With Russian troops gathering on his borders and Western powers warning Moscow against a possible invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky compared his nation’s current struggle against Russia to Israel’s decades-long conflict with its Arab neighbors.
In a pre-recorded address at the Kyiv Jewish Forum, an annual conference organized by the Ukrainian Jewish community, Zelensky, who himself is Jewish, said that Israel is “often an example for Ukraine” and that “both Ukrainians and Jews value freedom,” working “equally for the future of our states to become to our liking, and not the future which others want for us.”
Ukraine accuses Russia of massing around 100,000 troops in preparation for a possible invasion, raising fears that a simmering conflict in Ukraine's eastern Donbass region could erupt into open war between the neighbors.
Following the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and fomented an ongoing Russian-backed insurgency in the country’s east, which has claimed more than 14,000 lives and displaced millions. Tens of thousands of them have moved to Israel.
Russia denies planning any attack, but accuses Ukraine and the United States of destabilizing behavior, and has sought security guarantees against NATO's eastward expansion.
“We know what it's like not to have [one's] own state,” Zelensky declared. “We know what it means to defend one’s own state and land with weapons in hand, at the cost of [their] own lives.”
Zelensky also appeared to compare the Holocaust to communist crimes against his country on Wednesday, stating that “the Ukrainian people survived the Holodomor, the Jewish people – the Holocaust.”
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Ukrainian leaders have long equated the Holodomor – a man-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s and is widely believed to have been caused by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin – with the Nazi genocide.
While most mainstream historians outside of Ukraine believe that somewhere on the order of 3 to 4 million people died during the famine, Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, repeatedly asserted during his time in office that it had claimed 7 to 10 million victims. “Not recognizing the Holodomor,” Poroshenko asserted, “is as immoral as denying the Holocaust.”
Zelensky, in contrast, has taken a different approach, questioning if it will ever be possible to ascertain the number of people who died at the hands of the Soviet regime.
“I think in Ukraine there is a desire to sort of create a parallel between the Holodomor and the Holocaust, but it's not a one-to-one comparison, and they aren’t saying the numbers are the same, per se,” Matt Kupfer, a Kyiv-based American journalist, told Haaretz.
“But there is a desire to build a bridge between the two in order to gain recognition of the Holodomor as a genocide or, more broadly, as a crime against humanity. There may also be an element of trying to build a bridge between Jewish and Ukrainian people in this manner.”
Zelensky, while not actively repudiating Poroshenko’s memory policies, has ceased promoting his glorification of Ukrainian nationalists, including those who collaborated with the Nazis. Israel has criticized these policies, stating that the country's nationalist heroes were “historically a horror for the Jews.”
During his comments on Wednesday, Zelensky also praised his country’s efforts to memorialize Ukrainians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, saying that “today, the project ‘The Righteous people of my city’ is being implemented, which foresees naming streets, squares and mini-parks after the Righteous Among the Nations.”
The project is the brainchild of Boris Lozkhin, the head of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and organizer of the Kyiv Jewish Forum.
“There are more than 2,600 recognized Righteous Among the Nations in Ukraine, but the actual number of those who rescued Jews during the WW2 in Ukraine is much bigger. These people are the real heroes of Ukraine, and they deserved to be remembered.”
While Israeli Ambassador to Kyiv Michael Brodsky praised the project, Eduard Dolinsky, the director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, a local activist group critical of Ukrainian memory policy, scoffed at the initiative. “There are thousands of streets named after Holocausts perpetrators in Ukraine and maybe two or three named after Righteous in small towns,” he said.
Reuters and JTA contributed to this report.