When I was growing up in Moscow in the 1960s, the common stereotype for a Jew was that we were eggheads who played the violin and when confronted would rather run, not fight. World War II had ended less than two decades before, and Jews were said to have done all their fighting in Tashkent – i.e. deep behind the front lines.
That was a lie, of course, but it could not be excoriated or even refuted by citing the large numbers of Jews who were at the front, were highly decorated for bravery and died, or were wounded in action. The picture really changed only after 1967 – both for the Soviet Jews and the antisemites – when we saw the footage of Israeli soldiers defeating three hostile armies.
But old delusions die hard. Vladimir Putin, who grew up in the first post-World War II decade, clearly thought that Volodymyr Zelensky was just another Jewish pushover. A Jew, a comedian with boyish good looks, was supposed to run away to Warsaw the moment Putin, the scary KGB operative, moved his troops toward Kyiv.
But Zelensky is a post-1967 Jew, who moreover grew up in the rough neighborhoods of the industrial city of Kryviy Rih, and rose to prominence in the cut-throat Ukrainian show business. Not only did he not escape from Kyiv, but since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, his bravery has contrasted markedly with Putin’s own timidity and cowardice.
But Putin is not alone. American leaders, who should have known better, have time and again underestimated the Ukrainian President. Donald Trump made his infamous call to Zelensky in 2019, condescendingly telling him “to do us a favor” and gather dirt on Hunter Biden. The call was exposed by another tough Ukrainian Jew, US Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who blew the whistle on Trump even though it cost him his military career.
Biden or Trump, the condescension is the same
WHEN IT comes to condescension, Joe Biden has not been much different from Trump. Under his leadership, NATO has been telling Ukraine where to hit the Russians with weapons it provides and where not to hit. Biden himself has been messing Zelensky around with now on, now off again promises to supply long-range rockets, tanks, and F-16 fighter planes.
In effect, NATO’s abundance of caution, which in turn reflects Biden’s fear of – God forbid – provoking Russia and causing an escalation, has been helping Putin to prolong his war indefinitely, with severe consequences for Ukraine. Its soldiers and civilians continue to die, the destruction of its cities and infrastructure goes on, its economy suffers and millions of its refugees are settling in and starting a new life abroad.
Zelensky has been generally grateful for what the allies have provided to Ukraine, but he has also shown his teeth on a few occasions. For instance, when he rejected Biden’s “generous” offer to flee Kyiv in February 2022, declaring famously, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
He did so again when he threatened to skip the NATO summit in Vilnius if Ukraine didn’t get concrete guarantees on membership in the alliance.
Of course, Ukraine vitally depends on US support and of course, it must toe the line. But dependence is typically a two-way street. Biden has been closely associated with his support for Ukraine, and he can’t withdraw it now without paying a heavy political price. Especially as the US presidential campaign gets fully underway, one in which he and Trump are in a statistical dead heat.
So, it is a good time for Zelensky to get tough with Biden. It is time to demand – not humbly ask for – all the modern weapons Ukraine needs and all the diplomatic support it requires. Washington has to be constrained to impose air-tight sanctions on Russia and on foreign and US domestic companies who continue to supply Russia with components to produce weapons.
At this stage of the game, Biden is in no position to turn Zelensky down. As it is, recent intensified Russian bombings of Ukrainian cities, including rocket attacks on grain warehouses and historic sites in Odesa, are starting to look bad not just for Ukraine, but for Biden personally.
But of course, Zelensky is both smart enough to know how to do it, and tough enough to be able to turn up the heat on his US counterpart.
The writer, a New York-based economist, is a member of the US Andrei Sakharov Foundation. From 2005-2008, he organized a support group for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, bringing together Soviet Jewish immigrants in the United States.