Kyiv blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday for comments about Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish background, calling them further evidence of antisemitism in Moscow’s leadership.
On Tuesday, Putin told Russian television that the West put “an ethnic Jew” into power in Ukraine to cover up the country’s “glorification of Nazism.”
Western powers, said the Russian president, “have put a person at the head of modern Ukraine — an ethnic Jew, with Jewish roots, with Jewish origins. So in my opinion, they seem to be covering up an anti-human essence that is the foundation… of the modern Ukrainian state.
“This makes the whole situation extremely disgusting, that an ethnic Jew is covering up the glorification of Nazism and covering up those who led the Holocaust in Ukraine at one time — and this is the extermination of 1.5 million people.”
Putin has repeatedly sought to paint his invasion of Ukraine as an effort to “denazify” the country, a claim rejected by the majority of the international community as baseless propaganda.
Kyiv called on the international community to condemn Putin’s statements.
“Vladimir Putin linked the Jewish origin of the President of Ukraine with the glorification of Nazism,” said Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry. “Putin’s chronic fixation on the ethnic origin of the Ukrainian president is yet another manifestation of the deep-rooted antisemitism of the Russian elites.”
????✡️???????? Putin said in a television interview, without citing evidence, that Western powers had installed Volodymyr Zelensky, who is of Jewish heritage, as president of Ukraine "to cover up the glorification of Nazism". pic.twitter.com/izlWDY4rzh
— Terror Alarm (@Terror_Alarm) September 5, 2023
Israel’s Foreign Ministry had not responded to Putin’s comments by the time of writing.
Ukraine’s Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk told The Times of Israel that “we would like to hear something from Israel. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this from Putin.”
Korniychuk said in a statement that Israel “should understand that Putin, in his harsh words against President Zelensky, only proves once again why Israel should support Ukraine, President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people in their difficult time.”
Putin has commented on Zelensky’s Jewish roots on other occasions since his forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022. In June, Putin claimed that Zelensky was viewed as a “disgrace” to his faith by other members of the religion.
“I have a lot of Jewish friends,” Putin told an annual economic forum in Saint Petersburg. “They say that Zelensky is not Jewish, that he is a disgrace to the Jewish people.”
Putin later noted that Zelensky was “a man with Jewish blood” before adding that “he covers for these freaks, these neo-Nazis, with his actions.”
“Why do you put Nazis on a pedestal?” Putin asked rhetorically regarding Zelensky.
Other senior Russian officials have also made statements about Zelensky’s background that drew furious condemnations as antisemitic.
Putin, in his harsh words against President Zelensky, only proves once again why Israel should support Ukraine, President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people in their difficult time.
In the early months of the war, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the fact that Ukraine’s president is Jewish does not contradict Moscow’s claims that it launched the invasion to “denazify” the country, claiming that even Hitler “had Jewish blood.”
While Zelensky does not profess to be religious, he identifies as Jewish and told The Times of Israel in 2020 that he was raised in “an ordinary Soviet Jewish family.”
Zelensky has said that his great-grandfather and three of his grandfather’s brothers died as a result of the Nazi invasion of Ukrainian territory. His grandfather and his grandfather’s brothers took up arms against the Nazis in the Red Army; his grandfather was the only one to survive.
Zelensky has also said he has relatives who moved to Israel in the 1990s, during the wave of Jewish emigration from the newly dissolved Soviet Union. As Ukrainian president, he has visited once, for the 2020 Holocaust commemoration shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.
Russia has put pressure on local Jews in other ways during the war. Last October, Moscow’s exiled former chief rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt encouraged Russian Jews to flee the country after a Moscow official labeled the Chabad Hasidic sect a supremacist cult.
Since July 2022, Russia and Israel have been engaged in a legal dispute over Moscow’s attempts to shutter the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that promotes immigration of Jews to Israel.
According to Goldschmidt, since the beginning of the invasion in March 2022, 25 to 30 percent of Jews in Russia have left, or are planning to leave.