ToI podcastRussia's position changed - its status, prestige, capability

A year into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ‘What Matters Now’ to Ksenia Svetlova

This week in ‘What Matters Now,’ we speak with the former MK, a Middle East and Russo-Ukraine expert, and learn whether Israel’s policy of ‘neutrality’ is actually the best course

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Welcome to What Matters Now, a new weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.

A year into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is Israel maintaining its policy of neutrality? Is the Russian presence in Syria still a good enough reason for the Jewish state to decline underdog Ukraine’s repeated requests of anti-missile defense systems?

To find out answers to these questions, I turned to Middle East and Russo-Ukraine expert, Ksenia Svetlova.

Svetlova immigrated to Israel from Moscow at age 14. Later, as a fluent Arabic-speaking journalist, she was able to use her Russian passport for years to report from areas most Israelis will never see in the Middle East.

In 2015, she renounced that Russian passport and stepped away from journalism to join the Knesset in the Zionist Union party, headed by Tsipi Livni. Svetlova served there until 2019.

This week, a year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I made Svetlova a cup of hot tea in Jerusalem and I found out What Matters Now ahead of a new phase of the war in Ukraine — and the legal battlefield here in Israel.

The Times of Israel: Ksenia, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s such a pleasure to host you here in our Jerusalem offices. And you’re here because I want to pick your brain about the year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And so I ask you, Ksenia, what matters now?

Ksenia Svetlova: What matters now, of course, is the upcoming new attack on Ukraine that was announced by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin at the beginning of the year. Nobody knows exactly what the plan is and whether the Russians even have the ability to join their forces and send more soldiers into battle than they have now. What kind of weapons can they present that they did not present so far? But at least the Ukrainians are getting ready. The winter is over. The spring is coming, and of course, the front will be reenergized again.

So far, a year in, Russia has lost something like 200,000 soldiers. Ukraine has lost somewhere between 100,000 and 130,000 Ukrainians, including civilians. Who do you see winning the war right now?

I was looking at this phenomenal photo of President [Joe] Biden standing with President [Volodymyr] Zelensky in Kyiv, and they were standing, in the background, there was this monastery — spectacular — with gold domes. It’s called the Mikhailovsky Monastery. And here they are one year later after Putin planned to take Kyiv in three days. So after a year, Biden feels safe enough to go to Kyiv to embrace Zelensky, to signal to Russia that Ukraine today is firmly in the American sphere of interest. So I think it’s quite clear who is winning. But this is talking about morale. In the battlefield, I do not expect that the endgame will unfold soon. It’s an ongoing war, it can freeze, and it can be re-energized. But I do not foresee, for the time being, a military victory for anyone. And perhaps it’s impossible altogether.

US President Joe Biden (left) walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral on a surprise visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, February 20, 2023. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Let’s unpack Putin’s speech from Tuesday, which was to me, as a non-Russian speaker, and just hearing it through interpretation, really striking — for one, him blaming the West for beginning the war. Number two is the use of neo-Nazis. And number three, this attack on Western “non-values,” shall we say. So let’s begin with number one.

Before we get to that, I just have to mention that I listened to the whole two hours. It’s like unbelievable suffering, but I had to do it.

I saw on Twitter that you shared all kinds of memes of people sleeping at the speech.

Yes, the high-ranking Russian officials were just sleeping and snoring during the whole speech. And it’s understandable because 90 percent of it actually focused on the economy, on domestic affairs. How he’s going to spread money — he mentioned some trillion rubles. I don’t know how much it is in dollars right now, but a substantial sum of money that he wants to spread between different funds to help the soldiers and to help the families and children and education and everything. I thought he would never stop. So I think that the focus was economy, economy, economy.

The war is not doing great. He has nothing to present as a clear victory. Russia was losing territory during the last half of 2022. So when he says that, well, it was not our making because the West forced us to go to this war. So it’s not something that we were eager to do and sacrifice our men. This is something that he says all the time. He always blames the West for everything.

