On Feb. 26, when Russian tanks were supposed to be rolling into Kyiv, state news outlet RIA Novosti briefly published an article prematurely proclaiming the capture of Ukraine’s capital.
As Ukrainians defended the city, the article was quickly taken down from the internet. Accessible now via the Internet Archive, the column, written by Pyotr Akopov, announced that “Ukraine has returned to Russia.” That did not mean, he insisted, that “its statehood will be liquidated.”
“Without a drop of exaggeration, Vladimir Putin assumed a historical responsibility, deciding not to leave the Ukrainian question without a solution for future generations,” Akopov wrote.
The article reflected the Kremlin’s belief in who it thought its enemy was in Ukraine: a thin layer of pro-Western elites, who would be quickly swept away by a Russian offensive.
The war was simply a matter of Ukraine being “returned to Russia,” with its upper echelons being “denazified.” The country would then simply be nudged back toward Moscow.
But now, six weeks into a grueling campaign that has seen Russia withdraw forces after a failed attack on Kyiv, Akopov is taking a new tone from the one in his speculative piece on Russia’s swift victory. Russia, he now says, aims to do just the opposite: It aims to “dismantle Ukraine as a state.”
On the ground in Ukraine, mass graves have been found after Russian soldiers left the Kyiv area. In Bucha, hundreds of people appear to have been buried during the Russian occupation. Ukrainian officials have said that the situation in other towns may be far worse.
“Putin cannot come out and directly say that we are liquidating Ukraine as a state,” Akopov told a Russian government news website on Friday.
He then suggested that this was the plan all along: “But in reality, nothing is changing for us.”
It’s one example of a broader feature in Russian rhetoric — from Putin, from high-ranking officials, and from propagandists — that has shifted over the past six weeks. What started off, in Putin’s telling, as a battle with a limited number of people at the top — the “bandits” and “drug-addicts” who took over the Ukrainian state — has turned out to be a showdown with the Ukrainian people as a whole.
That change came as Ukraine’s military and society mobilized against the invasion and put up a defense that was far stronger than Russia anticipated, forcing the country to move its forces away from the Kyiv region and abandon its early objective of quickly taking the capital city.
The irony is that, as a result of Ukraine’s staunch defense, Russia’s narrative has now become even more violent, going from casting Ukrainians as a pliant people controlled by Western puppets to something more akin to the German people under the Third Reich — brainwashed, active participants in evil who, at best, must be defeated and re-educated.
The shift reflects a total lack of understanding of Ukrainian society before the war, and suggests increasing rage as the reality of the country’s attitudes becomes clearer.
Denazifying Ukraine no longer means removing the upper leadership and, in Russia’s view, a few “nationalists.” Now, the Kremlin seems to be using it to mean the cleansing of Ukrainian society.
Akopov’s initial article was one of many explanations, sometimes self-appointed, made in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s statement that the aim of the war was to demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine.
“The problem is that on our neighboring territories — I note, on our historical territories — a hostile ‘anti-Russia’ is being created under full external control,” Putin said in his Feb. 24 announcement of the war.
He added that the “special operation” was aimed at “defending people who, over the past eight years, have sustained abuse, genocide from the Kyiv regime. It’s for this that we will aim for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine, and for those who committed multiple, bloody crimes against civilians, including Russian citizens, to face judgment.”
Putin suggested in his speech that the war was aimed only at a small slice of Ukraine’s population. He cast Ukrainians as a docile people supposedly under the yoke of “bandits” and “drug-addicts” who took over the Ukrainian state, and who were perpetrating a “genocide” on ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
That impression seems to have changed in the rhetoric over the past six weeks, as Ukrainian society recognized the invasion as an attack on the country’s independence.
“Unfortunately, and to our silent astonishment, a significant part of Ukrainian people — and not everyone — turn out to have been captured by the insanity of Nazism,” RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan said last month. “Before this, I also thought that there were a few of them, but I couldn’t have imagined that there were so many of them.”
The rhetoric has gotten more violent since then.
Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and current security council deputy chair, wrote on Telegram on Tuesday that the war’s aims “will be decided not only on the fields of battle.”
“Changing the bloody and fully false myths of the consciousness of a segment of today’s Ukrainians is a most important aim,” he added.
Reports from the ground in Ukraine suggest how troops may have interpreted that objective. Reports from liberated Ukrainian towns suggest that Russian forces targeted vocal supporters of Ukrainian sovereignty. In Motyzhyn, a village outside Kyiv, they reportedly killed the town’s mayor and her family.
In Bucha, mass graves have been found with hundreds of bodies potentially buried inside. Refugees leaving the town described Russian soldiers indiscriminately shooting at civilians.
“Denazification will unavoidably be deukrainianization,” wrote political consultant Timofei Sergeitsev in a widely discussed column posted on RIA Novosti.
His column partly attempts to define what “denazification” really means — a term that Putin left ambiguous in his speech.
Sergeytsev added that beyond senior leadership in Ukraine, “a significant part of the masses are guilty, who are passive Nazis, enablers of Nazism.”
“A just punishment of this part of the population is only possible by bearing the inevitable hardships of just war against the Nazi system, conducted as carefully and delicately as possible with regard to civilians,” he wrote.