Ukrainian Jews expressed outrage Thursday after Russian troops entered their country on a self-declared mission of “denazification” after claims that Kyiv was actively carrying out war crimes against its own citizens.
President Vladimir Putin stated in an address to the Russian people on Thursday morning that “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.
“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,” he said, condemning “far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine.”
Shortly after the speech, the Ukrainian government's official Twitter account posted a depiction of Adolf Hitler proudly caressing the face of Putin. It wrote: "This is not a 'meme,' but our and your reality right now."
Ilya, a Jewish businessman from Kyiv, had a succinct response to the Russian claims.
Calling Putin “totally nuts,” he said “the Jews of Ukraine are an integral part of Ukrainian society and we never faced Nazism here, or fascism, and we feel safe in Ukraine. [But] we don’t feel safe when Russia says there are Nazis here.”
Ilya, who asked that his surname not be published, recounted how he had woken up to the “sound of rocket fire” and “anti-aircraft” batteries reverberating throughout the Ukrainian capital.
His family had “just gathered all the documents, money and some clothes, packed them in backpacks and bags, and we’ll go to my office,” he said. “I’ve got a big basement and we have lounge areas and a kitchen there, so we’ll be safe. It’s made of concrete and has an air-conditioning system, so it’s the safest place for now I think,” he added.
Putin has long used allegations of Ukrainian Nazism to legitimize his actions against the former Soviet state. In 2014, following the Russian invasion of Crimea, he claimed that his actions were motivated by concerns over an alleged “rampage” of reactionary, nationalistic and antisemitic forces across the country.
During the buildup to this week’s invasion, Russian leaders and state media repeatedly claimed that Ukrainian forces were perpetrating a genocide against residents of two eastern districts – Luhansk and Donetsk – controlled by Russian-backed separatists that broke away from Kyiv eight years ago.
“What are we waiting for? Until they build concentration camps there? Or gas their population,” Politico reported the head of the Kremlin-backed television network RT asking earlier this month.
During and after the annexation of Crimea, RT and other state-controlled media outlets broadcast frequent reports about attacks on Ukrainian Jews, most of which were entirely or partially fabricated.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, addressed the claims directly during a last-ditch appeal for peace on Wednesday. “You are told we are Nazis, but how can a people support Nazis that gave more than 8 million lives for the victory over Nazism? How can I be a Nazi?” he asked.
“Tell my grandpa, who went through the whole war in the infantry of the Soviet Army and died as a colonel in independent Ukraine,” he added.
Jewish communal leaders were also mystified by Putin’s comments.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” said Kyiv Chief Rabbi Yonatan Markovitch. “I can only say that in terms of antisemitism, we’re very secure here. Incidents are very rare and the government takes care of them. We’re now in a war situation and hear sirens and see smoke from our house, [so] I don’t want to get into the issue of antisemitism. It’s not relevant. We’re in a war and we’re all coming together.”
Michael Colborne, an expert on the Ukrainian far right, said Putin’s rhetoric “shows how internalized his nonsense ‘antifascist’ rhetoric is and how being so steeped in self-serving World War II rhetoric has divorced him from reality.
“Right now, he’s parroting the worst of Soviet-era propaganda about Ukrainians as all being ‘Nazis,’ each and every one,” said Colborne, author of the upcoming “From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right.”
“No one around the world who’s concerned about the far right or considers themselves antifascist should take this rhetoric from him seriously,” he added.
Markovitch, meanwhile, later told the German press agency DPA that some of Kyiv’s Jews “are afraid of antisemitism because we don’t know what will happen,” while his wife Inna noted that throughout history, Jews have been blamed for any kind of unrest in society. “History repeats itself,” she said.
Their remarks come two days after Rabbi Meir Stambler, chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, told Haaretz he was concerned by the possibility of antisemitic provocations carried out by Russian agents.
In previous years, Ukraine’s Jewish leaders have accused Russia of instigating antisemitism incidents in order to discredit the Ukrainians.
DPA contributed to this report.