White Nationalists Are Tearing Each Other Apart Over Ukraine
Putin falsely claims his mission is to “denazify” a country led by a Jewish president. Committed neo-Nazis and other racists can’t agree on which side they want to win.
In the days since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, a vast majority of Americans have rallied in support of the beleaguered nation, and many have condemned Vladimir Putin and his allies. This rare moment of national unity reflects the blatant injustice of Russia’s unprovoked military aggression, and the clear, senseless pain and suffering the Kremlin’s offensive has caused.
But no matter how open and shut this crisis seems to most people, a small yet vocal subset of Americans are still torn over how to interpret and react to it: white nationalists.
“They have responded unevenly” to the crisis, David Lawrence of HOPE Not Hate, an advocacy group that combats racism and fascism and monitors far-right chatter, told The Daily Beast. “It’s a divisive issue for them.”
These virulent racists are all scrutinizing the conflict through the same “framework of antisemitism [and] pro-authoritarianism,” explained Alexandra Stern, one of a dozen experts who monitor and analyze white nationalist groups The Daily Beast spoke to for this story. Yet they’re reaching radically different conclusions about it. In the process, they’re laying bare long-simmering fault lines within their twisted movement—and sparking petty conflicts that may create serious fractures within key far-right alliances and organizations.
“The division within the movement is pretty stark,” a spokesperson for one niche—but far from innocuous—white nationalist group told The Daily Beast.
However, experts caution that this chaos will likely not put a damper on white nationalism in the United States. Instead, it may serve mostly to get conspiratorial bigots riled up as they retrench into ill-informed hot takes about a global conflict—potentially making them more dangerous than ever.
“It may make some people feel the need to double down and perhaps even act out on their beliefs,” explained Amy Cooter, a sociologist who studies white nationalists in America.
Chatter in far-right forums, social media posts, and expert analyses show that some of these white nationalists claim to stand with Ukraine because they see Russia’s actions as a threat to the idea of national self-determination. (This is an important concept for racists who dream of self-determining their way to the creation of all-white states.) Some have also taken Putin’s stated—and highly dubious—goal of “demilitarizing and denazifying” the nation as a direct attack on their ideals. In predictably conspiratorial and bigoted fashion, some have even denounced Putin as a secret Jew or member of a shadowy Jewish cabal that allegedly controls Russia and wants to use this war, as one recent post in a large, American-led, white nationalist forum put it, to “divert the attention [sic] from the plans of the big globalist cliques, great reset plans.” (That phrase refers to a notorious and long-debunked conspiracy theory about an elite plot to manipulate the pandemic.)
Rather than throw their weight behind Ukraine’s Jewish president, however, this sect has largely thrown its lot in with the Azov Battalion, a militia absorbed into the Ukrainian National Guard in 2014 to help fight Russia. Despite its official status, the Battalion was and is a far-right extremist group with well-documented neo-Nazi leanings.
Others stand with Russia because they believe Putin is a bulwark against Western liberal ideals and alleged “globalist” (read: Jewish) plots that supposedly threaten white Christian civilization. And because they like the cut of his performatively hypermasculine jib. As one prominent American white nationalist put it in a recent and especially ugly post, they hold “faith that Vladimir Putin is a Christian King sent by God to free Christendom from the clutches of the Jewish homo agenda.”
Gulping down Kremlin propaganda, this set applauds Putin for supposedly saving his ethnic kin from what they falsely claim is a corrupt, NATO-puppet government. And at times for starting a war that some of them believe will devolve into a global conflict with “the potential to upend the ‘liberal global order’ that they so despise,” noted Stern.
Yet another faction favors neutrality. Some of these people just believe this conflict has nothing to do with their own Amero-centric missions. A representative for one KKK group told The Daily Beast that they didn’t want to comment on this topic in part because they don’t engage with the press and in part because the conflict “is a continent away and if it doesn’t pertain to America, then we don’t have any interest in it.”
But many more falsely argue that Jewish elites in both states, and NATO, supposedly cooked up this conflict to advance uncertain global goals at the cost of white male lives. As another poster in that white nationalist forum argued, “This war was provoked by the Jews and the Jews will be the beneficiaries and the Whites the losers.”
“Which of these two… factions… should Whites support?” yet another poster asked rhetorically. “None, they’re both as bad as each other….”
Calum Farley, a researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told The Daily Beast that one of the most common refrains of late in channels he monitors has been “No More Brother Wars.” That slogan references the supposedly unique tragedy of what racists see as manufactured, senseless white-on-white violence.
Experts who monitor white nationalist chatter disagree about how common each of these positions is within the loathsome movement. But there’s certainly been a fair amount of infighting among the bigots over whose skewed view is the right one.
