Russia claimed that 200 “Israeli mercenaries” are fighting with Ukraine in the war against Russia, Zvezda TV – the Russian Defense Ministry's channel – reported last week signaling a possible shift in Moscow’s relationship with the Jewish state.
“Ukrainian fascists are aided by Israeli expats who came to kill Russians in Donbass,” the report claimed. “They are fighting alongside Nazis, and against those who saved their grandparents in the Holocaust.”
The Israeli news outlet Ynet noted that this is not the first time Moscow blamed Israelis for meddling in the armed conflict. Last month, a video that circulated on social media showed Israeli volunteers in the Ukrainian military speaking in Hebrew, and thanking the Israeli government and Ukraine’s chief rabbi for their support.
Israeli media emphasized that the soldiers featured in the recording were unpaid volunteers, who therefore cannot be defined as “mercenaries.”
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, around 7,000 foreign fighters from 63 countries have joined Ukrainian forces in the fighting, including citizens of Israel, Poland, Untied States, Canada, Romania, the United Kingdom and Georgia.
The Russian TV channel claimed that “crazy killer mercenaries” were recruited by the Pentagon and NATO-members’ defense ministries. Some were enlisted by organizations and foundations that armed them with weapons and provided payment for their services, the report said, stressing that several foreign fighters suffer from severe psychological problems.
Russia also blamed Israelis for allegedly fighting within the ranks of the Ukrainian “Azov Battalion,” the far-right military regiment whose fighters are currently under attack at a steel plant in the besieged port city of Mariupol, in an attempt to prevent Moscow from achieving a strategic and symbolic win.
The infantry unit has long been tainted by associations with neo-Nazi and white-supremacist ideology. Such claims have been central to Russia’s justification of the invasion, branding it as a “special military operation … to de-militarize and de-Nazify Ukraine.”
The regiment says it was absorbed into the National Guard in September 2014 and since then has expelled extremist elements from within its ranks and recruited Jewish fighters, Ukrainian officials say.
David Arakhamia, a senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the Times of Israel on Friday, “There are about 40 Jewish heroes protecting Azovstal now.”
The Zvezda report also accused Jews of supporting “Ukrainian Nazism,” using rhetoric that echoed recent anti-Semitic remarks made by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It implied that Zelenskyy “has betrayed his Jewish ancestors who has fought the Nazis along with the Russians in the ghetto, or died with them there.”
“So what if Zelenskyy is Jewish? The fact does not negate the Nazi elements in Ukraine. I believe that Hitler also had Jewish blood,” Lavrov said during an interview in early May. “Some of the worst anti-Semites are Jews.”
Lavrov’s comments were not only met with widespread outrage from Israeli leaders and politicians, but were widely slammed internationally.
According to the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, Russian President Vladimir Putin apologized for Lavrov’s comments in a phone conversation with Naftali Bennett, although the Kremlin did not use the word apology in its statement about the call.
Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.