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Senior Zelensky aide to ToI: We are waiting for Israel to change its stance on war

David Arakhamia, head of Kyiv’s negotiating team, says president sees Jewish state as model for rebuilt Ukraine; speaks of need for Israeli drones

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C), and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Combo photo: AFP)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C), and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Combo photo: AFP)

A senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine is waiting for Israel to change its position toward Ukraine and Russia as Moscow continues its assault.

“Of course, we are waiting,” David Arakhamia, the adviser in charge of Ukraine’s negotiating delegation, told The Times of Israel.

“Number one demand is to stop blocking weapon sales to Ukraine,” Arakhamia added in a telephone interview.” Israeli kamikaze drones are one of the best in the world and we need to buy them.”

Israel has sought to maintain open communication with both Russia and Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to invade on February 24. Bennett held a handful of calls during the war’s first weeks with both Putin and Zelensky as he sought to exploit Israel’s working ties with both countries to help mediate a ceasefire to end the war.

At the same time, Israel has rejected requests from Kyiv and the West for military equipment such as anti-missile batteries, part of a policy meant to preserve ties with Russia. Instead it has sent some 100 tons of humanitarian aid and set up a field hospital in western Ukraine for six weeks.

“We appreciate Prime Minister Bennett’s attempts [to mediate] but think that they were not successful,” Arakhamia said. “We are ready to meet at any place including, of course, Jerusalem.”

An Israeli soldier launches a drone during an exercise in northern Israel in November 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Arakhamia pointed to the explosive comments from Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Hitler’s “Jewishness” and Jewish complicity in the Holocaust, as a potential reason for Jerusalem to rethink its approach.

“I know Israel is a place of many Jewish people, including former Russians,” he said. “It is tough for you to find the right balance internally. But now, after Lavrov demonstrated Russia’s attitude to Jewish people, I really hope Israel will choose their side and act accordingly.”

Arakhamia, who is in Zelensky’s inner circle, said the Ukrainian leader looks to Israel as a model for the country’s future after the war.

We use Israel as a role model now to prototype the new country.

“His Jewish roots are in place,” said Arakhamia with a smile. “He talks about Israel’s living model a lot, about its [way of life], when you always have a risk of being attacked. We use Israel as a role model now to prototype the new country.”

“We will need its expertise and story to avoid mistakes and move forward quicker,” he continued.

Arakhamia pointed at the human factor — long seen as one of Israel’s advantages over its adversaries — as the key to Ukraine’s battlefield successes over the far larger Russian military.

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

“We protect our land, while they are foreigners stepping into our country,” he explained. “Our morale is five times better at least. In addition, most people have one or two university degrees, so they learn quicker, have critical thinking, can Google the problem and find the solution by themselves.”

Ukrainian civilians have enlisted in the war effort, forming volunteer groups to perform tasks ranging from social media, flying civilian drones, packing supplies, and resettling refugees.

Volunteers prepare humanitarian aid for victims of the Russian invasion in Lviv, western Ukraine, Monday, February 28, 2022. (AP/Pavlo Palamarchuk)

Israel’s Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky is in Kyiv this week, discussing with Ukrainian officials what role Israel can play in the reconstruction of the country.

“Israel wants to be part of these efforts,” Brodsky said. “We’ve identified main fields where we can contribute – health, homeland security, agriculture, water management, even infrastructure.”

Arakhamia, who also heads Zelensky’s Servant of the People party in parliament, said that he has noticed changes in the country’s leader — who was an actor and comedian before entering politics — over the three months of war.

“He became stronger, tougher and severe,” said Arakhamia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrives for his meeting with US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in Kyiv, Ukraine, April 30, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

On Friday, Arakhamia told The Times of Israel that there were dozens of Jewish soldiers fighting in the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

“There are about 40 Jewish heroes protecting Azovstal now,” he said.

One of the Ukrainian units still holding out in the steel plant over the weekend 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 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.

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.”

People and relatives of Azov battalion servicemen currently engaged in defending the Azovstal plant, shout slogans during a rally called, ‘Save military of Mariupol,’ in front of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office in Kyiv on May 3, 2022. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

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.

On Monday, hundreds of soldiers were evacuated to areas controlled by Russian-backed separatists as officials work to get the rest out, signaling the beginning of the end of a siege that became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

Russia called the operation a mass surrender, while the Ukrainians avoid using that word — but say the garrison has completed its mission.

This photo released on May 10, 2022, by the Azov regiment shows an injured Ukrainian serviceman inside the Azovstal iron and steel works factory in Mariupol, Ukraine, amid the Russian invasion. (Dmytro ‘Orest’ Kozatskyi/Various sources/AFP)

The complete capture of the plant would mark a significant milestone. It would give Russia its biggest victory of the war yet and could help free up forces for offensive action elsewhere in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine that is now under attack by Russian forces.

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

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