armed forces. The international networking that Ukrainian extremists have done over the last few years has reaped the benefits today of neo-Nazi mercenaries from around Europe heading to Ukraine to fight alongside their brothers.
But it’s necessary to put Azov into perspective. As journalist Michael Colborne concludes in his just-released book on the Azov phenomenon, the extreme right “may not be in a position to single-handedly destabilize Ukraine in fulfillment of the worst of the Kremlin’s flights of fancy. But the Azov movement’s continued presence on Ukraine’s social and political scene, even as it remains forever the preserve of a small minority, poses a threat to liberal democracy in Ukraine.”
At this point, of course, Russia is the far greater threat to liberal democracy—in Ukraine and elsewhere. Indeed, it is Putin who is the Franco of today and the Ukrainian government that is leading the fight against the fascist threat coming from the Kremlin.
Does Putinism really qualify as fascism? That charge is surely is going to ruffle some feathers. But let’s go down the list:
Extreme nationalism? Check.
Far-right social policy? Check
The army of pro-Kremlin trolls out there is not going to be happy to hear this, but Vladimir Putin checks all the boxes. He has been ruling over Russia with an increasingly powerful iron fist since 1999, and elections have become largely meaningless at least at the federal level. He has jailed dissidents and eliminated his opponents in macabre ways. Now he no longer tolerates dissent within his own party circle, as this popular video of the president’s dressing down of his spy chief reveals.
He has always been enthusiastic about military “solutions” to the problems that assail Russia, from his ruthless campaign against Chechnya through his intervention in Georgia down to his seizure of Crimea and intervention into Ukraine proper. And he has also gone about militarizing Russian society.
He didn’t start out as an extreme nationalist, but he has veered in this direction, particularly after 2014. He doesn’t want to be outflanked by the Russian far right, and he can no longer rally his supporters with any other ideology.
Economically, he has helped to create a state capitalism that emphasizes the interwoven power of the government and conglomerates. And socially, he exhibits extreme homophobia, proudly parades his anti-feminism, and is pushing for the supremacy of Russian Orthodox Christianity.
It’s no surprise that Putin has become a hero to white nationalists the world over.
If all this doesn’t add up to fascism, then the word has lost all explanatory meaning.
A new internationalism
It’s encouraging to see governments and civil society join hands to oppose Putin’s power play. People all over the world are standing with Ukraine as it cries “no pasaran.”
Because it is not part of NATO, however, Ukraine is largely fighting alone. Unfortunately, this fact reinforces the importance of NATO in many people’s minds, especially those who live within reach of the Russian army. It also has prompted European nations to increase their military expenditures. Even before Putin launched his attack, EU states increased their spending to about $225 billion in 2020, a 6 percent increase over the year before, to hedge bets if Trump followed through on his threat to pull the United States out of NATO. In response to the invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, Germany has agreed to meet its NATO commitment of spending 2 percent of its GDP on the military—a significant uptick in expenditures—and both Finland and Sweden are edging closer to applying for NATO membership.
NATO is not the kind of internationalism the world needs right now. Zelensky, knowing that NATO membership is not in the offing, has reached out instead to the European Union with a heart-rending plea for admission. His speech to the European Parliament received a standing ovation. EU membership, however, requires time and patience, neither of which Ukraine has a lot of at the moment.
But at least Europe is paying attention. During the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans faced a hostile Germany and Italy. Other European governments were largely indifferent, having signed a Non-Intervention Agreement in 1936. Thousands of volunteers poured into Spain to support the fragile democratic government, but it was not enough to compensate for the lack of governmental action.
Today, the world is understandably wary of confronting Putin directly. He has his finger on Russia’s nuclear button and this week put those forces into “special combat readiness.”
He has already proven to be a risk-taker. No one wants the Ukraine conflict to turn into a world war much less a nuclear conflict. Diplomatic options are still viable, and governments must keep open their channels with Moscow. But just as Ukraine is experiencing the pressure of the Russian military so must the Russian government feel the pressure of international sanctions and condemnation.
Never has the world been in greater need of a new internationalism that is not defined militarily (NATO) or just regionally (European Union). That internationalism has yet to materialize in time to join the chorus of “no pasaran” with the Ukrainians. No International Brigade has yet descended upon the country; no robust peace force is available to block Russia’s advance.
It’s not just Ukraine, of course. Putin is hardly unique in his murderousness. All governments need to be held to account for their actions both outside and inside their countries. That principle should apply equally to the geopolitically powerful (like the United States) and the less geopolitically powerful (Myanmar), to state actors and non-state actors (like corporations), to questions of military intervention and to issues like climate change. Perhaps the Ukraine conflict will be a wake-up call to those in power that we have international crises without the international institutions to address them.
But let’s not lose sight of the current war. If we are to hold out any hope of such a new internationalism emerging in this era, Vladimir Putin must not be allowed to pass into Kyiv. This can and should be a defining moment for Russia. Just as Afghanistan was the graveyard of the Soviet empire, Ukraine must become the graveyard of Putin’s empire.