- Image 1 of 3
- Image 2 of 3
- Image 3 of 3
ZHDANIVKA, Ukraine – Moscow calls the detention center under construction near the Russian border a "fascist concentration camp." Inside the barbed-wire fences, the reality appears less ominous: It's an EU-funded project to hold asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, similar to other such detention centers across Europe.
The accusation is one of the more outlandish in a relentless Kremlin-driven propaganda offensive that uses World War II-era terms and imagery to rail against Ukraine's fledging government. "Nazis," ''fascists" and "Fritzes" are some of the terms that Russia is hurling at Ukrainian authorities who took power after the ouster of the last elected president, a reversal in political fortunes that has led to pro-Western Ukrainian government in Kiev and a pro-Russian insurgency gaining intensity in the country's east.
It's an effective tactic because of the emotional weight that World War II has in Russia. The Soviet victory against Hitler is the nation's single most powerful rallying cry. In evoking the ugliest words related to Nazi Germany, the Russian media loyal to President Vladimir Putin is galvanizing support for his aggressive stance toward Ukraine, both among his countrymen and among Russian-speakers in Ukraine's east.
It's also a dangerous tactic, because the inflammatory propaganda may provoke the anti-Kiev opposition in the east.
The propaganda assault began during the pro-Western Maidan protests late last year that ousted Ukraine's pro-Russian president in February: Russian state news media were quick to dismiss the protests as the work of Ukrainian neo-Nazis, a particularly loaded accusation because Ukrainian nationalists collaborating with the Nazis are blamed for horrific reprisal attacks during World War II. The Maidan movement did contain an ultranationalist element, known as the Right Sector, but its influence appears greatly amplified by the Russian media.
Putin has set the national tone by eagerly using the word "Nazis" to refer to the protesters in Ukraine. Speaking at his annual April call-in show, Putin warned that "neo-Nazism is on the rise" in Ukraine.
By invoking World War II imagery, the Kremlin is stirring a cauldron of emotion; millions of Russians were killed in battle or thrown into Nazi camps in a war that left no family unaffected.
"The only thing that truly unites the nation is the mythology of the Second World War and the idea of victory," said political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. "Putin appeals to that; there's nothing else to rally around."
Arkady Mamontov, a TV journalist who also led the media assault against punk band Pussy Riot, broadcast footage of the Zhdanivka detention center, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of the major eastern city of Donetsk, on his Sunday program and declared that Ukraine was constructing "fascist concentration camps" for pro-Russian activists rallying in eastern Ukrainian cities.
"There will be enough cells for everyone," Mamontov said as he walked along the barbed-wire fence. He failed to provide any evidence of it.
On an unannounced visit to the facility, The Associated Press was given an extensive tour of the grounds, and found nothing to suggest it was not an ordinary detention center. There were rows of barracks under construction for 100 people, but no barred windows or watch-towers.
"We're not building any Auschwitz here," said Volodymyr Pashchenko, a Ukrainian official with the Turkish company building the facility. "This is not a prison. This is a center which is to provide normal accommodation to people who have fled to Europe or who have somehow ended up in Ukraine illegally."
Pashchenko said his company secured the deal in 2010 to build the immigration detention center, which is being completed under an EU-funded project.
There is a deep and dark history behind the anti-Ukrainian messages now emanating from Russia.
When Nazi troops entered Ukraine in 1942, they enlisted local Ukrainians to fight for them and against the Soviet Union. The nationalist Ukrainian brigades that were formed saw themselves as patriots fighting for independence. But while serving under the Nazis, some participated in war crimes including extermination campaigns against Jews, Poles and fellow Ukrainians. Even after the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, bands of Ukrainian nationalists fought on in the forests against the Soviet re-occupation of Ukraine until finally subdued or annihilated by around 1948.
Pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine are drawing inspiration from the Kremlin in pushing the Fascism narrative. "No to Fascism" banners flutter and wartime songs blare from loudspeakers in front of occupied government headquarters in the eastern city of Donetsk. One poster inside shows President Barack Obama's face with a Hitler mustache and the distinctive blond braids of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Alarmist rumors have proliferated since Russia began calling the Ukraine leadership fascist. One popular claim is that the Kiev government has hatched a plan to "exterminate" Russian-speakers in the east. The rumors feed into Putin's argument that Moscow needs to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
"They already have it all planned out," said retired coal miner Volodymyr Chernenko. "In the social networks, they say that a partisan war should be waged, and they list the names of those whose throats should be slashed and who should be blown up."
Russian news media regularly distort information to make it fit the black-and-white World War II mindset, condoning vigilante violence.
Pro-Kremlin Life News television recently showed footage of gangs wearing St. George ribbons — the symbol of the pro-Russia movement — viciously beating marchers at a peaceful Ukrainian unity rally.
Instead of condemning the brutality, the TV anchor announced: "Donetsk self-defense broke up a neo-Nazi march."
Russian officials have gradually adopted the media's World War II rhetoric.
The Russian foreign ministry quoted Mamontov's concentration camp report in a statement on the following day and went further, asking: "Is the Kiev regime going to throw discontented citizens from the country's south-east in there?"
Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Peter Leonard contributed to this report from Donetsk, Ukraine.