Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko has been a fighter his entire life.
The former World Boxing Organization heavyweight champion knocked out dozens of boxers from around the world during his first career.
But Klitschko, who then shifted to politics and has been the mayor of Ukraine’s capital since 2014, has never faced a fight like the current one against Russia.
The Russian army’s 64-km.-long military column outside Kyiv presents a formidable challenge.
In a Skype interview with The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, Klitschko says his models for how to win against all odds are Israel – a country he has visited and admires – and the IDF, which has been successful in mobilizing and maximizing its reservists.
“We have to learn from Israel how to defend our country, with every citizen,” he said. “If they love the country, they need to be ready to defend the country. We have a lot to learn from Israel because we need every citizen to defend his home and his future.”
Klitschko has built strong ties with Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich and other Jewish leaders. His father’s mother is Jewish, and he has been told many times by Jews that they wished it was his grandmother on his mother’s side who was a member of the tribe, so that he would be a Jew by Jewish law.
“I am proud to have Jewish blood,” he said.
Now it is Klitschko’s goal to limit bloodshed in Kyiv, in a war that is expected to get worse before it gets better.
“I can’t recognize my own city, with all the emptiness, barricades and blocks,” he said. “We don’t know this kind of life. Every morning, I wake up and hope it’s a bad dream. But it’s reality. Yes, I’m scared, because I’m not crazy. I’m scared for my family, my friends, my city and my country. But I tell my people not to be nervous. We must be strong. This is our home.”
Klitschko said bombing alarms are sounded some 20 times a day, and that many of the women and children who remain in the city have gone to live underground. He said he does not fault those who have left to other countries in order to avoid danger. He sent his own mother away.
He reserves his sole bitterness and resentment for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The leader of a pro-Western party, Klitschko was a vocal critic of Putin long before the current war began.
“Putin wants to steal our future and bring us back to the Soviet Union,” he said. “We were in the USSR, and we don’t want to go back.”
Asked about Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s shuttle diplomacy between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Klitschko said he appreciates any effort to end Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“We still hope for a diplomatic solution,” he said. “I don’t know what the solution can be after thousands of Ukrainians have been killed, but we want the war to be stopped. With any available leverage, we have to try to stop the war.”
The Russian attack that appears to have bothered Klitschko the most was a strike on a communications tower near the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial that he is building on the site of the ravine where 33,000 Jews were murdered by Nazi forces and their Ukrainian collaborators. Five Ukrainians were killed in the strike.
Klitschko has given to the building fund of the Babyn Yar building project from his own pocket.
“As mayor of Kyiv, I feel a strong responsibility to have, in Babyn Yar, where so many people were killed, what Yad Vashem has in Jerusalem and the American Holocaust Museum has in Washington, where no one has been killed.”
When he visited Yad Vashem in November 2014, he pledged to return with his wife and children.
ASKED WHAT Israelis can do to help Ukraine, he endorsed the Ukraine International Crisis Fund, which was started by the veteran political strategist he shares with Bennett, George Birnbaum, and Birnbaum’s Ukrainian fiancée, Vlada Galan.
“Our citizens desperately need your help,” he said. “They need food, medicine and other basic items.”
The fund will be used to deliver humanitarian aid directly to those who need it immediately. Its first focus will be directing support – such as food, clothing, and much-needed medicine – to those still in Ukraine, especially Kyiv. By coordinating in partnership with Klitschko’s foundation, the fund aims to ensure that the embattled residents of Ukraine are not deprived of basic needs.
“I want to say thank you to everyone who has supported Ukraine and our freedom in this senseless war,” he said. “We need political, financial and military support. Without our friends, we can’t survive.”
Klitschko also called on Israel to break off ties with Russia’s government, though he stressed that he had no problem with the Russian proletariat.
“The Russian population needs to understand that they are being fed propaganda, and they are believing bullshit,” he said. “My mother is Russian. We have nothing against the Russian people.”
So how will Ukraine emerge victorious? He credited the ordinary Ukrainian doctors, lawyers and musicians who joined the defense of the country.
“Unity is the key to win this fight,” he said. “We need unity among democratic countries. Everyone must fight for principles, for freedom, to stop the war, to stop the aggression. I’ve never seen such a patriotic wave in Ukraine. Kyiv is strong, and it will be stronger again.”