Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a press conference following talks of representatives of the Arab League states with Russian Foreign Minister in Moscow on April 4, 2022.
Alexander Zemlianichenko | AFP | Getty Images
A rift between Russia and Israel deepened further on Tuesday, with Moscow claiming that the Israeli government is supporting what it called a “neo-Nazi” regime in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Tensions were sparked Sunday following claims by Moscow’s foreign minister that Adolf Hitler was himself part Jewish.
The comments provoked outrage in Israel, which summoned the Russian ambassador and demanded an apology. Israel and Russia have had a close cooperative relationship, and the Israeli government had previously been seen as keeping a fairly neutral line on the Russia-Ukraine war.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, was asked on an Italian TV show, Zona Bianca, how Russia can claim it is fighting to “de-Nazify” Ukraine when that country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is himself Jewish.
Lavrov responded: “I could be wrong, but Hitler also had Jewish blood. [That Zelenskyy is Jewish] means absolutely nothing.”
Lavrov then added that “for some time we have heard from wise Jewish people that the biggest antisemites were Jewish.”
How did Israel respond?
The comments prompted a furious response from Israel, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Monday calling Lavrov’s comments “unforgivable and scandalous, and a horrible historical error.”
“The Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust,” Lapid said. “The lowest level of racism against Jews is to blame Jews themselves for antisemitism.”
Six million Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany in the Holocaust during World War II.
The comments provoked fury and disbelief outside Israel, too.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the country’s highest-ranking Jewish elected official, commented on Twitter that “it’s chilling to see Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov resort to antisemitism and Holocaust disinformation to defend Putin’s war crimes.”
“His comments are sickening and should be condemned by all,” he said.
Meanwhile, Zelenskyy said in his nightly address on Monday that “such an anti-Semitic thrust by their minister means Russia has forgotten all the lessons of World War II. Or maybe they never studied those lessons.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry poured fuel on the fire on Tuesday by responding to Lapid’s comments, claiming that what it called the “anti-historic statements” by the minister “largely explains the course of the current Israeli Government in supporting the neo-Nazi regime in Kiev.”
Russia’s focus on neo-Nazism
Russia has repeatedly made baseless and false claims that Ukraine’s government is led by “neo-Nazis.” It has also repeated false claims that it is “protecting” ethnic Russians in Ukraine from “genocide” perpetrated by Ukrainian forces.
Analysts have roundly responded by saying Russia’s claims are an attempt to misinform and manipulate the domestic Russian audience and to justify Moscow’s invasion of the country.
That’s not to say that there are no neo-Nazis in Ukraine. Like most countries around the world, Ukraine does have some marginal elements that adhere to a far-right, nationalist and sometimes neo-Nazi ideology.
The “Azov Battalion” or “Azov Regiment,” for example, is now synonymous with the defense of the besieged city of Mariupol although it actually originated as a far-right militia unit with a number of its members viewed as neo-Nazis.
Peter Dickinson, editor of UkraineAlert at the Atlantic Council, commented on Monday that the Russian foreign minister’s “very public descent into the squalid depths of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories highlights the mounting difficulties facing the Putin regime as it attempts to justify the war in Ukraine.”
“Officially, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that the aim of his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine is to ‘de-Nazify’ the country. However, neither Putin nor any of his colleagues have been able to explain exactly why they regard Ukraine as “Nazified.” Instead, they have relied largely on outside ignorance of contemporary Ukraine along with Soviet-era propaganda tropes equating any expressions of Ukrainian national identity with fascism.”
In reality, Dickinson noted, Ukraine has established itself over the past three decades “as an imperfect but vibrant democracy with a pluralistic political culture.”
“Russian propagandists and their Western allies routinely exaggerate the degree of far-right influence in today’s Ukraine, but in fact nationalist parties have made little impression on the country’s mainstream politics and remain far more marginalized than elsewhere in Europe,” he said.