Putin Can't Count on the Jews of Ukraine - but He Always Has Israel

Israel won’t take any step that will anger either side, including not condemning Putin’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula.

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CRIMEA - On Thursday afternoon, a few hundred people stood gathered outside the parliament in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, to support the region’s new puppet government, which was voting on a resolution to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Unsurprisingly, the resolution passed 78-0 (with eight abstentions.) In 10 days a referendum will take place in which the people of Crimea will be asked to confirm their annexation by Russia.

Despite the waving of Russian flags (and even one red Soviet flag,) a march by uniformed militiamen, patriotic songs blaring from the loudspeakers and the violent removal of two women who dared demonstrate against the Russian occupation and were dragged away by their hair, it was hardly a mass celebration of independence. Two million people live in Crimea, sixty percent of them ethnic Russians, but less than a thousand turned up for the rally. Many more carried on shopping, eating in restaurants or going about their business in the surrounding streets, which had been closed to traffic.

The referendum will undoubtedly pass by a large majority, but many Crimeans are torn. “My father is Russian, grew up in Bolshevik times and is totally in favor of returning to Russia,” says Ira Drigelazov, an English teacher from Simferopol. “But my Jewish mother is less enthusiastic. I am just angry at all the mess which is ruining the local economy. Tourists won’t come here now. I don’t support Kiev either, the politicians there are unprofessional.” Others residents were also less than exuberant, particularly those who belong to mixed families of Russians and Ukrainians and preferred the status quo.

It won’t matter, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wrapped his army’s invasion in a propaganda campaign portraying the Kiev government as persecuting Russian-speakers and the soldiers as “local self-defense forces” will win the referendum by a large majority. Nothing else is certain.

Will Putin formally annex Crimea or make do with its breaking away from Ukraine? Will his soldiers advance into eastern Ukraine or will he make do with undermining the Kiev government from afar? Does the West have any leverage to pressure Putin? What can Kiev do while it is dealing simultaneously with an invasion, financial crisis and a divided nation? A week since the Russian forces began operating in Crimea and we’re far from any answers.

Mutual gains

Both sides made gains this week. Russia carried out a smooth occupation without any local opposition. So far, the sanctions the West is considering don’t seem particularly painful. He continues to hold many options. But Kiev also saw some success. The government survived, for a start. It is about to receive emergency financial aid from the West. Order has begun to be restored to the cities in the west where pro-government Russian-speakers also took to the streets. And despite Russia’s military preponderance, the disintegration of the Ukrainian armed forces was blocked, a moral boost to citizens loyal to Kiev.

The fact that throughout Crimea, hundreds of soldiers and officers are still holding out in their bases and aboard ships in Sevastopol Bay, flying the Ukrainian flag and refusing to hand their weapons to the Russian soldiers and local militia, sticks in the craw of the annexationists. The Crimean government threatened yesterday that any “third country” troops remaining on their soil would be treated as “illegal bands.”

It doesn’t seem that for now the Russians have an interest in war breaking out, at least not before the referendum is held. Neither do the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, who in many cases chatted, and exchanged cigarettes and impressions, seem eager to fire on each other. Sons of both nations serve in both armies and this affinity is partly the reason that no shot has been fired in anger.

Since Tuesday morning, when the commander of Belbek airbase, Colonel Yuliy Memcher, led his men to the Russian lines, accompanied by camera crews, the Ukrainian officers have become media mavens; expert at creating images of wives kissing their barricaded soldier-husbands through gates and at briefing the hundreds of journalists streaming into Crimea.

Yesterday, Colonel Sergey Storozhenko held a briefing outside the gates of Perevalne base, west of Simferopol. “We won’t give in to the demands that we join the Crimean government,” he said, with Russian soldiers looking on. “We will remain until ordered otherwise. For now our orders are to deal with this peacefully”. More than any loyalty to the politicians in Kiev, the soldiers are holding on through their pride in their units' heritage of fighting the Germans as part of the Red Army in World War II.

Officially, Ukraine and Russia are still not at war. Everyone is waiting for the provokatzia – a single violent event that would give the signal for the shooting to commence. It could be the murder of a Russian soldier or a Molotov cocktail thrown at a military truck. Kiev is convinced the Russians are planning such a provocation. A week has passed without one, but Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing nothing to move the gunpowder away from the fire. He has no reason to do so now.

He is also trying to use memories of World War II, with his media calling the revolutionaries in Kiev "Banderovtzi," supporters of anti-Semitic nationalist Stepan Bandera who fought for Ukraine’s independence and for a while supported the Germans. It hasn’t however created that much of an impression within Ukraine.

