Reports detailing the links between fighters on both sides of the Ukrainian civil war and neo-Nazi groups have again raised the specter of anti-Semitism in a country with a bloody history for the Jewish people.
That both rebel fighters and members of a Ukrainian volunteer battalion raised to quell the Moscow-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine have deep ties to such groups have not proved unduly worrying to the Jews living in the war zone, however.
Members of the Azov Battalion, a volunteer unit backed by Kiev, were pictured wearing Nazi symbols on their combat helmets in a segment aired on German television this week.
Asked about any fascist connections, a spokesman for the Ukrainian contingent told NBC News that the militiamen were “just Ukrainian nationalists.”
According to Vyacheslav Likhachev, who monitors anti-Semitism for the Euro- Asian Jewish Congress, the battalion “was created by the leaders of the radical Right,” including leaders of the Social-National Assembly of Ukraine, a neo-Nazi group.
Andriy Biletsky, the battalion’s commander, is the leader of the SNA, and “the leadership of the battalion is the leadership of this organization,” Likhachev told The Jerusalem Post.
The battalion, currently stationed in the key port city of Mariupol, directly in the rebels’ line of advance should the current truce break down, flies a banner featuring a symbol strikingly like the Wolfsangel (“wolf-hook”) heraldic design used by many white supremacist groups.
In an interview with The Guardian, Biletsky said he would not turn away volunteers for holding Nazi views.
“The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival. A crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen [‘subhumans’],” he wrote in a recent article cited by the newspaper.
Despite such rhetoric, not everybody in the battalion is a neo-Nazi, Likhachev asserted, saying that for many the only option for fighting against the rebels was to join volunteer units headed to the front.
“For most volunteers it was only possibility to struggle against the separatists,” he said.
Azov is not the only unit with Nazi ties. The Sich Battalion, founded by the far-right Svoboda party, has about 100 members, according to the Kyiv Post.
Josef Zissels, the president of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine (Vaad), recently accused the Moscow-backed separatists of harboring neo-Nazis in their ranks as well.
Speaking with the Kyiv Post, Zissels said that members of a number of Russian neo-Nazi groups, including the Russian National Union, Eurasian Youth Union and Other Russia are involved fighting in the breakaway Donbass region.
While “they don’t have their own units, their members are a part of other units,” he told the Ukrainian newspaper.
Likhachev, who has a close working relationship with Zissels, agreed, saying that Russian neo-Nazis have “created a network of volunteering in Russia [and have] created logistical links” with the separatists. The anti-Semitism monitor provided this newspaper with a number of photographs of men in military fatigues bearing automatic weapons and wearing patches with Russian National Union emblazoned on shoulder patches. Such pictures can also be found on groups on the popular Russian social network VKontakte that are apparently used to recruit fighters.
Likhachev charged Russia’s security services with collaborating with these groups, but the Jerusalem Post was unable to corroborate that claim. NATO has accused Russia of sending troops into Ukraine and of backing the rebellion.
According to Boruch Gorin, a close associate of Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, “the leadership of the so-called Donetsk Republic and the Luhansk Republic and a lot of activists from there are known as people that participated in... neo-Nazi organizations like Russian National Unity.”
There are neo-Nazis fighting on both sides of the conflict, but “from the beginning of all these fights both sides are distancing themselves from anti-Semitic rhetoric,” Gorin said.
Despite a series of anti-Semitic incidents during and following the Maidan protests in Kiev last winter, there has been little sign of anti-Semitic violence over the past several months. While Jews have died in the conflict, they were not targeted due to their religion, according to many local leaders.
Communal leaders in Donetsk, Luhansk and Mariupol have all indicated that while they live in fear due to shelling, firefights and all of the attendant horrors of war, they have not felt threatened specifically due to their religious identity.
Citing a letter calling on the Jews of Donetsk to register themselves with rebels, which later proved to be a fabrication, Gorin said both sides have used charges of anti-Semitism to discredit their opponents.
As such, “it is natural [that both sides] tried to cleanse themselves from such accusations,” he asserted.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that Kiev is under the control of a fascist junta and has warned of the “rampage of reactionary forces [and] nationalist and anti-Semitic forces” in Ukraine.
Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich has accused Putin of using the specter of anti-Semitism as an excuse for intervention in Ukraine, and he has accused Moscow of staging violent provocations against Jews to further its interests there.
In an April interview with The Jerusalem Post, Zissels agreed with Bleich, saying that the Russians “are cynically willing to play the Jewish card in the implementation of their objectives, and are therefore [shown to be] willing to sacrifice Jews.”
In Mariupol, which has seesawed between rebellion and government control, the Jews have not at any time felt threatened by either side because of their religion, the city’s Rabbi Mendel Cohen told the Post.
Similar assertions were made by Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski of Donetsk, who, with most of his congregants, has fled that city.
George (Eliyahu) Zilberbord, a Jewish man, and a security guard were shot and killed in Donetsk on August 30, but their deaths were attributed to his confronting rebels intent on looting his neighbor’s house.