So from that to go and attack their family values. Again, the West, the evil West that forced us to go to this horrible war, they have this moral degradation. He mentioned pedophilia that is being approved by priests and other stuff.

Priests are being forced to marry same-sex couples.

He is stressing the uniqueness of Russia with its traditional family values. We are different. We are different from the West. We are the moral ones. They are immoral. We want peace. They want war. This dichotomy runs through his whole speech. But again, this is nothing new. We know his way of thinking. And while 20 years ago, 22 even, at the beginning of his reign, he said during his visit to the Bundestag that Russia is a friendly European country. He said that with his own lips. But today you cannot imagine that he would return to this. Russia is different. The West is different. And the war that we wage is essentially not with Ukraine, it’s with the West. And it’s no wonder that we are not doing perhaps so great. He doesn’t say it, but he implies, that the whole might of the West that lied to us, they promised us not to expand NATO, and they are doing this. We were forced to defend ourselves. Otherwise, we would be destroyed. And family values — again, this is what makes us different from the other guys.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address at the Gostiny Dvor conference center in central Moscow, February 21, 2023. (Ramil Sitdikov/Sputnik/AFP)

So before we get to the neo-Nazi part, how did the Russians actually hear this? I mean, he’s saying it, but are they believing it? Are they on the same page?

Unfortunately, I can tell you that many people believe what he says because they’ve been brainwashed for so long. And it can happen in any society, especially if it’s an authoritarian regime, a closed society. Not much interaction. Like for example, I was looking at the Russian academic community. They are publishing in Russian all the time. For me, as somebody who’s doing her endless PhD, it’s unimaginable! There is no interaction between you and what other people are doing in England, the US, in Canada and so on. Basically, it is secluded.

In this situation, it’s very easy to brainwash you about the neo-Nazis, and about us winning. But you are giving up territory; how we are winning? No, it’s a tactic. We will regain the territory. We will prevail. It’s a sure deal because God is with us. Okay? This is something that is very strong and Putin makes sure to show up at church. He’s not perhaps a religious person, but this is the image that he’s building for himself.

Now let’s talk about the neo-Nazis, which at the beginning of the war at least, was being used by both sides, but I’m not sure if it still is by the Ukrainians. So talk about the Russian use of neo-Nazi imagery.

I think that in order to understand how Putin reached this idea to label Ukrainians — with their Jewish president and Jewish minister of defense and tons of Jewish MPs and advisers and businessmen — to label them as neo-Nazis. There was a build-up to that during the last, I would say, 10 to 15 years. The narrative of the victory in the Second World War: Russians are the victors, and Europe was weak, it fell and collaborated. It fell to the Nazis. And perhaps now we are repeating this situation of 80 years ago. We are the good ones and they are the bad ones — again, dichotomy. So every time that there was this parade of some neo-Nazi movement in Ukraine, it was presented on Russian TV — I’m talking to you about 2012, for example, 2013, 2014, and more so after the annexation of Crimea. So we have a cause. We have neo-Nazis over there. And for a Russian person, every family had somebody who fought in the Second World War. If there are Nazis across the border, we have to fight them, of course.

This is the worst thing that you can say about a person, a Nazi or neo-Nazi. They confuse this item sometimes. But in any case, this is how he sold this war to the Russians. He said to them, listen, you see the Nazi symbols? Sometimes it was fake, sometimes it was real. Also in Russia, there are neo-Nazi movements. Some of them are quite strong, while Ukraine has the lowest level of antisemitism in the whole of Europe. It’s remarkable. But the truth is not the question here. What is the truth? The image. The Russian people, unfortunately, not all, but many of them, fell completely prey to this propaganda and convincing them, we are doing what we have to do because look at them! This is intolerable. How can you in eight years, 10 years, make people feel this animosity towards others who are your brethren, Slavic people? The language is similar, the culture is similar. Their history and the Soviet Union are similar. It’s unbelievable.

