Russian President Vladimir Putin denied Ukrainians’ existence as a distinct national group on Wednesday, insisting that just like Jewish communities around the world, “Russians and Ukrainians are a single people.”
Speaking during his annual televised call-in show, in which the authoritarian leader fields questions from citizens, Putin declared that “the single Russian people” had been divided “under the influence of external factors” and that while “the current authorities of modern Ukraine are clearly unfriendly to us,” this does not mean that the two people are not one.
“See for yourself,” he said. “The Jews come to Israel from Africa, Europe, and other countries. Black people arrive from Africa, right? Those arriving from Europe speak Yiddish, rather than Hebrew. Although they are diverse, the Jewish people, nevertheless, cherished its unity.”
In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, told news agency InterFax-Ukraine that Russians and Ukrainians are “definitely not one people.”
“It is impossible to simultaneously talk about ‘one people’ and openly seize our territories and continue the carnage in Donbas,” he added, referring to the Eastern Ukrainian province currently occupied by Russian-backed separatist militias.
Putin and his proxies have long referenced Jews in their rhetoric regarding Ukraine. In 2014, after the country’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in a popular revolution, Putin warned of a “rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and antisemitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine” as a possible justification for military intervention.
Only weeks later, Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula and fomented a pro-Russian insurgency in the Donbas, which Kyiv says has claimed more than 14,000 lives. During the course of the conflict, Russian officials and state-controlled media repeatedly claimed that Ukraine had been taken over by a “fascist junta” which was stirring up antisemitism and oppressing local Jewish communities.
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Russian news reports described fictional attacks on Jewish citizens and claimed that Jewish newspapers and schools were being shuttered. Some Jewish communal leaders in Ukraine have even accused Russia of staging antisemitic provocations for propaganda purposes.
Inna Ioffe, the CEO of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, a group which has been vocal in its opposition to Russian claims of antisemitism, told Haaretz that while she was not particularly troubled by Putin’s reference to Jews in his latest remarks, she did disagree with the assertions regarding of Ukrainian identity.
“They are brother nations, not one nation,” she said.
Putin on Wednesday also criticized a Ukrainian draft bill designating several minority groups, indigenous peoples, including the Crimean Karaites and Krymchaks, two tiny sects with Jewish roots.
The few hundred Karaites who remain in Ukraine today are remnants of a sect that broke off from mainstream Judaism in eighth-century Iraq. They were documented in Crimea in the 13th century and nearly wiped out during the Holocaust.
The nearly extinct Krymchaks, meanwhile, are related to Karaites but are believed to be more heavily descended from Georgian Jews.
During his remarks, Putin held up the proposed law as proof of Kyiv’s antipathy toward his country, stating that “Russians have lived there for centuries, and now they have been declared as non-indigenous people.”
He claimed that ethnic Russians would have to identify as Ukrainian in order to avoid becoming “second-class citizens,” which “would reduce the overall number of Russians.”
JTA contributed to this report.