The Azovstal steel plant in the strategic port city of Mariupol quickly became a symbol for Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russia’s invasion over the past month. But as Ukraine evacuated its hundreds of troops from the site on Monday, one question lingered: How many Jews were taking part in the standoff with the Russian military.
Many of those fighting at the plant were members of the Azov Regiment – a far-right volunteer unit with neo-Nazi ties that was incorporated into the Ukrainian armed forces in 2014. But the overall force was a patchwork, including marines, national guardsmen and Territorial Defense Force volunteers. And, depending on who you ask, it may also have included contingents of Jews or Israelis.
In an interview with The Times of Israel website on Sunday, David Arakhamia, a senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, asserted that “there are about 40 Jewish heroes protecting Azovstal now,” a claim for which he provided no proof.
His comment came days after a video of a man who claimed to be a Jewish Coast Guard serviceman stationed at the steel plant appeared on social media. In the clip, the man – who had a prominent Star of David tattoo – appealed to Israeli lawmakers to help evacuate Ukrainian forces from Mariupol.
Neither the man in the video nor Azov deputy commander Svyatoslav Palamar, who spoke with Haaretz last week, mentioned any other Jewish servicemen at the beleaguered site.
Asked about Jewish fighters, a source within the Azovstal plant referred Haaretz back to Arakhamia, while a spokesperson for the Ukrainian General Staff said that confirming the numbers proferred by Zelenskyy aide’s was “beyond our competence.”
“I doubt the number, if there are any, is that high,” said Michael Colborne, author of the recently published “From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right.” He suggested that such claims were likely intended as an appeal for Israeli assistance, as well as a way of pushing back against Russian propaganda.
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“It’s clear – and not surprising, frankly – that Ukraine seems to have embarked on a global public relations effort. I think it’s part of their broader approach,” Colborne said. “I mean, at the core it’s about something like ‘How can we be Nazis/the far right if we have Jewish members?’”
Russian leaders have repeatedly justified their invasion by claiming they are on a mission to “denazify” their western neighbor, going so far as to claim that Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, is a Nazi and that “the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews” – sparking a diplomatic crisis with Israel in the process.
Such rhetoric was on display last week when Zvezda Weekly, a publication owned by the Russian military, claimed that “200 Israeli mercenaries are fighting as part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” including in the “frankly Nazi” Azov Regiment.
Dredging up a 30-year-old antisemitic conspiracy theory that Israeli snipers had killed Russian demonstrators on behalf of then-President Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s, the article claimed that prominent Ukrainian Jews have “supported Ukrainian Nazism morally and financially” for years, and that Zelenskyy has betrayed the Jewish people
While Israeli public broadcaster Kan recently reported that some Israeli volunteers are fighting alongside Ukrainian forces near Mariupol, neither side has offered proof for their assertions that a significant number of Israelis or Jews were at Azovstal.
For his part, Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Moshe Azman – who was cited as the source of Zvezda’s mercenary claims – said he didn’t know if any Jews were stationed at the steel plant and had “no idea” if the video released last week was legitimate.
Izabella Tabarovsky, a Russia scholar and senior program associate at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington, said the Russian claims appeared to be an effort to “manipulate the Jewish issue for their propaganda purposes.”
According to Tabarovsky, current Russian messaging is reminiscent of “really hard-core Soviet propaganda” in which “Zionists were equated with Nazis” and the talk was about “how Jews ‘collaborated’ with the Nazis.”
“It’s just offensive when someone who is not Jewish talks about who a good Jew is,” she said. “It’s not up to Russian propagandists to decide who is a traitor to the Jewish people and who isn’t. It’s just not a topic they should be talking about.”
Shimon Briman, an expert on Ukraine's Jewish community, said that while Russia’s claims were clearly antisemitic, it remained incredibly hard to determine how many Jews, if any, actually fought in the rearguard action at the steel plant.
“Jews in Azovstal are like Schrödinger’s cat. It’s only words and also a video of somebody strange, but there’s no evidence there were any Jews there at all,” he said.
Liza Rozovsky and Reuters contributed to this report.