Ukraine's Jews warned to be ready for evacuation if Russia invades

US rejects Moscow’s demand that NATO pull back as Biden threatens Putin with personal sanctions.

 The synagogue at Anatevka which is modelled on a real synagogue from the 19th century. (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)
The synagogue at Anatevka which is modelled on a real synagogue from the 19th century.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)

KYIV – Ukrainian Jews were warned on Wednesday to be ready to be evacuated to Israel as the threat of a Russian invasion looms over the country.

While Russia denies that it intends to invade, military drills have taken place along the border with Ukraine and in the Russian-annexed Crimea. These drills continued even as de-escalation talks were held among Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France.

Alongside growing tensions between the countries, Ukraine has been preparing for war and has received aid from the US in the form of weapons and military equipment, although according to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Russia has not yet amassed enough troops on the border to attack. He did not rule out the possibility that they might later on.

While the Jews were told to prepare to leave, one leader in the Ukrainian Jewish community said he did not yet see cause for concern.

 Founder of the Ukrainian Jewish village Anatevka and Ukraine's Chief Rabbi Moshe Azman. (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER) Founder of the Ukrainian Jewish village Anatevka and Ukraine's Chief Rabbi Moshe Azman. (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)

“It’s nothing to worry about,” said one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis, Rabbi Moshe Azman. “This is just Israel taking the opportunity to promote more aliyah among Ukraine’s Jews.”

Azman said that he believes that the situation is not even urgent enough that he feels the need to discuss it with the Jewish communities.

His wife added that even so, she is always ready to escape in case of danger to Jews.

“I’m a 13th-generation Ukrainian,” she said. “My whole family survived the Holocaust only because they were always ready to escape, so I am also always ready.”

Azman, though, is not content with doing nothing. His son, Shmuel, said that his father had offered to mediate between Ukraine and Russia with Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar but he had been turned down. Both Azman and Lazar are members of Chabad, which is very close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, the US delivered written replies to sweeping Russian security demands on Wednesday, a key step in a fragile diplomatic process as Russia staged new military drills on land and sea near Ukraine.

Washington has made clear that Russian demands for NATO to pull back troops and weapons from eastern Europe and bar Ukraine from ever joining are nonstarters. It says it is ready to discuss other topics such as arms control and confidence-building measures.

Whether Russia is prepared to accept that limited agenda will determine the next phase of the crisis, which has seen Moscow mass around 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border while denying that it plans to invade.

Against the backdrop of the rising tensions, Ukraine hosted the European Jewish Association’s (EJA) antisemitism conference that centered around the commemoration of Babi Yar in which 33,701 of Kyiv’s Jews were gunned down by the Nazis, the biggest single massacre of Jews during the Holocaust.

Among the speakers at the conference was Ukraine’s president of the Parliament, Ruslan Stefanchuk, and Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna, both of whom discussed the importance of fighting antisemitism and commemorating massacres like Babi Yar that the Soviet Union tried to cover up after the Holocaust.

Reuters contributed to the report.