Ukrainian Neo-Nazi band Sokraya Peruna in concert in 2018. (

So basically it’s the archetype of evil. Let’s talk about the final aspect of the speech that I find perhaps most troubling as somebody who grew up in the nuclear arms race.

You and me both.

We’re of a similar age… I, in Canada, you, in Russia. And I just remember drills hiding under my desk against a nuclear war.

The same.

Putin said that he is going to suspend — which apparently is not a real thing — but suspend the New Start treaty. So talk to me about this.

Well, this is a treaty that is the last treaty of nuclear control that was signed in 1972. There were a number of treaties. Sometimes there were new treaties or extensions of the existing ones. This was the extension of something that was signed in 2010 when the atmosphere was completely different and there was competition, but also there was cooperation. Putin mentioned that we signed this treaty in 2010, the New Start, because there was trust, and obviously in 2021 we renewed it. But today, when he accused the West of using the territory of Ukraine to pound the Russian strategic Air Force bases — that theoretically can also carry nuclear bombs. So you are doing this, and you expect that we will let you check out our sites? We’re not about to do this.

I think that it is important to understand the context of this. There is not much that, a year after the beginning of this crazy war, Putin can do to flex his muscles and make the Americans, and the Europeans, shake with fear because his conventional abilities are very modest.

He wasted half of his T-72 tanks. The long-range missiles, all of these precision missiles. They have a problem. They have a real problem. But the nuclear weapons, they are doing this since 2015. You have this boogeyman. Okay, you see what we can do, if you press us to the wall. So every time that Ukraine gets substantial help from the West, and now it was also symbolic with Biden’s visit, I think this is the only thing that he could do without breaking the unwritten rules of this current war. But also he is saying, listen, I still have my capabilities. You know what they are, and I’m not about to break the rules first, but if you do some trials, then I will also do it.

In this handout photo taken from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on October 26, 2022, a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile is test-fired as part of Russia’s nuclear drills from a launch site in Plesetsk, northwestern Russia. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

It was less evil, it was less sharp than his previous threats. I was under the impression that the tone was different. It was, again, I can be wrong, but it felt like he was very cautious. He wanted to make a point, but he was also very cautious about not scaring, perhaps also his friends and partners in China who were not very pleased with the destabilization that stems from this kind of threat.

So I think that he was very careful. I’m doing something, you are warned. And I have several items in my bag if you continue to support Ukraine and give them more advanced weapons — which Biden didn’t give during his current visit. No fighter jets or anything of that kind. So each side again during the whole year, the red lines are being mended a little bit, but not to the degree that one of the sides completely breaks the rules, not even Putin.

Let’s talk about the flip side, President Zelensky. At the beginning of the war, one of his famous statements was, “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition.” And in the meantime, he’s gotten at least promises of a lot of ammunition and some ammunition itself. But how do you see his role or his status as changing over the past year?

Well, he enjoyed unbelievable support from his people from day one when it was clear that he is not going anywhere despite the rumors and despite the proposals of the American president to give him refuge. And he continues to be this celebrity, a person who is deeply revered and loved by many people. There is criticism, however, about his surrounding, and the people who are next to him. Corruption exists. Corruption and war usually go together. And again, this is something that nobody in the West is asking too many questions about at this moment. But when the war either goes to this frozen stage or ends somehow, then there will be very tough questions about what happened. Did he know? What was the level of his awareness of all of this? But for now, again, spirits are very high in Ukraine and when he speaks to the people, he records this sometimes biweekly message and the people are just watching it, like, oh my God, yes, this is what we need to do. Even if it’s tough now, even if we are freezing in our houses. We were reborn as a nation. This is something very huge.

