Air raid sirens sound in Kyiv as ministers meet

FM Cohen in Kyiv pledges Ukraine loan guarantees, help with airstrike warning system

FM Kuleba indicates he is satisfied with Israel’s position, but says more decisions must be made; Ukrainian official unhappy Cohen didn’t mention Russia in Bucha, scene of massacre

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) shakes hands  with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Kyiv, February 16, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) shakes hands with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Kyiv, February 16, 2023 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

KYIV, Ukraine — Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said after an hourlong meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymytro Kuleba in Kyiv on Thursday that Israel will provide Ukraine with up to $200 million in loan guarantees for healthcare and civilian infrastructure.

Speaking in English alongside Kuleba at Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, Cohen also announced that Israel would “assist Ukraine with developing a smart early warning system.” The airstrike warning system would be similar to the technology Israel uses to warn civilians of rocket attacks.

“Israel, as stated in the past, stands firmly in solidarity with the people of Ukraine,” said Cohen, “and remains committed to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Kuleba sounded a guardedly positive tone, saying he was “satisfied” with their conversation, and tweeted that Ukraine was “thankful for all of the support that Israel and Israelis have provided over the past year.”

Sources who spoke to Kuleba after the meeting told The Times of Israel that the foreign minister indicated he was pleased with the discussion.

“Israel knows perfectly about our list of security and defense needs, “ Kuleba said in a statement. “We will be waiting for decisions to be taken.”

He added that there was a solid foundation for building ties, but that the two sides would need to make further decisions about the relationship.

Last year Ukraine requested a $500 million loan from Israel.

Still, there was plenty of evidence of the broad disagreements between the two countries during Cohen’s visit. Cohen again declined to condemn Russia by name, and Kuleba avoided mentioning Iran.

In comments to Hebrew media, a senior Ukrainian official expressed disappointment over Cohen’s remarks during the visit, noting that Cohen avoided mentioning Russia while visiting Bucha, where Russian forces massacred hundreds.

As the two senior diplomats met, air raid sirens sounded in Kyiv.

Cohen arrived in Ukraine on Thursday morning and is expected to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky later in the day.

Cohen is the most senior Israeli official to visit Ukraine since Russia invaded nearly one year ago.

His visit began in Bucha, the Kyiv suburb in which Russian forces slaughtered over 450 civilians last year, and Babyn Yar, the ravine where Nazis and their local collaborators murdered over 30,000 Jews in September 1941.

A day after making a one-day visit to Turkey, Cohen landed in Rzeszów in Poland on Wednesday night, then took an overnight train with his delegation from the Polish border city of Przemysl to Kyiv.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (R) speaks with Israel’s Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky after stepping off the train in Kyiv, February 16, 2023. (Lazar Berman /Times of Israel)

Due to security concerns, the visit was kept under wraps until Cohen arrived in Kyiv.

Cohen also attended a ceremony to officially permanently reopen Israel’s embassy in Kyiv, and met with members of Kyiv’s Jewish community at the Brodsky Synagogue.

The foreign minister is expected to fly back to Israel on Friday morning after another overnight train ride back to Poland.

Cohen was joined by Foreign Ministry Director General Ronen Levy and Simona Halperin, head of the Eurasia desk at the ministry.

At the beginning of his visit, Cohen laid a wreath at a mass grave of 116 civilians slain by Russians in Bucha, but avoided condemning Russia by name.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen lays a wreath at a mass grave of 116 civilians slain by Russians in Bucha, in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 16, 2023. (Lazar Berman /Times of Israel)

“We can say clearly, it is impossible to remain indifferent to the scenes and mass grave that we have seen,” he said, speaking after Bucha’s mayor Anatolii Fedoruk showed him a photo exhibition of the city’s victims inside a gleaming white church.

“We are here in an important solidarity visit with the Ukrainian people,” he added in response to a question about whether he would condemn the Russians, adding that Israel would continue to provide humanitarian aid.

Under the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government, Israel sought to maintain a largely neutral stance on the war, keeping channels of communication open with both Moscow and Kyiv. Ukrainian officials have not been shy about their frustration, publicly castigating Israel a number of times for not taking a firmer stance and for refusing to send air defense systems to the country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who praised his predecessors’ position as “prudent,” is expected to pursue a similar path. But the visit by his foreign minister, a Likud ally, is a sign that he wants to at least be perceived as moving the dial in Kyiv’s direction.

Cohen, visiting the Babyn Yar ravine Thursday morning, strode across the snow-crusted ground accompanied by Ukraine’s top rabbis. He planted a tree and laid a wreath at the site, then listened to the Kaddish prayer for the dead by Rabbi Moshe Azman, and the singing of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (R) lays a wreath at the Babyn Yar ravine, where Nazis and their collaborators murdered over 30,000 Jews in September 1941, in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 16, 2023. (Lazar Berman /Times of Israel)

Though he is now being welcomed in Ukraine, Cohen angered the country’s leadership in his first week in office last month when he announced that Israel would “speak less” about the war. The comment was interpreted as an indication that the new government would not publicly condemn Russia as Lapid had done.

Cohen also spoke with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that week, before he fielded a call from any Ukrainian officials. Sources in Kyiv initially said they were not sure a conversation would happen at all, but Kuleba and Cohen eventually spoke in mid-January, when the former invited his Israeli counterpart to Kyiv.

With his government coming under fire from Western allies over the recognition of settlements and a proposal to drastically weaken the judiciary, Netanyahu is eager to shore up his bona fides in Europe and the United States. Increasing support for Ukraine – the issue dominating the discussion among NATO and EU policymakers – is sure to gain him some points.

There have been other indications that Israel is open to tilting the scales slightly in Ukraine’s favor. During a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this month, Netanyahu expressed a willingness to send “military things” to Kyiv, according to an official with knowledge of the conversation. At the same time, he underscored that he could not go too far without provoking Russia.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) bids farewell to French President Emmanuel Macron after their meeting in Paris, February 3, 2023 (Courtesy)

He also told Macron that “it is too early to think about mediation,” explaining that he would not push his role as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine until Russia, Ukraine, and the US asked him to do so.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the conversation.

Earlier this month, Netanyahu told CNN he was “looking into” providing Ukraine with “other kinds of aid” besides humanitarian help amid concerns over Israel’s “complex relationship” with Russia and its need to retain “freedom of action” in Syria in its effort to “keep Iran in check.”

He also suggested Israel was helping Ukraine by acting “against Iran’s weapons productions which are used against Ukraine.” Airstrikes attributed to Israel late last month in the Iranian city of Isfahan allegedly targeted Iran’s suicide drone program. Iran sells advanced kamikaze drones to Russia that are allegedly used to attack civilian and critical infrastructure in Ukraine.

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