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'Neutrality only encourages a union between Russia and Iran'

Zelensky to Sharansky: Israel is one of few countries that can help defend our skies

Ukraine’s president meets members of Babyn Yar memorial board in Kyiv, pledges government support for expansion of museum

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) and Natan Sharansky in Kyiv, October 25, 2022 (courtesy Ukraine Presidential Office)
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) and Natan Sharansky in Kyiv, October 25, 2022 (courtesy Ukraine Presidential Office)

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Natan Sharansky, former Israeli cabinet minister and chairman of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center board, in Kyiv on Tuesday night, and stressed the importance of Israel taking a firm pro-Ukraine position in the war with Russia.

“He said that neutrality only encourages a union between Russia and Iran,” Sharansky told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation immediately after the 20-minute meeting.

“He spoke about the importance of protecting the skies, and [said] Israel is one of the few countries that can be helpful,” the former Prisoner of Zion continued.

Kyiv has amplified its calls for Israel to share air defense expertise and technology as Russia has increasingly relied on Iranian-made drones in its attacks on Ukraine in recent weeks.

Zelensky’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak did not respond to requests for comment on the meeting Tuesday.

Zelensky spoke with Sharansky, a former head of the Jewish Agency, and three other members of the Babyn Yar board for 45 minutes after the one-on-one meeting. Ukrainian businessman Victor Pinchuk joined in person, while former US Senator Joe Lieberman and American billionaire Ronald Lauder participated on Zoom.

Zelensky assured the group that his government would continue to support the construction of a new museum at the ravine where nearly 34,000 Jews were shot to death in massive pits in 1941.

The plan is to open a museum that tells the story of the “Holocaust by bullets,” in which up to two million Jews were gunned down in former Soviet territory by Nazis and local collaborators. The Babyn Yar memorial board is currently collecting evidence of the crimes.

A view of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv on March 2, 2022. (Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP)

The Ukrainian president added that the Russian invasion gives Holocaust commemoration even more meaning, according to Sharansky because “we have to speak about the lessons that were not learned.”

The board held its meeting in Kyiv as a statement of support for Ukraine, and it was Zelensky who proposed a sit-down with the group.

Though Zelensky seemed much more tired than the last time Sharansky saw him shortly before the war, “there is no formality and no distance,” he said of the Ukrainian leader. “He is vivid. I really enjoyed talking with him.”

No official photographer was present at the meeting, so Yermak volunteered his services.

Sharansky, born in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, flew into Warsaw on Monday along with his adviser, former ambassador to Ukraine Naomi Ben Ami. They slept in a town on the Poland-Ukraine border, the crossed into Ukraine Tuesday morning by car.

Local residents run away after a drone attack in Kyiv on October 17, 2022, amid the Russian war on Ukraine. (Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)

They will tour Babyn Yar on Wednesday and will pay a visit to suburbs where Russians committed massacres, including Bucha.

Sharansky said Kyiv during the war reminds him of Israel, where ” soldiers are becoming part of the life of the cafes and restaurants.”

Sharansky has been an outspoken supporter of Ukraine since Russia invaded in late February, and has been urging Israeli officials to change their relatively neutral policy in the war.

Last week, he joined Yermak in a videoconference with leaders of Jewish organizations, asking them to push Jerusalem to provide Kyiv with air defense systems.

“Our duty is to do everything for Israel to do it,” Sharansky argued. “The people of Ukraine need this, but we also need it as part of the free world, because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has encroached on the foundations of the free world and wants to deprive us of this freedom.”

Andriy Yermak, Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, speaks at a virtual meeting with leaders of Jewish organizations and prominent Russian-speaking Israelis, October 20, 2022. (Office of the President of Ukraine)

Though it has sent repeated shipments of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Israel has repeatedly rebuffed Kyiv’s requests for defense weapons, specifically missile defense systems that could be used to fend off Russian airstrikes, despite expressing sympathy for the country’s plight.

Israel’s refusal is seen as an attempt by Jerusalem to maintain working ties with Moscow, due to Russia’s control of Syrian air space where Israel’s air force has carried out hundreds of sorties against alleged Iranian arms shipments to terror groups and to keep groups backed by Tehran from establishing a foothold.

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