Senior Zelensky adviser: 40 ‘Jewish heroes’ fighting in Mariupol steel plant

David Arakhamia, head of Kyiv’s negotiating team, says Azov Regiment has no ties to extremism, as Ukrainian forces hold out in besieged Azovstal complex

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A wounded Ukrainian soldier defending the besieged Azovstal plant flashes a victory sign, May 11, 2022 (
A wounded Ukrainian soldier defending the besieged Azovstal plant flashes a victory sign, May 11, 2022 (

A senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says that there are dozens of Jewish soldiers fighting in the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

“There are about 40 Jewish heroes protecting Azovstal now,” David Arakhamia, the adviser in charge of Ukraine’s negotiating delegation, told The Times of Israel on Friday.

Arakhamia also heads Zelensky’s ruling Servant of the People party in parliament.

One of the Ukrainian units still holding out in the steel plant is the Azov Regiment, a formation that has been accused since its formation in 2014 of associations with neo-Nazi ideology. These claims have been central to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine, having said at the outset of the war that Russia’s goal was to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” the country.

The unit was absorbed into the National Guard in September 2014, and Ukrainian officials are adamant that the regiment has been thoroughly professionalized and politicized.

Arakhamia forcefully denied the Russian allegations of neo-Nazism in the Azov Regiment. “Those accusations are absurd by default,” he declared. “Many people know these soldiers and find these accusations offensive.”

Head of Ukraine’s negotiating team and close Volodymyr Zelensky advisor David Arakhamia (Vadym Sarakhan/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

The massive Azovstal steel complex is the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol. The plant, with its network of tunnels and bunkers, has sheltered hundreds of Ukrainian troops and civilians during a weeks-long siege. Scores of civilians were evacuated recently, but Ukrainian officials said some may still be trapped there.

One of the Jewish soldiers the Zelensky adviser referenced released a video last week calling on Israel to rescue the besieged Azovstal garrison.

In a message posted by Kyiv-based entrepreneur and activist Ilgam Gasanov, Vitaliy Barabash said in Ukrainian, “It’s hard for me to speak, so my speech for me will be said by my brother, on behalf of all Ukrainian Jews who are together with me here.”

Barabash, also known as Benya, held a Ukrainian flag up to the camera as his friend read his statement, a Star of David tattoo clearly visible on Barabash’s hand.

Addressing “Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the Knesset, the public of Israel,” and prominent Ukrainian Jews, Barabash’s statement announced that “in the rubble left from Azovstalí, there are Jews like me, like you.”

Earlier this month in a call with the Kremlin, Bennett requested that Putin “examine humanitarian options” for evacuating Mariupol.

The Azov Regiment published photos on its Telegram channel last Wednesday showing wounded soldiers in squalid conditions, many missing limbs.

“Ukraine has never turned its back on Jews, so we believe Israel may not turn its back on the Ukrainian people either, but stand side-by-side against Russian invaders who brought a new tragedy,” read Barabash’s statement.

“Now we, being here, need Israel’s help in withdrawing the entire military garrison of Mariupol and call for rescue.”

Gasanov told The Times of Israel that he has never met Barabash in person, and is doing what he can to help the besieged Azovstal garrison after his friends’ wives reached out to him.

“I know many Jews who are currently at war, and not only in Mariupol,” he said.

Victory in West, fighting in East

Ukraine’s forces were fighting off a fierce Russian onslaught on the east of the country Sunday, after a Eurovision victory gave the country a much-needed boost of morale.

Zelensky warned on Saturday that the war in his country risked triggering global food shortages, adding that the situation in Ukraine’s Donbas is “very difficult.”

Russia, which invaded Ukraine on February 24, has increasingly turned its attention to the country’s east since the end of March, after failing to take the capital Kyiv.

People queue at a food distribution centre for internally displaced people and others in need in Zaporizhzhia on April 27, 2022, as Ukraine said that Russian forces have captured several eastern villages as part of Moscow’s offensive to take control of the Donbas region, which Russia has vowed to “liberate”. (Ed JONES / AFP)

Western analysts believe Putin has set his sights on annexing southern and eastern Ukraine in the months ahead but his troops have appeared to be encountering stiff resistance.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is increasingly shifting the balance of power in Europe, with Finland and Sweden poised to jettison decades of military non-alignment to join NATO as a defense against feared further aggression from Moscow.

Helsinki formally announced its bid for membership on Sunday.

But as a conflict that has displaced millions neared the three-month mark, Ukrainians were offered a much-needed boost of optimism as a rap lullaby combining folk and modern hip-hop rhythms won the Eurovision song contest.

Members of the band ‘Kalush Orchestra’ celebrate onstage with Ukraine’s flags after winning on behalf of Ukraine the Eurovision Song contest 2022 on May 14, 2022 at the Pala Alpitour venue in Turin. (Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

“Stefania,” which beat out a host of over-the-top acts at the quirky annual musical event, was written by frontman Oleh Psiuk as a tribute to his mother before the war — but its nostalgic lyrics have taken on outsized meaning because of the conflict.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azоvstal right now,” Psiuk said in English from the stage, referring to the port city’s underground steelworks where Ukrainian soldiers are surrounded by Russian forces.

There was also optimism from Kyiv’s head of military intelligence, who told the UK’s Sky News on Saturday that the war could reach a “breaking point” by August and end in defeat for Russia before the end of the year.

Major General Kyrylo Budanov told the news network that he was “optimistic” about the current trajectory of the conflict.

AFP contributed to this report.

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