The Ukrainian crisis according to Natan Sharasnky

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Natan Sharansky is a Ukrainian native who spent his formative years in Russian prisons.

 NATAN SHARANSKY: The irony is that Putin said the Ukrainians are not a nation, but now probably he has done more than anyone in history to give them a sense of being a nation. (photo credit: OFFICE OF NATAN SHARANSKY)
NATAN SHARANSKY: The irony is that Putin said the Ukrainians are not a nation, but now probably he has done more than anyone in history to give them a sense of being a nation.

That Ukrainian history drips with Jewish blood should in no way impact the support and sympathy Israel and the Jewish people offer to and feel today toward Ukrainians fighting Russia, says former Prisoner of Zion and Ukrainian native Natan Sharansky.

“If we say we are not going to send our hospitals [to help the Ukrainians], because their great-grandfathers raped our great-grandmothers, then we will have to stop our diplomatic relations with most of the world and think about how to build our past, not how to build our futures,” he said.

Looking out from his perch in Jerusalem, Sharansky has a unique vantage point on the Russian-Ukrainian war. He was born and raised in Donetsk, Ukraine, was educated in Moscow, spent some of his formative years in Russian prisons, and is a Jew whose sense of morality and Jewish peoplehood propelled him to take on the Soviet Union.

He has served in the Israeli government, so can understand the considerations the government is dealing with when drawing up its policies regarding the crisis. He was the head of the Jewish Agency, so is well aware of the situation of the Jews both in Ukraine and Russia.

And he has met, on several occasions, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He said Putin was the first Russian leader in 1,000 years to have a positive attitude toward the Jews, and Zelensky is a proud Jew who has done more than any other Ukrainian leader – other than the notorious Cossack antisemite and mass murderer Bohdan Chmielnicki – to give the Ukrainians a sense of nationhood.

 NATAN SHARANSKY in 2011.  (credit: REUTERS)
NATAN SHARANSKY in 2011. (credit: REUTERS)

Of Putin, he said that “today his negative influence on the world is so much greater than his positive attitude to the Jews that [the latter] really doesn’t matter.” And of Zelensky he said the former comedic actor is a “model of courage and spirit.”

Sharansky, who serves as chairman of the supervisory board of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, said that he has read extensively about the atrocities of Chmielnicki in the 17th century, as well as those under Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petliura and those that took place at Babyn Yar in the 20th.

None of that, he said, “should undermine for even a second our sympathy for the Ukrainians who are fighting at this moment – and paying with their lives – exactly for the things that are very important for us.

“We go to Europe, to France and Spain, and love to visit all those places for medieval history, and they [the locals] are proud to show various crusader castles, and you understand that every square meter there is full of Jewish blood from the most horrible pogroms. But you don’t say, ‘Okay, they deserve what happened to them under the Nazis.’ If that would be our approach, then we would simply be obsessed with how to destroy the world, because we were victims practically everywhere.”

That, according to Sharansky, cannot be the Jewish approach. Instead, he said that Israel must stand firmly with the Ukrainians.

AT THE very beginning of the Russian invasion two weeks ago, Sharansky said Israel needed to speak out with clarity with the rest of the free world against the Russians. He was critical of the government, which spoke of the tragedy in Ukraine as though it was being hit by a natural disaster, some kind of hurricane, rather than by an invading army from Russia.

“I said from the very start that this is not a fight between Russia and Ukraine about a piece of land; it is not even a fight about the future of Ukraine. It is, rather, an attempt to change all the principles on which the free world stands, to dismiss all the understandings and agreements that guarantee people that they will not lose their freedom because at this moment their neighbor is stronger than they are.”

While he was critical of the government for not taking a strong moral stand from the beginning, he did not add his voice to those saying Israel did not sufficiently open its arms to accept Ukrainian refugees besides those Jews and their relatives eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.

“There are millions of refugees, and we can participate in assisting but cannot open our doors for millions of them. We didn’t do it for Africa, and can’t do it for Ukraine,” he said.

“I don’t think we have to go from one extreme to the other. From saying it is not our war, not our business, that we have problems with Syria, to the other extreme that it is our moral obligation to take in millions of refugees. Let’s be practical: We can give a lot of assistance; we are giving some; we can probably give more.”

CALLING THE Russian invasion of Ukraine the greatest threat to the free world since World War II, Sharansky said that at such a moment Israel cannot say “we’re good with both sides” and be neutral.

But what about Syria? Sharansky is asked. What about the argument that Israel cannot antagonize Russia, because it holds the keys to the skies over Syria, which Israel needs access to in order to keep the Iranians from turning the country into a forward base from which to attack the Jewish state?

