Ukrainian Ambassador Hennadii Nadolenko attended the ceremony at Yad Vashem on Sunday evening marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, and heard Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speak of the world’s inactivity against Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Netanyahu was using that parallel to warn the world’s leaders against making a similar mistake today, when dealing with the ayatollahs’ Iran.
But Nadolenko listened to the words – words he described as “powerful” – and thought not of Iran and the nuclear issue, but rather his own country and the Russian issue.
“If you change just some of the names of the countries, some of the speech could apply to the current situation,” he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview. “He [Netanyahu] was speaking about pre-World War II time, and why no one cared, why no one predicted. And this is exactly what is going on now. We are trying to warn everyone. In the center of Europe one country is trying to violate international rights and laws, and bilateral agreements, and try to cut into pieces another country. And not a small country, we are a country of 46 million people.”
The personable Nadolenko is in a unique position among the ambassadors stationed in Israel. Appointed to the post in 2010, he first represented the government of president Viktor Yanukovych, the one that was overthrown in February.
But he was not replaced or recalled, as were some 10 other Ukrainian ambassadors serving in foreign countries, following the dramatic events in Independence Square in February, and has remained on to represent the current government as well.
An unusual situation. First he represented a pro-Moscow regime, now a regime on the brink of a possible war with Russia. Asked if that is not a difficult position to be in, Nadolenko said – like a true diplomat – that he recently told his staff that their job was to “represent the people of Ukraine.”
He was even more diplomatic in discussing Israel’s position on the Ukrainian crisis, a neutral position that has reportedly caused agitation in Washington, where US officials would like to see Israel take a stronger position in favor of the Ukrainians. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier this month Washington was “surprised” that Israel did not show up for a vote in the UN General Assembly in March in favor of a resolution affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Israel’s official reason for not attending that vote, and the reason relayed to Nadolenko, was because of the foreign ministry’s strike at the time.
Asked whether he was satisfied with Israel’s position, Nadolenko said only that “we took into consideration the position which Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said on March 5.”
That statement read as follows: “Israel is watching with great concern the developments in Ukraine, anxious for the security of all its residents and hoping that the situation does not deteriorate to the loss of life. Israel expects the crisis in Ukraine will be handled through diplomatic means and resolved peacefully.”
An experienced diplomat, Nadolenko would not be drawn into a discussion about whether that type of statement was sufficient. He did say, however, that Ukraine would like to see Israel among the 100 nations that voted with Ukraine in the UN for its territorial integrity.
He did not give any indication that his government did not accept Israel’s explanation for not showing up for the vote.
Sitting in his office in a north Tel Aviv apartment building converted into a gated embassy, Nadolenko pointed out that Israel and Ukraine have cooperated closely in the past at the UN, and reminded that Ukraine was one of only 18 countries that stood by Israel and voted against endorsing the Goldstone report that investigated Operation Cast Lead in 2009.
He said that he did not believe Israel’s no-show on this vote would impact on Ukraine’s votes on Israel issues in the world body. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Each time it is different, we try always to be a friendly nation with Israel, always try to help our friends, and that is the way it should be.”
In 2012, in the General Assembly vote to admit the Palestinians as a non-member state, Ukraine did not show up for vote. And in the 2011, Ukraine abstained in the vote on admitting the Palestinians to UNESCO.
Officials have explained Israel’s neutrality in the Russian- Ukrainian issues as being motivated by a desire not to antagonize Russia, which – if it so desired – could cause Israel enormous headaches when it comes to issues such as Middle East arms sales, Syria and Iran.
Nadolenko declined to comment on that position. “It is an internal issue of the foreign policy of the State of Israel,” he said. “We can just take it into consideration and can provide the Israeli side with our arguments on this matter.
From our point of view, arguments of the Ukrainian Side are rather strong.”
Nadolenko expressed appreciation to Israel and the Ukrainian Jewish community for arranging medical assistance for 10 people wounded in clashes in Independence Square in February. The wounded in the clashes there were airlifted to Israeli hospitals, and Israel helped cover the $83,000 in medical costs.
Nadolenko said the Israeli medical teams saved two lives and the legs of four other people whom Ukrainian doctors said would never be able to walk again.
As to reports of an upsurge in anti-Semitism in Ukraine, Nadolenko said this was part of a propaganda war against his country.
This campaign, he said was “being orchestrated from outside Ukraine, and has nothing to do with Ukraine or its government.”
The ambassador said that “all the main Ukrainian rabbis and heads of Jewish organizations came out with joint statements saying there is no rise in anti-Semitism. The few incidents were provocations from outside. The Ukrainian government stands on its principle position to protect and fight against any expression of anti-Semitism.”
Nadolenko said that after the February events, two Jews were appointed to high-ranking government positions, including the vice prime minister, and the head of the Dnipropetrovsk regional administration, Ukraine’s fourth largest city. In addition, two Jews are running in the presidential elections scheduled for May 25.
If Jews are interested in leaving Ukraine, he said, it does not have anything to so with anti-Semitism, but rather with living in a pre-war situation, “where you have an enemy army standing on your border, and everyone is trying to save their families, and themselves. If they have a chance to fly out, they are trying to save them. Especially if they are Jews and they are welcome here [in Israel], and they can feel a little safer here. But it is not because of anti-Semitism.”
The ambassador said he did not have any figures on how many Jews have arrived as a result of the current crisis, or are interested in immigrating.
Of the 1.2 million immigrants who arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union since 1990, some 500,000 arrived from Ukraine, he said, making it the largest number of immigrants to come to Israel from any of the FSU countries.