Israel Needs to Speak Out and Hold Putin Accountable for His Crimes and Lies
Russian President Vladimir Putin says that his “special military operation” aims to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, portraying his troops as freeing ethnic Russians from a fascistic regime in Kyiv.
Yet despite falsely casting Russia as a bulwark against Nazism, Putin tolerates antisemitism directed at his enemies, while his army employs actual neo-Nazis to further his bid to subjugate Ukraine, a country led by a Jewish president. Israel should do more to expose Putin’s farcical attempt to disguise his war of imperial conquest as a crusade against Nazism.
Antisemitism has been rampant throughout Russia’s history. The Russian Empire witnessed several waves of pogroms, in which civilians massacred Jews, sometimes encouraged by a government that viewed Jews as antithetical to an empire grounded on Orthodox Christianity. This environment of state-permitted antisemitism eventually produced “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” one of the foundational pieces of antisemitic writing, which Hitler later adopted. During the Soviet Union, Jews continued to face pervasive discrimination. Stalin even attempted to relocate Jews to the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Russia’s Far East — Birobidjan.
In modern Russia, the categorization of Jews as the “other” remains. To be fair, Putin has done more than his predecessors to combat antisemitism. Yet he and other Russian officials at times still “other” Jews by differentiating Jews’ civic Russian identity from their non-Russian ethnic identity. The Kremlin further divides the Russian Jewry into “good” Jews, who support the regime, and “bad” Jews, who don’t. Consequently, there is a stark contrast between how the Kremlin treats “good” versus “bad” Jews. Thus, while Moscow no longer passes blatantly antisemitic laws, the Kremlin condones frequent antisemitic commentary directed at “bad” Jews.
The Kremlin’s double standard is reflected in Moscow’s rhetoric toward Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy, a Jew whose family mostly perished in the Holocaust, frustrates Putin’s imperial ambitions and efforts to dismiss Ukraine’s national resistance as the manipulation of a neo-Nazi cabal. As a result, the Kremlin views him as a “bad” Jew and encourages hatred towards him.
In a widely read article published last November, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s former presidential placeholder and the current deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, accused Zelenskyy of betraying his Jewish identity by aiding nationalist groups in Ukraine. Medvedev compared Zelenskyy’s supposed betrayal to “the ludicrous situation where members of the Jewish intelligentsia … would be asked to serve in the SS.”
Moscow’s rhetoric has only intensified since its invasion of Ukraine began. “So what if Zelenskyy is Jewish?” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asked rhetorically in May, when asked how Ukraine could be run by Nazis if Zelenskyy is Jewish. “Hitler also had Jewish blood,” he said, adding that “wise Jewish people say that the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews.”
Members of the Jewish community worldwide quickly condemned Moscow’s statements. Then-Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called Lavrov’s remarks “unforgivable and outrageous,” and “the lowest form of racism against Jews.” However, within Russia, laws restricting freedom of speech make opposition difficult. In March, Putin signed a draconian law that threatens a prison sentence of up to 15 years for deviating from the Kremlin’s talking points on Putin’s war. As a result, Russian Jews are worried they’ll soon become targets; many are consequently fleeing the country. Moscow’s Chief Rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, fled Russia right after the war started and now lives in exile in Israel.
To truly hold Russia accountable for its antisemitism, getting an apology from Lavrov or Medvedev is not enough. Israel must actively counter Russia’s widespread antisemitism. That means speaking truth against the Kremlin’s propaganda both within Russia and on the world stage.
Countering Russia’s information operations will not be easy given how adept Moscow is at bullying others abroad and controlling information at home. Since the war began, Putin has shuttered what was left of Russia’s independent media and restricted Russians’ access to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and various Western news agencies. Some Kremlin hawks even aspire to cut Russia off from the global Internet and use a homegrown “Ru-Net” instead.
Therefore, to penetrate Putin’s new Iron Curtain, Jerusalem will need to convey its messaging on social media platforms that everyday Russians use, such as Vkontakte, Telegram, and Odnoklassniki.
Furthermore, to help inform and communicate its messaging, Jerusalem should look to Israel’s substantial population from the former Soviet Union, as well as the many Russian Jews now fleeing Putin’s repression. Israel should consult and engage with these emigres and encourage them to spread the truth on Russian platforms.
Finally, Israel should partner with the United States and other like-minded democracies to counter Russia’s narrative globally. The US State Department just released a publication on how the Kremlin is resorting to antisemitism to vilify Ukraine while exploiting the memory of the Soviet fight against Nazism. Jerusalem should follow suit and instruct every Israeli embassy to post short social media videos, “myth vs. fact” analyses, and other content — including in Russian and on popular Russian social media platforms — to debunk Russian disinformation campaigns.
While Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine may seem indefatigable, exposing and attacking its erroneous foundations is key to deterring progress. The contradictions between the Kremlin’s supposed anti-fascist initiatives in Ukraine and its antisemitic rhetoric demonstrate how hollow and self-serving Putin’s reasoning for the war is. To reach informational parity with Russia, however, a multilateral approach with Israel at the helm is necessary to counter Russian malign messaging and add international credibility to the campaign.
Ivana Stradner is an advisor to the Barish Center for Media Integrity at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where her research focuses on Russia’s information operations and cybersecurity.