On one of the largest American-led, white nationalist forums, a user recently argued that “Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a Jew. That’s all you need to know.”
“No,” another responded. “The correct perspective is that Putin is … a Jew lover.”
Elsewhere on that forum, a user started a thread to ask the community, “Why there [sic] are so many putin lovers” on the site these days. He elaborated, “How can many members support a tyrant dwarf, soviet nostalgic lover and anti-white jewish puppet like putin?”
“You seem to be brainwashed by jews beyond repair,” another user snapped back.
On a white nationalist blog, the same figure who lauded Putin as “a Christian King sent by God” slapped at the Russian strongman’s detractors, saying they were just “triggered by any insult to Nazism.”
In response to his pro-Putin rhetoric, another American white nationalist blog published a post calling him out by name. “It is disgusting to see so many ignorant or malicious people in our movement… take the side of Putin and specifically citing how Putin is this great and wonderful man and how he’s going to save the White race and stop the Jews,” they spat. “When in reality the Russian Federation is just as against our race and very much a Jewish controlled [state].”
A spokesperson for that blog told The Daily Beast that they believe pro-Putin views are in some cases a byproduct of contrarianism by critics of the American government within the white-nationalist movement. In others, they suggested pro-Kremlin stances are a direct result of American white nationalists taking money from or developing “suspicious links to the Russian Government.”
“They’re just straight up State Actors,” they argued.
This internal turmoil has led a few white nationalist groups to waffle in their public messaging on the conflict. Joshua Fisher-Birch, a researcher at the Counter Extremism Project, recounted how one notable Telegram channel made a pro-Russian post on Feb. 21, “claiming that they were fighting against Jews, liberalism, and globalism.” But the channel soon deleted it, and days later issued a wishy-washy statement about supporting white people rather than a nation.
Fisher-Birch pointed out that the founder of the group behind that channel and several of his associates had worked with Ukraine’s far-right, anti-Kremlin Azov movement in the past, making the initial post awkward and inconsistent.
Outsiders often talk about white nationalism—and white nationalists often present themselves—as one cohesive movement. But every expert The Daily Beast spoke to pointed out that there are actually tons of sub-movements and sub-currents within the ugly space, each with its own precise vision of what white ethnostates should look like, how to relate to governments and wider society, and the level of focus they put on antisemitism specifically, or on individual conspiracy theories.
These splits lead to squabbles anytime the movement latches on to a big event. Cooter, the sociologist, said by way of an example that, “in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, some group members viewed his death as an opportunity to challenge police authority, while others believed it evidenced the need to support police to avoid damage.”
But as Lawrence of HOPE Not Hate pointed out, “The crisis in Ukraine was particularly primed for controversy among white nationalists.”
That is to say, it’s a conflict framed, at least in part, around national self-determination and Western liberal values, key issues for these groups. And it involves a lot of direct rhetoric about Nazis and far-right extremism. Yet the sides in the conflict don’t align easily with the childish, black-and-white narratives about cosmic forces of (white) good and (Jewish, multicultural) evil they thrive on.
Ukraine has a Western-aligned government and a Jewish president. But it’s also home to the Azov movement, the Nazi-tinged militia currently fighting alongside forces loyal to that Jewish president. (Although Azov gets hyped on the far right, the overall Ukrainian neo-Nazi movement doesn’t appear to be any larger or more active than similar movements in other nations.) Putin has spent years framing himself as a key supporter of the Western far right, and works with his nation’s own white supremacist militias. But he also purports, however absurdly, to be waging a war against Nazism in Ukraine, and has reportedly deployed Muslim Chechen troops to fight (white) Ukrainians. He has a history of at least voicing support for minority groups within Russia, of working with folks the far right consider evil Jewish elites, and of cracking down on certain forms of far-right activity and hate speech in Russia, as well.
“A lot of white nationalists have pre-packaged narratives that leave them unsure how to interpret this,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization dedicated to fighting antisemitism—and named after a famous Nazi hunter. “This is a totally confusing picture for a lot of them to look at.”
Or, as a white nationalist put it in a recent post on one forum, “We live in strange times indeed. A country with a jewish president will need to rely on an antisemitic batallion [sic] of capable pro-White soldiers to repel the invasion let by another White traitor (Putin).”
However, rather than admit that maybe geopolitics aren’t as simplistic as their bigoted narratives might suggest, white nationalists jump through wild hoops to explain away seeming paradoxes.