It’s their moment of 1948, no less. And some of them are comparing Zelensky to David Ben-Gurion. There was a country before, and there were presidents before, but not even close to this feeling of national pride and ability and finally, respect from people around the world for a truly remarkable achievement. One year after the Russian invasion, when nobody gave them a chance, this president and this nation persevered and succeeded — also convincing the whole world to support it, which is a huge achievement. And I think that many in the West were ready for this to go like, okay, so Putin conquers Kyiv, and changes the regime. It’s tough, but what can we do? Some more sanctions maybe? Yes, but not something dramatic. And then, he changed the course of history.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) attends a press conference in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on January 11, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by YURIY DYACHYSHYN / AFP)

You said the whole world supports Ukraine, but there are various degrees of support, of course. And Israel is one country that has had perhaps a lesser degree of support than even some of its members of Knesset would want, who just visited Ukraine this week. I’m talking about MK Yuli Edelstein and MK Ze’ev Elkin, of course, who were born in Ukraine. But Israel has been dancing this very difficult waltz between everyone, essentially, because of the Russian influence in our region. So let’s talk about whether this is really a good enough excuse to not support Ukraine.

Personally, I do not believe that it’s a good enough excuse because everything changed this year. The position of Russia changed — its status, prestige, and ability. We see how they are overstretched in Ukraine. It’s still farfetched to imagine that they will leave Syria. This is a significant asset for them. But we see also how at the same time, they are leaving some patches of territory there to the Iranians simply because they cannot overstretch themselves in two places at the same time. And Syria is active — the civil war is over, but the insurgency is not done. You have to invest, you have to take care, and you have to be there all the time.

So I think that we’re now seeing what is the real ability of the Russian army and it was overestimated, I think, by all military experts in the world, overestimating the ability to inflict harm. We see how the red lines were clearly put by Russia to the Europeans. So if you give tanks, we will do this. If you will give a Patriot for the Ukrainians, we will do this, we will retaliate, we’ll do that, we’ll do that. Okay, so things happen, aid goes flows to Ukraine and the Russians have to just kind of deal with it.

So I think that it’s very difficult to change these red lines now for Israel only because it has wasted so much time convincing itself that we have to obey, we have to keep distant relations. But I think when we are talking about defensive weapons — defensive weapons! — we are not talking about supplying to Ukraine Mercava tanks or something like this. But David Sling. I don’t think that Iron Dome is a suitable system for them. But in his last meeting with Eli Cohen, the minister of foreign affairs, Zelensky named more specifically, David Sling. What would happen? So Russia is overstretched: What would it do now in Syria to inflict harm on Israel?

This Sept. 26, 2019 file photo, shows a Russian Su-35 fighter jet taking off at Hemeimeem air base in Syria. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

I think that’s part of the question. Russia is overstretched. Some people say 97% of the Russian army is in Ukraine right now. So is it in Israel’s interest to leave as much as possible in Syria to, as you said, stamp down the Iranian influence? Is that Israel’s interest?

I do not think that Russia could ever limit Iranian influence in Syria. I see the cooperation there on two levels: You have the significant air bases and air power that is managed by Russia, and you have the boots on the ground, the Iranians. And one cannot do without the other. So they cooperate and have a common goal. So perhaps they had some different image of who will control what part of the Syrian economy; it’s totally understandable. So Putin wanted to give to his oligarchs, and the Iranians eyed a few things there too, but rather than that, they are not competing there so much.

What is their common goal?

The common goal is the survival of [President of Syria Bashar]Assad’s regime, of course. And both of them want to use Syria as a Platzdarm for their future activities. For the Iranians, it’s the stretch to the Arab Middle East, and for the Russians, it’s the control of the shores of the Mediterranean. Access to Mediterranean Europe is just over here; they don’t have access otherwise to the Mediterranean. It’s the first time that their dream about this exit to the Warm Sea was fulfilled. And it’s a huge deal, of course.

But, talking about Israel, and I’m listening to military experts such as Amos Yadlin, who’s been saying repeatedly for the last six, seven months, it’s time to give defensive weapons to Ukraine because we have more to lose from not giving them than risking it and saying, oh, why did we do it? Either Israel is part of the collective West, and right now this is the battle of the collective West. It’s not what Cohen said during his visit to Kyiv: Iran, Iran, Iran. Okay. Iran is our pain, it’s our mortal enemy. But you cannot talk about Iran in Ukraine without naming Russia.

