Donald Trump Can Make Friends With Russians or Nazis but Not Both

Russia has piled onto the latest Trump-bashing bandwagon — but there's more to it this time than sheer cynicism.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - JULY 08: The Ku Klux Klan protests on July 8, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The KKK is protesting the planned removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, and calling for the protection of Southern Confederate monuments. (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - JULY 08: The Ku Klux Klan protests on July 8, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The KKK is protesting the planned removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, and calling for the protection of Southern Confederate monuments. (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — For years, the American far-right has received tacit approval and support from Russia. But Nazis have proved a step too far.

Russian media outlets — never ones to let a good American crisis go to waste — quickly began voicing outrage over the race-fueled unrest taking place in the United States of recent weeks, which saw one woman killed at a white nationalist rally, followed by widespread anger after President Donald Trump appeared to defend those who attended the march. State-run television talk shows on the Sunday prime-time slot this past weekend zoomed in on America’s race problem. The popular News of the Week program showed a map of the United States with the 11 former Confederate states highlighted; they were quickly colored red to show that Trump had won them in the election. There were lengthy explanations on the differences between neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

But the Nazi symbolism of the marches in Charlottesville, Virginia, and over the weekend— the swastikas and the iron crosses — became a particular target for Russian ire. “In Russia, we’ve had so many illusions about Trump,” said Veronika Krasheninnikova, a prominent member of the country’s civic chamber, an advisory board that answers to President Vladimir Putin. “Now it’s clear that he acts with the ideology of hatred, violence, and aggression. The masks can finally come off.”

Russian media have long reacted with glee to the many occasions that American actions fail to live up to American rhetoric, and, in some ways, this time is not so different. The racially motivated unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance, in 2014 was splashed across the state television channels of American foes, including Iran and Russia, as proof of the country’s new status as a “failed state.”

Nor is it surprising that Russia is reveling in America’s shortcomings at this particular moment. U.S.-Russian ties are at their worst since the Cold War days. In reaction to the latest round of sanctions, the U.S. Embassy here is currently reducing its personnel by 755, following orders by Putin, who said they must leave by Sept. 1. Two U.S. diplomatic properties are also being closed. On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said it was suspending issuing nonimmigrant visas to Russians for one week. “Russia’s decision to reduce the United States’ diplomatic presence here calls into question Russia’s seriousness about pursuing better relations,” the embassy said in a statement.

The much-scrutinized personal rapport between Trump and Putin, which started out reasonably well, has proved unable to maintain, even with the promise of improved relations between the two countries. When Trump begrudgingly signed a bill imposing new sanctions against Russia at the beginning of the month, it felt like something of a final straw. Since then, Trump has been mocked by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Twitter and was called “weak” and a “loser” on state media outlets.

So when the shadow of fascism reared its head in America, Russia was quick to react.

Late last week, one day after the prominent neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer re-registered its domain in Russia after its U.S. provider, GoDaddy, booted it off, the Russian government took it down, saying it “propagates neo-Nazi ideology.” The Russian Embassy in Washington was triumphant. “Russia did within hours what [the United States] tolerated [for] years,” its spokesman, Nick Lakhonin, tweeted, adding that Nazism was “still legal” in the country. The Russian Embassy in South Africa, seemingly apropos of nothing, tweeted on Sunday a historical document on Soviet victory over Nazism in World War II.

Yet Russia’s outrage about American neo-Nazis is more than just opportunism. “First and foremost, anything ugly about the U.S. is eagerly used by Russian officialdom,” said Maria Lipman, a political analyst in Moscow and editor in chief of George Washington University’s Counterpoint journal. “But it’s also noble — and justified — anger over the use of Nazi symbols. Victory of the USSR over Nazi Germany is a matter of pride for an overwhelming majority of Russians.”

Russia shares a complicated history with the Third Reich. The Soviet Union’s World War II triumph over Adolf Hitler is celebrated across Russia each year with pomp and circumstance, and the victory itself has become a defining feature of modern Russia, which still has not recovered demographically from the loss of around 27 million people during the war — far more than any other belligerent. (Less attention is given, however, to the country’s infamous signing of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which saw Soviet and German powers carve up Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. It was abandoned after Hitler invaded Soviet territory, and today the controversial pact is downplayed in contemporary Russian schoolbooks.)

Nazi symbols, such as those seen in Charlottesville, hit a genuine nerve in Russia. But that gut reaction has less to do with racist or xenophobic ideology than the specific salutes and swastikas American neo-Nazis have displayed at their marches. A host of far-right groups across Europe have received financial and political backing from Moscow, and Russia itself is home to many neo-Nazi-style, pro-Slavic, race-based hate groups. But these organizations tend to avoid making explicit references to Nazism or fascism. Three years ago, Putin officially made it a crime to rehabilitate Nazism or propagate Holocaust denial, though liberal activists at the time called it a new means to curb freedom of speech.

Russian public disgust for Nazis has even played a role in the war in Ukraine. The Russian state propaganda machine often frames the current conflict in Ukraine — where Moscow-backed troops are fighting Ukrainians in the east — as a fight against fascist forces. Pro-Ukrainian activists, for instance, often pay homage to Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist who fought both Soviet and Nazi forces; Russia calls Bandera a Nazi sympathizer. The propaganda may be clumsy, but the fears it plays off of — and the basis for those fears in Bandera supporters’ actions, such as Hitler salutes at some pro-Ukrainian rallies and the selling of Nazi paraphernalia at Kiev marketplaces — are real enough.

RT, the prominent English-language news outlet funded by the Kremlin, compared the Charlottesville rally to those held in Ukraine in recent years. “Same Nazi symbols, torchlight parades — different coverage,” RT wrote, saying Western media were hypocritical to call the Americans “neo-Nazis” but not the hooded men in Ukraine carrying torches.

Donald Trump, it seems, can cultivate better relations with Russia or wink at neo-Nazis — but not both.

Photo credit: Chet Strange/Getty Images

Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.

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