Kurt Braddock, an expert on far-right rhetoric, noted that groups interested in QAnon-type conspiracy theories and Trumpian MAGA rhetoric tend to side with Russia. Some of these people don’t specifically consider themselves neo-Nazis, and so can just brush aside Putin’s claims about denazification. Others claim he was just talking about the Azov Battalion, which they assert is actually an Israeli-run and -funded goon squad—based largely on observations about their “suspicious physiognomy,” their weapons, and a few stray comments in obscure articles. Any other apparent contradictions between Putin’s actions and their beliefs get explained away as a necessary evil, or brilliant three-dimensional chess moves.
“Publicly Putin glorifies Stalin and evil Jews,” one supporter wrote in a white-nationalist forum recently. “However, I suspect that is a cover to buy him 22 years to prepare for what will happen next.”
That is to say, a hoped-for fundamental overturning of the world order.
Groups whose members consider themselves firm neo-Nazis and put antisemitism front and center in their agendas, however, have a harder time forgiving Putin’s denazification rhetoric and past anti-Nazi actions within Russia. Some white nationalists also take serious issue with the prospect of Putin using Chechen troops in Ukraine. (Adding to the confusion, some Chechens have fought on behalf of Ukraine against Russian influence in the past.)
“We are aware that the current Ukrainian Government sucks shit,” one such white nationalist group wrote in a recent blog post. “It’s a bad government run by a literal Jewish Clown… However this doesn’t mean we should just go support Putin flushing Ukraine with a bunch of non-White Mongoloids who will most certainly pillage and rape the White population of Ukraine.” (This is a racist reference to Chechen troops.)
“We support Ukraine National Socialist groups such as the Azov Regiment and we support the people of Ukraine currently fighting against non-white muslim” people the post continues. (The original post used a Russian slur specifically for people from the Caucasus region, including Chechens.)
In other words, they stand with Ukraine—just not its government. In fact, some of these groups hope that the Azov Battalion’s supposed heroism in the conflict will inspire a white nationalist revolution once the conflict ends, turning Ukraine into a bastion for far-right extremists like them.
The tension between these conspiratorial reinterpretations of reality have led to a surge of backbiting and accusations across the white nationalist web between proponents of different views on the Ukraine conflict. Posters on movement forums call each other brainwashed morons or controlled opposition, attempt to debunk each other’s claims and call for more rigorous sources, and accuse each other of having white blood on their hands. “You are so obvious, tell your handler you need a refresher course,” one poster on a prominent forum said to another advancing a pro-Ukraine argument.
“Are you referring to yourself in the third person?” that individual retorted, third-grader-style (while misidentifying the second-person voice), adding, “I hear the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv is hiring.”
Moderators on that forum in particular are now regularly pleading with their members to stop calling each other names and picking fights. The site “exists to help solve problems, not to squabble incessantly,” one admin wrote in a recent post, threatening mod action against users.
This confusion and infighting, as well as conspiratorial tendencies and hardline bigotry, may explain why many white-nationalist groups and individuals have basically decided to stay out of the whole thing. “Russia is a ZOG. Ukraine is a ZOG,” one cynical poster wrote, using white nationalist slang for a state supposedly secretly controlled by malicious, shadowy, Jewish elites, summing up this stance.
“That kind of conspiracy theory simplifies an intrinsically complicated situation, allowing people to maintain ideologies without the cognitive dissonance” of taking a side, Braddock argued.
Rather than a trivial pissing match between ill-willed and ill-informed actors limited to the confines of their own little dystopian universe, experts suspect that this bizarre squabble between racists may have worrying implications for the wider world.
“This kind of split in opinion can lead to enormous infighting in, and the dissolution of, certain groups,” according to Cooter, based on her observations of the far-right space throughout history.
Some white nationalists certainly seem worried about the damage division over how to read and react to the Ukraine conflict could do to them. “People are liable to pick a favorite one way or another,” a poster in a white-nationalist forum recently wrote. “But can we PLEASE NOT ALLOW THIS TO POLARIZE WHITE NATIONALISTS AGAINST THE OTHER?”
None of the experts or white nationalists The Daily Beast spoke to for this story had a sense of how deep or far the cracks in the movement triggered by this conflict will spread. That likely depends on how the war progresses, according to Sophie Bjork-James, an anthropologist who studies white nationalism.
However, even if this disorder does lead to shake ups in the movement, Cooter cautioned, that’s not necessarily a positive outcome for the rest of society. After all, if a group disintegrates, its members won’t stop being white nationalists, she noted—they’ll just flee elsewhere. And the groups that remain may just double down on their most extreme, conspiratorial beliefs in response to internal criticism.
“We could see extreme elements radicalize even further,” she said, “becoming more dangerous.”