And this is the challenge, the Russian challenge to the collective West, to the liberal democracy. Again, given the situation in which Israel is today, there are questions about whether indeed Israel is a part of this big camp of democratic Western countries anymore, or whether it will continue to be like this. But if we consider ourselves, yes, a liberal democracy, part of the West, then I think that there is just one way: it’s to join this effort and to continue with very strict restrictions on the Russian money that flows to Israel. So far, it was close to perfect, from what I know. But you can always do better. You can introduce sanctions, for example.

Somebody told me that the Knesset lacks a mechanism to introduce sanctions. Okay? If you can do the judicial reform in a couple of months, you certainly can write a bill about introducing sanctions, on specific personalities and companies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Chinese Communist Party’s foreign policy chief Wang Yi during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, February 22, 2023. (Anton Novoderezhkin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Okay, so the other country that has not been outwardly supporting Ukraine or Russia is not a Western country, it’s China, which many are saying that if it were to join one side or the other, boom, World War Three. What do you say?

I think that the Chinese are always doing what’s better for the Chinese. So they are not there to support Putin, they are not there to support Ukraine. They are supporting the interest of Beijing. And in this regard, you have the traditional continuation of voting of China with Russia at the UN Security Council. This is one.

At the same time, the Russians were disappointed by the lack of economic support and military support for their effort in Ukraine. I don’t know. What conclusions did they have about China? Frankly, I didn’t follow it so much. But I can tell you that now when Russia is very pressed for sources of income, it can no longer sell gas or oil to Europe. So the two places where it can sell is to China, but China demands a huge discount, and then it’s basically at net worth. So you do it in order to not seal the oil pumping, but otherwise, you do not gain from this so much. And they also can sell oil to Latin America. But if you’re looking at the route of the tankers, the way is much longer, and of course, it diminishes their ability to do this.

So they depend on the Chinese. Today Chinese do not depend on them, on anything. And more so, the Chinese are worried about this reckless behavior, this mentioning all the time of the nuclear threat. The Chinese need stability, mostly in the oil markets, but not only, for their economy to succeed and grow. So the relations are chilly. They are not speaking sides, which I think is the best that you can get for the West. It’s the best that you can get right now. And again, for the sanctions, this is also very important. There is this kind of image that the Western world introduced sanctions against Russia, but there are tons of ways to evade them. The last packages of sanctions that we introduced, one by one, curtail the ability of Russia to get help from some other partners in order to evade the sanctions, whether it’s Turkey that they received, the Russian paying method, Mir card, and after some pressure from the United States, they stopped. So I was just now in Abu Dhabi, and I saw Russian tourists unable to use their cards over there. So it means the pressure is working and I think that it will continue growing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar, right, attend a ceremony unveiling the memorial to members of the Jewish resistance in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow on June 4, 2019. (Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/AFP)

We’ve been talking very much on a global level. Now let’s zoom into the Jewish communities in both Russia and Ukraine. What do you know about what’s happening there?

Well, you have Jews leaving in a more significant and quick tempo in Russia than they do in Ukraine. I’m talking about aliya to Israel. So more Russian Jews came to Israel during the last year than Ukrainian Jews. First of all, for many Ukrainian Jews, the husbands are fighting or the brothers and the family is staying somewhere in Europe hoping to reconnect, and whether to stay in Ukraine, or some other place, but to reconnect, it’s closer. Russian Jews are lacking options because they are not wanted anywhere. It’s becoming more difficult to go to other countries. Even Georgia, which received over, I think 150,000 refugees from Russia, is starting to stop some people at the crossing points. And there is also this feeling that the Georgians are not very happy with this influx of Russians into their country. So Israel for now is still open. And I think that aliyah will definitely increase, maybe we’ll reach 100,000. It depends on what happens. But every time Putin talks about, you know, hints that there will be a new mobilization wave, this is something that makes people, especially in the Jewish community, no, we don’t want this. We don’t want our children to go to this war, and they go away.

