Israeli ‘mercenaries’ teaming up with neo-Nazis in Ukraine, Russia says

In Ukraine, Israeli mercenaries are actually shoulder-to-shoulder with the Azov militants,” said spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

 A Ukrainian service member patrols an area in a village near a frontline, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv Region, Ukraine March 31, 2022. (photo credit: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters)
A Ukrainian service member patrols an area in a village near a frontline, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv Region, Ukraine March 31, 2022.
(photo credit: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters)

Israelis are fighting alongside Azov, a Ukrainian military battalion with neo-Nazi roots, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday, amid a row between Jerusalem and Moscow over the latter saying Hitler was part Jewish.

“I’ll say something that the politicians in Israel who are now inflating their information campaign are unlikely to want to hear,” Zakharova said in an interview with Sputnik Radio. “Perhaps they will be interested. In Ukraine, Israeli mercenaries are actually shoulder-to-shoulder with the Azov militants.”

 Israel is certainly aware of this, she added: “I saw video.”

The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

Last week, a video of what appeared to be Israelis fighting for Ukraine appeared on social media.

 Members of Azov battalion attend a rally on the Volunteer Day honouring fighters, who joined the Ukrainian armed forces during a military conflict in the country's eastern regions, in central Kiev, Ukraine March 14, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/GLEB GARANICH) Members of Azov battalion attend a rally on the Volunteer Day honouring fighters, who joined the Ukrainian armed forces during a military conflict in the country's eastern regions, in central Kiev, Ukraine March 14, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/GLEB GARANICH)

Speaking in accented Hebrew, a soldier thanked "the government of Israel for helping us while we fight against the Russians." They also thanked Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Asman and wished people a happy Passover.

Further details about the soldiers remained unknown.

About 2,000 Israelis remain in Ukraine, most of whom are Israeli-Ukrainian dual citizens, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

Zahkharova’s remarks came days after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sparked a dispute with Israel.

Asked how Russia can be fighting a war of “denazification” when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, Lavrov said: "When they say 'What sort of denazification is this if we are Jews', well I think that Hitler also had Jewish origins, so it means nothing.”

"For a long time now we've been hearing the wise Jewish people say that the biggest anti-Semites are the Jews themselves," Lavrov told Italy’s Rete4.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett – in his most explicit condemnation of a Russian official since the war began – and Yair Lapid decried Lavrov’s “unforgivable” remarks as blaming the Jews for the Holocaust, and the Foreign Ministry summoned Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov.

The following day, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in “the current Israeli government supports the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.” Moscow also mentioned "cooperation between Jews and Nazis" such as "Judenrats," Jewish councils that reported to the Nazis, while conceding that the phenomenon was marginal.

Last week, a Kremlin-linked channel on the Telegram social media app accused 10 Israelis who had worked on the Ukraine-Poland border of being mercenaries, publishing their names and passport details. The list was mostly made up of Israeli diplomats and embassy security, and included Rishon Lezion Deputy Mayor Maksim Babitzky, who led a humanitarian aid delegation to the border in early March.

The Azov Battalion of Ukraine's National Guard grew out of a neo-Nazi group and still has extremist leadership and members. Azov uses the Wolfsangel insignia used by Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht divisions during World War II.

Azov has been the centerpiece of Russia’s efforts to paint Ukraine as a country in need of “denazification.” It has roughly 1,000 members, while there were 245,000 active Ukrainian military personnel at the outset of the war with Russia this year, and millions of adult males were required to remain in the country to help in the war effort.

There are members of the Azov Battalion of all backgrounds, including Jewish Ukrainians, and the group has tried to recruit foreign members.

Azov has been seen using the Israeli-developed MATADOR anti-armor platform, donated by Germany, where it was produced.

Ukraine’s military claims that 20,000 foreigners from 52 countries applied to join its foreign fighters unit. Ukraine's embassy in Israel invited Israelis to volunteer, but removed the Facebook post soon after.

Russia has said it would not treat "foreign mercenaries" as lawful combatants and would deny them their rights under international humanitarian law.

Michael Starr contributed to this report.