Sharansky recognizes the dilemma and acknowledges that this places Israel in a catch-22. But here he places the blame on the US and Europeans for leaving Syria for the Russians and for not taking a strong enough stand against Iran, and for making agreements with the Iranian regime that will give it billions of dollars – even while the West is taking away billions of dollars from the Russians – with which it can build bases and transfer weapons to Syria.

When speaking of “shoulds,” Sharansky said that just as Israel should be standing more firmly with the free world against Russia, so, too, should the free world be standing more firmly with Israel against Iran and Iranian bases in Syria.

“We have to take care of our immediate [security] needs, but at the same time not lose sight of the unique struggle with evil in which the world finds itself,” he said.

While Prime Minister Naftali Bennett from the outset did not take as strong a position against Russia and in favor of Ukraine as Sharansky would have liked, Bennett did fly to Moscow last week and take up a mediator role in the crisis. Sharansky, however, is cautious about these efforts.

“I hope that he knows something that we don’t know, and that he has a reason to believe that he can contribute even a little bit to opening the humanitarian corridors that the Russians are violating all the time, “ he said. “But if not, if this is simply to give us a feeling that we can talk to both countries, then it can backfire.”

Sharansky remembers the backlash he received from dissidents in Russia and others in the West when former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Moscow in 2018, almost alone among world leaders, to stand with Putin at a Red Square parade marking 73 years to the victory over the Nazis. This was four years after Russia took over Crimea, and Sharansky was asked then – long before Russian tanks pushed toward Kyiv – how the Israeli premier could stand with Putin.

“That the Israeli prime minister today is meeting with probably the most hated figure in the world, and shakes his hand, and says he spoke rationally at a time when all the world is speaking about how irrational Putin is – well, there is a price for that.”

Regardless of whether Putin is rational or not, his power on the world stage stems from something he is willing to do that others are not: use brute force.

“That is a classical situation in the criminal world, where the ringleader is not the one who is most physically strong but is the one that everyone understands is willing to use his fist, his body and his knife,” Sharansky said, noting that Russia’s economy is nothing compared to that of the NATO countries.

As to whether he thought Putin – who succeeded over the past two decades to “regather” Chechnya, Belarus and parts of Georgia into what he wants to be the renewed Russian Empire – overreached in Ukraine, Sharansky said that the Russian leader was undoubtedly surprised by the resistance the Ukrainians have put up, thinking that the minute they saw Russian tanks, they would run.

“The irony is that Putin said the Ukrainians are not a nation, but now probably has done more than anyone in history to give them a sense of being a nation,” Sharansky said.

Putin was correct so far in thinking, however, that if he threatened the use of nuclear weapons, which he has done, it would guarantee that the West would avoid fighting.

Where Putin miscalculated, Sharansky said, was regarding the sanctions. “I think he believed – as all Soviet leaders had – that the West can speak strong, but in the end, as Lenin said, capitalists will sell the rope with which we will hang them.” Sharansky doubted that Putin took into account that the West – scared and paralyzed by the nuclear threat – would be so unified when it came to the sanctions.

But will the sanctions be effective against the Russians, a famously long-suffering people? Western sanctions failed to bring Iran to its knees; can they be expected to make the Russians crumble?

Sharansky noted one big difference between the Iranians and the Russians.

“Iran’s regime has a very strong ideology, and they are true believers – not all the country, but a serious part of the country. When you are ideologically motivated, it is very difficult to bring you to the knees with sanctions. But in Russia, there is practically no ideology.”

According to Sharansky, Putin’s Crimea grab boosted his popularity because Crimea holds a very special place in Russian history. That is not the case now, he said; there is no understanding in Russia of why this war is needed.

Without a clear reason to explain their suffering, Sharansky said, it will be difficult for the population to be willing to put up with deprivations caused by sanctions. Besides, he added, the Russians today are of a different generation than those who used to wait in long lines under the Soviets to enter supermarkets with empty shelves. This generation has become accustomed to a different standard.

What Putin does understand, Sharansky said, is that the sanctions are giving him limited time to achieve his ends.

“The weapon that Putin has that works is the threat of nuclear weapons, and he is building up the rhetoric. His next demand will not be Poland or Moldova, but that the sanctions are unconventional warfare against Russia, and if not removed, then he will use nuclear weapons. That is where we are now, because the nuclear threat is really the only weapon he has.

“That is why I believe the sooner NATO physically resists his efforts to create a different world order, the better.”