Fact check: Putin's claims justifying war in Ukraine are baseless, experts say

Daniel Funke

As the war in Ukraine continues, so too does the information war.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military operation in Ukraine on Feb. 24, misinformation has spread widely across social media. Many of the false posts have included out-of-context images or videos claiming to show the invasion, while others have promoted Russian propaganda about the war.

But fact-free allegations were baked into Russia's invasion from the beginning.

"The Kremlin is executing a massive disinformation campaign at home against its own domestic population," Cindy Otis, a former CIA officer and disinformation expert, told USA TODAY.

In a speech prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Putin said he wanted to "denazify" the country. He accused the Ukrainian government of committing genocide. And he said the country planned to develop its own nuclear arsenal.

"The purpose of this operation is to protect people who for eight years now have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime," Putin said, according to a translation from the Russian Mission in Geneva. "To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation."

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Numerous experts told USA TODAY those claims – which the Kremlin and its allies have promoted repeatedly in official statements, state news broadcasts and on social media over the recent weeks – are baseless.

"They're minimizing the war," Olga Lautman, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told USA TODAY. "If you read Russian press, you would think this is kind of a tiny operation and that Russia is the kindest country who's opened their borders up to take all these refugees ... which is the opposite of what we see with all the images."

USA TODAY fact-checked three prevailing claims the Kremlin has made to justify its invasion of Ukraine. We are presenting context and examining evidence but not directly rating these claims, as the situation continues to evolve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall to chair a Security Council meeting in Moscow on Feb. 25, 2022.

Putin's 'denazify' comments are false, distort history

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has referred to the Ukrainian government as "openly neo-Nazi” and “pro-Nazi,’’ phrases that strike a nerve in Russia, where citizens recall their country’s history in helping to defeat Hitler’s Nazi Germany. However, experts say Putin’s comments are a false portrayal of the Ukrainian government and distort history.

"That's an argument that's about 80 years out-of-date, historically," Christopher Browning, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina and an expert on Nazi Germany, told USA TODAY. "Three generations past render it mostly irrelevant."

In the 1930s, Ukrainians suffered famine under the rule of Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin. So when German troops entered Ukraine in 1941, a group that was "not a small or insignificant" wanted to collaborate with the Germans with the hope of achieving independence, Browning said.

"Of course, the Germans had no intention of granting them independence but were happy to exploit their wishful thinking in that regard," he said.

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Ukrainian police collaborated with Nazi Germany and aided in the extermination of Jews during World War II. An estimated 24 million Soviet service members and civilians died during the war – the most of any country, according to the National World War II Museum. 

Nearly seven decades later, in 2014, some far-right groups participated in the Maidan Uprising in Ukraine, which the Kremlin falsely claimed was a fascist coup. And today, far-right groups like the Azov Battalion, also known as the Azov Regiment, are part of some Ukrainian volunteer battalions, according to reports by USA TODAY and other media outlets.   

However, that doesn't mean Nazis control Ukraine, whose president is Jewish and lost family members in the Holocaust.

"This rhetoric is factually wrong, morally repugnant and deeply offensive to the memory of millions of victims of Nazism and those who courageously fought against it, including Russian and Ukrainian soldiers of the Red Army," reads an open letter from dozens of Nazism and genocide scholars worldwide.

Firefighters extinguish an apartment house after a Russian rocket attack March 18 in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city.

Claims of genocide in Donbas region are baseless

In another echo of World War II, Putin claimed during his Feb. 24 speech that the Ukrainian government was responsible for "horror and genocide" in the eastern Donbas region, where Ukraine has fought pro-Russian separatists since 2014. Russia has also accused the country of genocide in reports to the United Nations.

The U.S. State Department and human rights experts say those assertions are false.

"No evidence has been produced by the Russian government to substantiate this claim," David Scheffer, a former U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an email. "Nor have repeated investigations by the (United Nations) High Commissioner for Human Rights produced any such evidence."

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Under the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide has a specific legal definition: "Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Those acts include killing members of the group and causing serious harm to them, among others.

Ukraine's armed conflict with pro-Russian separatists in Donbas does not appear to meet that definition. And if it did, as the Kremlin has claimed for years, it stands to reason there would be an increase in casualties.

But data don't back that up.

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No reports from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, which conducts special monitoring in eastern Ukraine, indicate anything resembling genocide in Donbas. Civilian deaths in the region have actually plummeted over the past few years, according to the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Governments and political leaders have long used genocide – or claims of genocide – as a justification for foreign intervention. In Russia's case, "an additional factor is that the term intersects with the memory of the war against Nazism, which looms large in the Russian imagination," according to Alejandro Baer, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.

"Putin has exploited this memory to justify his war," he said in an email. "The accusation of Ukrainians as 'Nazis' who commit 'genocide' might sound absurd to us in the West, but it strikes a chord in the Russian public."

No evidence Ukraine is developing nuclear weapons

In recent weeks, Russian media and officials have repeated Putin's accusation that Ukraine is trying to develop its own nuclear weapons. Russia has put its own nuclear forces on high alert amid the conflict.

However, Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal nearly 30 years ago – and there's no evidence the country is working to rebuild it.

"The argument is ridiculous, and there is absolutely no evidence to support it at all," former Rep. John Tierney, executive director of the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation, told USA TODAY. "Ukraine was one of the early people to enter into the nonproliferation treaty along with a whole bunch of other countries, and it's never been found to be in contravention to its terms."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine inherited thousands of nuclear arms. However, according to the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative, Ukraine "never possessed operational control of the weapons." Three years later, Ukraine signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurance from Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

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The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, which has a broad inspection mandate in Ukraine, has refuted the notion that the country is developing nuclear weapons. And nuclear energy experts say Ukraine doesn't have the capacity to do so.

"There is no significant potential for a nuclear weapons program in Ukraine," Matthew Bunn, professor of the practice of energy, national security and foreign policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, told USA TODAY.

Ukraine has neither the material to develop nuclear weapons – such as highly enriched uranium or plutonium separated from spent fuel – nor facilities to produce those materials. Building them would take years and cost billions of dollars, Bunn said.

"There is no country in the world that has ever gotten close to nuclear weapons without the world knowing about it years ahead of time," he said.

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