Russia “has marked me down as the number one target,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in a video message early Friday. “My family is the number two target. They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state.” He reportedly told EU leaders in a video call late Thursday that it might be the last time they see him alive.
Having interviewed Zelensky barely two years ago in his presidential offices in Kyiv, and with my heart going out to him and his people, I want to issue what is both a personal and a principled plea to the US, the free world, and emphatically Israel’s leadership, too, to do their best to ensure that he is not targeted.
President Joe Biden on Thursday stressed that while American troops would not be deployed to fight Russia in Ukraine, the United States “will support the Ukrainian people as they defend their country.” In a conversation with Zelensky on Thursday, he condemned the Russian invasion and, similarly, promised “to provide support and assistance to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.”
In a phone call of his own with Zelensky on Friday, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett “offered Israel’s assistance with any humanitarian aid needed,” the Prime Minister’s Office announced, “and said that he stands by the people of Ukraine in these difficult days.”
In these surreal hours, as the mighty Russian military moves to crush its neighbor, the words of solidarity and promises of support and assistance, however heartfelt and well-intentioned, ring a little hollow.
Biden has drawn a clear line between Ukraine, a would-be NATO member, and those countries that are already included in the alliance — the former receives backing short of direct military assistance, while “every inch” of the latter will be defended “with the full force of American power.”
Under Bennett, a rather wobbly line has been drawn. His foreign minister, Yair Lapid, on Thursday condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “a grave violation of the international order.” Bennett himself has avoided such directly critical language — trying to walk a tightrope between a principled position in support of a friendly state facing obliteration, and Israel’s crucial interest in maintaining viable relations with a Russia that is so influential in our region, so significant a world power, and the host of so large a Jewish community. I hope the foreign minister’s comments will prove sufficient to place Israel on the right side of history.
One vital and highly symbolic area in which the US, Israel and other principled international powers can and should urgently speak out, however, is in making plain to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that no harm must befall Zelensky — the duly elected Ukrainian president who is leading his nation and his people through this crisis.
Zelensky has sought to reform Ukraine, to bring it closer to the free world, to root out corruption. He had also sought to foster a viable relationship with Putin’s Russia — in vain, as these terrible unfolding events are proving.
When I interviewed him, Zelensky spoke lovingly and admiringly of the State of Israel, where he had appeared as a comedian in his previous, pre-political life: “I respect Israel as hugely special, especially given all the sensitivities around it — the unity of Israel, the unity of the nation,” he marveled. “The Jews managed to build a country, to elevate it, without anything except people and brains. The Jewish people in Israel are a unique people, a unique population. It has economic strength. There are many countries in the world that can protect themselves, but Israel, such a small country, can not only protect itself, but facing external threats, can respond.”
We know exactly what Zelensky is going through now — trying to protect his country from an external threat that has closed in on his capital; a president who happens to be Jewish defending against an invader who claims to be striving for the “denazification of Ukraine” and who on Friday urged the Ukrainian army to overthrow a leadership of “terrorists…, drug addicts and neo-Nazis.”
In his Friday video message, Zelensky vowed: “I will stay in the capital. My family” — his wife Olena and their two children — “is also in Ukraine.”
The notion that the elected leader of a democratic country dragged into a war might be targeted for assassination by the enemy is beyond unthinkable, but then so is everything that is playing out in Ukraine right now.
The very least that the US-led free world can do is try to guarantee Zelensky’s safety and freedom — which means impressing that imperative on Putin. Biden, Bennett and other world leaders have pledged their support for the Ukrainian people; here’s the most resonant family on whose behalf to start showing it.
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