KYIV, Ukraine — Foreign Minister Eli Cohen arrived in Ukraine on Thursday and met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, ahead of an expected meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Cohen is the most senior Israeli official to visit Ukraine since Russia invaded nearly one year ago.
His visit began in Bucha, a 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.
Due to security concerns, the visit was kept under wraps until Cohen arrived in Kyiv.
Cohen is also scheduled to attend a ceremony to officially permanently reopen Israel’s embassy in Kyiv, and will meet with members of Kyiv’s Jewish community.
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.
“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.
As Cohen was meeting Kuleba, air raid sirens went off in Kyiv, which was one of the cities struck by Russian missiles overnight. The meeting wasn’t disrupted.
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.
— Nico Maounis (@nicomaounis) February 16, 2023
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.
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 then allegedly used to attack civilian and critical infrastructure in Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials have been coy about the Zelensky meeting, telling The Times of Israel that Netanyahu had to offer some substantive gesture if the sit-down were to go ahead.
A Ukrainian official said that Zelensky wants Israel to offer a tangible show of support for Ukraine. Israel still has not responded to Kyiv’s 2022 request for a $500 million loan, said the official.
Israel has not moved forward on its offer to help Ukraine with a civilian early warning system either, the official said.
There is no demand for an Israeli condemnation of Russia, said the official, contradicting earlier English-language reports.
“We are expecting a substantial visit,” said the official. “It’s important but we don’t want just a protocol meeting.”
“We must feel substantial aid from our friends,” the official added.
However, Israeli officials told The Times of Israel they have been told that the Zelensky meeting is set.
“We are not going to negotiate the substance of the meeting before the actual meeting,” said an Israeli official. “It’s inappropriate.”
Kyiv has repeatedly requested that Israel provide Iron Dome batteries to shoot down incoming rockets, but Israel has balked at providing defensive weaponry to Ukraine for fear of Russian repercussions.