The Jewish institutions in Russia, in my opinion, they’re fully controlled right now by the state security apparatus. And we see how on International Holocaust Day, Putin summoned the two chief rabbis and they discussed neo-Nazis and this threat to the world. So it was unbelievable to have two Jewish people sitting with a man who wages this brutal war against the nation and killing people there and talking about neo-Nazis. But that’s the level of control. So just like in Iran, the Jewish representatives of the community can be summoned in order to have good optics. It’s an image that you have Jews that support him and Muslims who support him. I would say that the atmosphere is kind of bleak. There are still people who are sitting on the fence because they know that aliyah to Israel is becoming increasingly difficult. They also hear about the possible change in the Law of Return and they don’t know what to make of it. So they’re confused and Israel will not necessarily be their answer in the future.

For Ukrainian Jews again, it’s the same. Fewer of them are coming to Israel. But I think that if you want to help Ukraine and you want to help Jews there, you have to have your door open for them all the time without making this about what proportion of blood runs in the veins, Jewish blood. In Ukraine, the situation is much worse, of course, because many communities were just destroyed completely. They were evacuated and they will never resume. Some people ended up in Germany, and some in Israel. Communities are dispersed. This is a horrific ravage of this Jewish life that was rebuilt since the beginning of the 1990s, it is very difficult to reinstate it. Even if people go back, some cities will be unlivable for decades.

Researcher and former MK Ksenia Svetlova. (courtesy)

Okay, so we’ve talked about the Ukraine invasion. Since you are a former member of Knesset and you’ve kind of touched here and there on how you feel about the judicial overhaul that’s happening here in Israel, please, give me a few words of your thoughts on this.

For me, especially since I was born in an autocratic country I have this historic memory also of my own family, where my own grandfather was sentenced to 10 years of the gulags in 1938 and he was executed before he reached the gulags. The court was very quick. The judges were nominated by the Communist Party and that’s it. So for people who say to me, listen, this is Russia, this is the Soviet Union, it doesn’t have any connection to our life here, what do you mean? I say no, but at the same time when you give the politicians this absolute power over all of the branches of authority, you have to expect that bad things will happen. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. So this is very scary.

I participate in the demonstrations, of course, as a civilian. But also as an ex-MK I participate in this initiative of Zehava Galon, the ex-head of Meretz, Tzav Herum [Emergency Conscription], this is an initiative of ex-MKs who are coming to the Knesset, to the committees and reinforcing the opposition members who are there. Some of them are new, some of them don’t have experience. So we sit there, we also ask for the opportunity to speak out. And there is also a petition that was signed in less than a week by a quarter of a million Israeli citizens. And the numbers are growing all the time.

I personally think it is my duty. I saw it developing in my years in the Knesset. From 2015 until 2019, during the 20th Knesset, when it was clear that the charges will be pressed against Benjamin Netanyahu, that’s when they started. Before that, Netanyahu didn’t have any problem with the judiciary. He praised it, he was proud of it. He always made an example of how great our judiciary is. The moment the charges were pressed, this horrible campaign started against the judiciary and police and prosecutors and media, it was ongoing. So I’m really scared for the democratic future of this country and for me, especially for those of us who came from other countries like olim [immigrants], you say I made this way, it was difficult, integration and all of this, but this country became mine. And now I see how its fundamental basics are being ruined for personal reasons, just for somebody to escape the trial. It’s unbelievable.

Ksenia, thank you so much for sharing your insight and your expertise in everything we talked about today.

Thank you. Great pleasure. Toda roba.

Tune in to the podcast episode to hear diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman weigh in on Svetlova’s statements.

What Matters Now podcasts are available for download on iTunes, TuneIn, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, PlayerFM or wherever you get your podcasts.

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