Letter to Putin

Meanwhile, Putin has lost at least one battle in which he invested major propaganda resources. For weeks, the Kremlin-controlled media has tried to portray the pro-Western parties in Ukraine as “neo-Nazis” and “anti-Semites.” A few Jewish figures, particularly Chabad rabbis, have echoed this rhetoric with warnings of a massive wave of anti-Semitism and calls for the Jews to flee Ukraine. On Wednesday, dozens of Ukrainian Jewish leaders signed a joint open letter (not an easy feat for such a fractious community) to Putin excoriating him for his tendency to “pick and choose lies and slander from the massive amount of information about Ukraine” and accusing him that “in recent days stability in our country has been threatened. And this threat is coming from the Russian government, namely – from you personally. It is your policy of inciting separatism and crude pressure placed on Ukraine that threatens us and all Ukrainian people.”

In the letter they wrote that, as Russian-speaking Ukrainians, they are not concerned by an alleged attempt to persecute and marginalize Russian-speakers and refuted the Kremlin’s claims saying that “even the most marginal (of political parties) do not dare show anti-Semitism or other xenophobic behavior. And we certainly know that our very few nationalists are well-controlled by civil society and the new Ukrainian government – which is more than can be said for the Russian neo-Nazis, who are encouraged by your security services.”

Such a coruscating letter to Russia’s leader is unprecedented and is a clear indication that the Jews of Ukraine have decided to put their faith and fate in the hands of the Kiev government. If there are any indications that Putin may yet fail to undermine his neighbor and install a puppet regime in Kiev, the fact that Ukraine’s Jews are no longer sitting on the fence is one.

Putin and Israel

Putin may have lost Ukraine’s Jews but he will always have Israel.

The First Crimean War broke out on March 28, 1854, 160 years ago this month, over attempts by the French Emperor Napoleon III to put French Catholic monks in control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem instead of Russian Orthodox priests. The current geopolitical showdown around the peninsula is seemingly not connected to Jerusalem in any way. The strategic alliance with the United States, on the one hand, and the desire not to anger Putin, on the other, mandate Israeli silence over Ukraine. On Wednesday, following American pressure, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s personal spokesman issued an anemic statement expressing the hope that the crisis in Ukraine could be solved in a peaceful manner. Not a mention of Russia or Crimea.

And yet, Israel is connected.

A Ukrainian citizen stepping in to the lobby of one of Tel-Aviv’s luxury hotels this week would have been surprised to encounter there a wider array of his country’s political and business elite, many of them meeting senior Israeli officials and businesspeople. In this conflict, Israel has become a safe-haven, a neutral zone where Ukrainians afraid to remain in there homeland can rest their heads. Many of them own homes in western Europe, particularly in London, but while the European Union is discussing the freezing of assets of those close to the old regime, why take the risk? Israel is a few hours flight from Ukraine, there are lots of Russian-speakers and there is no need to worry about any sanctions. Israel won’t take any step that will anger either side, including not condemning Putin’s occupation.

Meanwhile, Israel’s ambassador in Kiev, Reuven Dinel, a former intelligence officer, has been holding quiet meetings with leaders of the parties that toppled president Viktor Yanukovych two weeks ago. The meetings have included the ultra-nationalist parties, which are eager to cleanse themselves of the stain of anti-Semitism that has tainted the entire Maidan revolution, at least in the eyes of the Kremlin-influenced media.

There have been two major crises in the Israel-Putin relationship. The first came in 2006, when Israel accused Russia of having supplied Hezbollah with advanced anti-tank missiles that damaged Israel Defense Forces tanks. The Kremlin initially denied the charge, until Israel sent analyses from the IDF substances laboratory that proved beyond doubt the missiles’ provenance. An Israeli official who took part in the meetings with the Kremlin said the Russians were surprised that the missiles, originally supplied to Syria, had found their way to Lebanon and promised to supervise more closely in the future.

The second crisis came with the outbreak of the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, when weapons systems and training supplied by Israel assisted the small Georgian army in inflicting casualties on the Russian invaders. Putin met President Shimon Peres at the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games and made it clear Russia would not remain silent. The message struck home and the former IDF officers and Israeli security companies working in Georgia were instructed to return home immediately.

Since then, there has been close coordination between Jerusalem and Moscow, manifested among other things in the continued delay of supplies of advanced S300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, despite their being paid for. The supervision of Russian weapons in Syria has loosened, especially since the outbreak of the civil war there, but Russian has not reacted to the destruction, ascribed to Israel, of advanced Russian missiles that were about to be handed over to Hezbollah. As long as this coordination remains in place, not a word of criticism will be heard from Israel, no matter what the Russians do in Crimea.

A Ukrainian soldier and family inside the Belbek air force base in the Crimea.Credit: AFP

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