Putin: ‘I have Jewish friends but Zelensky is a disgrace to Jewish people’

Putin: ‘I have Jewish friends but Zelensky is a disgrace to Jewish people’

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an address, leveling harsh criticism at Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, saying his Jewish adversary was the head of a Nazi country and a “disgrace to the Jewish people”. At the same time, Putin claimed to “have a lot of Jewish friends.”

Putin made these remarks in an address at an annual economic forum in Saint Petersburg on Friday.

“I have a lot of Jewish friends,” Putin said in the address on Friday. “They say that Zelensky is not Jewish, that he is a disgrace to the Jewish people.”

“I’m not joking, and not a joke and not an attempt at irony, because today neo-Nazis, Hitler’s disciples, have been put on a pedestal as heroes of Ukraine,” Putin added, according to the TASS Russian News Agency.

Putin later admitted that Zelensky was “a man with Jewish blood” but criticized him further, saying “he covers for these freaks, these neo-Nazis, with his actions.”

“Why do you put Nazis on a pedestal?” Putin asked rhetorically of Zelensky, repeating the claim that Russia invaded Ukraine to fight Nazism, adding that Russia had suffered enormous losses during the country’s fight against Nazi Germany in World War II.

“We will never forget it,” Putin said. “Why is no one listening to us?” 

Impugning Zelensky’s Jewishness is becoming a rallying cry for Russia. Last month, when the Ukrainian president was attending the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia, Russia’s embassy in Egypt tweeted, “The president of the Nazi regime in Kyiv has blood ties to Israel. He came to an Arab political event and not only lied outrageously about the roots of the conflict but also dared to condemn the neutral Arab position on this issue.”

Last year, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov caused general consternation when he criticized Zelensky by saying, “Hitler also had Jewish blood” and that “some of the worst antisemites are Jews.” Lavrov apologized to then-prime minister Naftali Bennett in a phone call a few days later.

In November 2021,  Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, published an article aimed at Ukraine and its Jewish President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In the article, Medvedev accused Zelensky of repudiating his Jewish identity to serve rabid nationalists. The Russian diplomat compared the Ukrainian president to the Sonderkommando, Jews who were forced by the Nazis to work in the death camps, disposing of the bodies of their brethren.

Indeed, Zelensky’s public statements have done little to dispel Russian aspersions on his Jewish Identity. Zelensky, touted as the country’s first Jewish president, was born to Jewish parents in Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine which was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. His grandfather, Semyon (Simon), served as an infantryman in the Red Army, reaching the rank of colonel in the Red Army. Semyon’s father and three brothers were killed in the Holocaust. Zeklensky has denied that his family was killed in the Holocaust, preferring to say they were killed in the war. In an interview that appeared in the French newspaper Le Point in 2019, Zelensky downplayed his Jewish identity, saying ironically, “The fact that I am Jewish barely makes 20 in my long list of faults.”

Ukraine’s connection with Nazism has been front-page news lately. Earlier this month, the New York Times reversed years of reporting when it admitted that Nazis symbols were commonly displayed on the uniforms of Ukrainian soldiers. 

“Even Jewish groups and anti-hate organizations that have traditionally called out hateful symbols have stayed largely silent.” the NYT wrote. “Privately, some leaders have worried about being seen as embracing Russian propaganda talking points.”

The article also admitted that Western journalists had been complicit for years by asking Ukrainian soldiers to remove Nazi insignia before being photographed. While some point to Zelenzky’s Jewish identity as proof that Ukraine is not Nazified, the openly neo-Nazi Azov Regiment was officially incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard in 2014. Igor Kolomoisky, one of Zelenskyy’s key supporters, was a backer of the Azov Battalion. There have been multiple reports that the CIA has been training elements of the Azov Battalion since 2015. 

Indeed, Ukraine has a long history of virulent antisemitism and in World War II, most Ukrainians chose to collaborate with Nazi occupiers, and many served in the concentration camps. 

Putin’s claim of having “a lot of Jewish friends” is verifiable. When Putin was young, he grew up in a very poor family. He was a frequent guest at his neighbors, an observant Hasidic Jewish family, that was extremely kind to him and frequently fed him when he was hungry.

In 2005, when Putin made an official visit to Israel, he visited his high-school teacher, Mina Yuditskaya Berliner, who lived in Tel Aviv. He even bought her an apartment in the city when he heard she was living in poor conditions, crediting her with playing an essential role in his career because she gave him the language skills that later helped him climb the ranks of the KGB. Berliner left Putin the apartment in her will, and it was returned to him after she died in 2018.

In fact, Putin has surrounded himself with rich and successful Jews, such as Moshe Kantor (net worth $2.3 billion), Lev Leviev (net worth $1.5 billion), Roman Abramovich (net worth $9.1 billion), and Victor Vekselberg (net worth $13.6 billion). They are all close friends and confidantes of the Russian president, and they are all quite openly Jewish.

Perhaps due to this personal connection as well as the many former Russian citizens now living in Israel, the two countries have developed close relations. There is a system in place that allows the Israeli Air Force to operate in Syrian airspace despite a Russian airbase monitoring all air traffic. Russia has also supported Israel when other governments, including the US, have been highly critical. In 2014, Putin was one of the few political leaders who supported Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, saying at a meeting with representatives of the Rabbinical Center of Europe to fight anti-Semitism and xenophobia, “I support Israel’s battle that is intended to keep its citizens protected.”

In his recent speech at the economic forum, Putin claimed that Russia was winning the war and Ukraine’s armed forces were suffering “heavy losses.”

He added that Russia was in the process of sending tactical nuclear  weapons to its ally Belarus, which borders Ukraine. 

“The first nuclear warheads were delivered to the territory of Belarus,” Putin said. “This is the first part…By the end of summer, the end of the year, we will complete the process.”

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