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With many questioning whether Vladimir Putin now leads a fascist state, Russia is building its geopolitical influence by harnessing far-right forces worldwide

The Russian “Z” symbol currently being used to display support for war in the Ukraine is likely to see a heavy outing in the country’s Victory Day parades on 9 May. No one is sure about its exact origins – it was first seen used as a marking on the country’s military equipment; one recent theory is that it is two interlinked number 7s, to represent 77 years since the second world war. But if Russia’s celebration of victory over the Nazis is strewn in Zs, it will be bitterly ironic that the symbol is fast becoming associated with a nascent brand of modern fascism; a new “Zwastika”, as some have dubbed it.

Debate is also ongoing about whether Russia now comprises a true fascist state. In 2008, political researcher Pierre Hassner preferred to describe its political system under Vladimir Putin as “a harsh brand of authoritarianism with some fascist features”. But its slide into autocracy has continued since then: in 2020, Putin made constitutional changes that open the way to him remaining as president until 2036 and which cement what has effectively become a dictatorship. 

The aforementioned fascist features have come into clearer definition the longer he has been in office: the cult of personality surrounding the gnomic president; the elimination of rival centres of power, including through fraudulent elections that keep his party, United Russia, in power, the suppression of political opponents such as Alexei Navalny, and tight control of the media; the cultivation of a vociferate strain of Russian patriotism, bolstered by the Kremlin’s instrumentalisation of far-right groups, including neo-Nazis, as part of its policy of what has been called “managed nationalism”.

But invading Ukraine appears to mark an escalation in terms of exporting this Russian fascism (or “Rashism”, as some are naming it), with the war’s pretext of protecting ethnic Russians in the Donbass and Luhansk regions. Accusations of genocide by Russian forces in several Ukrainian towns raise uncomfortable echoes of Nazi atrocities in the second world war; horribly ironic in view of Putin’s claim that he is “de-Nazifying” the country. 

Another disturbing feature of Russia’s lurch to the right in the past decade is its revival of a sense of imperial destiny rooted in Eurasianism. A doctrine promoted recently by Aleksandr Dugin, an ideologue with links to Putin, this places Russia at the heart of a unique civilisation that is neither European or Asian – and stands in opposition to the western liberal order. Though it is often understood as a drive towards fulfilling an empire uniting Slavic and Turkic peoples, Putin has his own interpretation: he has spoken specifically of the need to protect Russia’s “genetic code”.

Putin would argue that Russian military action in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and even Ukraine are no different to western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya: reciprocal forms of imperialism. But where the west has broadly attempted to foster liberal democracy abroad, the Russian leader’s foreign policy seems set on undermining it – and replacing it with authoritarian alternatives. As an increasingly dictatorial Russia attempts to exert its sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe, and sponsors far-right figures and even subverts electoral processes in Western Europe and beyond, there are legitimate fears for the future of democracy worldwide. Putin may have no formal programme of fascism, but in seeking to bend nationalistic and far-right elements worldwide to his own ends, he is seeding the ground for fascistic impulses to emerge.

In Eastern Europe, Belarus – a launchpad for the Ukraine invasion – has become a Russian client state under the dictator Alexander Lukashenko, dependent on huge energy subsidies. Serbia is a fellow Slavic country that Russia attempts to culturally influence via shared affiliation to the eastern Orthodox church and Serbian-language Russian news outlets such as Sputnik Srbija. But it also specifically nurtures far-right elements who help promote anti-EU and anti-Nato sentiment in the region: it is alleged, to give one example, that a Bosnian Serb paramilitary unit called Serbian Honor received training at a facility in Niš, Serbia that is purportedly a humanitarian centre but which many western states believe is in reality a Russian military post. “These groups serve as potentially disruptive forces, and their members can stymie political reform and push-pro Russian agendas in the Balkans,” according to a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report – though it emphasises they do not operate under direct control of the Kremlin, but rather through proxies.

Russia has been engaged in fomenting similar pan-Slavic feeling in many other countries, including Bosnia, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Montenegro, in an attempt to woo them away from the European sphere. It has often used disinformation to these ends. Hungary is not a Slavic nation – but Putin until recently maintained close ties with its similarly hardline prime minister Viktor Orbán, meeting more regularly with him than almost any other European leader. Presumably, Putin saw Orbán’s anti-democratic leanings and dissent on key issues such as immigration policy as potentially fracturing EU unity in a way that was beneficial to him. But the Ukraine war has pushed Orbán back towards European solidarity.

In the west, Russia has fostered links – providing varying degrees of strategic political and financial support – with Matteo Salvini’s League party in Italy, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, the Freedom Party in Austria and Germany’s AfD. Spanning the spectrum from populist to far-right, they broadly espouse a brand of anti-euro, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim and nativist politics that align with Putin’s own – and have backed stronger ties with Russia. There is still no conclusive evidence to establish Russian interference in the UK’s Brexit vote – but a key report has stated that the government failed to properly investigate the possibility. Arron Banks, a key funder of Nigel Farage’s campaign to leave the EU, is shown to have met Russian officials several times in the run-up to the 2016 referendum – leaving many questions unanswered about the scope of possible interference.

Similarly, it has never been proven that Donald Trump colluded with Russia in his election as president in 2016 – but regardless the US intelligence community believes the country conducted operations on multiple levels to this effect. Only Putin could have authorised the hacking of the Democratic National Committee systems that resulted in the leaking of emails designed to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, senior intelligence officials have stated. Whether or not Trump conspired to engineer his own victory, he is a longstanding admirer of Putin’s strongman style – an opinion shared by a raft of white supremacist organisations in the US who enjoyed far greater national prominence while Trump was in power.

Putin didn’t create the gang of populists, demagogues and nationalists currently jostling for dominance on the geopolitical stage. The backlash to globalisation among the marginalised, growing competition for resources in a world under threat of climate change, and the instability of 21st-century life have done that. But he is attempting to exploit and direct this rising right-wing tide for Russia’s ends – and, as his belligerence hardens, this may bring a new fascist axis into being. Marine Le Pen may have lost Sunday’s French presidential election, but she also succeeded in winning a historic 13 million votes nationwide. In France and elsewhere, surely Putin will be looking at how to widen these widening social chasms.

Written By: Phil Hoad (Editor in Chief).

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