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It won’t end with Ukraine

Yes, Putin misjudged his target, but now, with global interest in the war waning, he'll bide his time, and then, look out world
A dead eyed Putin observes like a snake eyeing a rat. Credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Vladimir Putin. (Wikipedia Commons)

Two years into Russia’s full-scale invasion, war fatigue is playing into Putin’s hands

Rabbi Yochanan said that after the destruction of the Holy Temple the gift of prophecy was bestowed upon fools and children. Political analysts are neither, so on February 24, 2022, few of them expected that the largest war in Europe since World War II would last much longer than a few months. To say nothing of ordinary people and their expectations about how long this war would last.

“What’s been decided in the negotiations?”

I recall the hopeful spirit with which we awaited the outcome of the Istanbul negotiations back in March, 2022. And how after that we set our hopes on May 9th (Victory Day over Nazi Germany) — a sacred date in the post-USSR world. We thought that it would all be resolved by that holy day.

The other side had similar expectations. During those days an elderly Jewish teacher from Bucha detailed for the Exodus-2022 Project (Testimonies of Jewish refugees of the Russo-Ukrainian war) her encounters with occupying Russian soldiers.

When we went to get water, we would run into the occupiers by the well. And my neighbor once asked them:

  • What’s up, guys? You want some water too?
  • Well, we need to drink too.
  • Where are you from?
  • From Kursk. What have they decided in the negotiations?
  • Nothing so far….
  • Crap, we have to stay here longer.
  • You want to go home?
  • Sure, we do. We’d leave right now.

Of course, there were other kinds of “liberators” in Bucha: one can go online and learn the identities of Russian soldiers who participated in bloody massacres, which many describe as a genocide.

Then the Russians started retreating from the suburbs of Kyiv and from the Chernihiv region, and, in November 2022, the Russian armed forces withdrew from Kherson, the only Ukrainian regional capital that the so-called “second best army in the world” had managed to temporarily occupy.

Unbelievable community mobilization, tremendous solidarity, euphoria, and confidence in a swift victory – all of this characterized Ukrainian society in the first months of the war. This description applied no less to Ukrainian Jews; one need only look at the volunteer movement, where Ukrainian Jews are disproportionately represented.

A people, not a populace

Alas, the kind of autocratic (if not totalitarian) regime that holds power in Russia is much better suited to carry on a long war than is a democracy. It has always been like that, and today is no exception. The slow place of last year’s much-heralded Ukrainian counter-offensive has disappointed Ukrainians, who fell victim to overinflated expectations. It is evident that time not only heals, but also chips away, piece by piece. Time chips away at faith, at hope, at the determination to keep going, not to mention the depletion of resources. Fatigue is a terrible, if inevitable, factor in any conflict.

Today, some point to Israel as an example for Ukrainians. Thousands of men of conscription age returned to Israel since the war in Gaza began, and the rate of showing up to Israeli conscription points exceeded 150%. In fact, this is not in stark contrast to Ukraine in the early days and weeks of the war, when there were massive queues to Ukrainian conscription offices. Middle-aged men with health issues were being sent home, but they kept trying to get to the frontlines. Similar scenes played out even in the Southeastern regions of Ukraine, which is predominantly Russian-speaking and where many people have relatives in Russia.

That was then, but after two years of hardship (think of the blackouts if nothing else) and after thousands have died, it has become difficult to sustain the emotional high that carried Ukrainians during the first stages of Russia’s aggression. The fact that Ukraine has survived this grueling war and does not intend to give up is a miracle in its own right. Putin miscalculated the main point: Ukrainians are not merely a populace in one of the former Soviet republics; they are a people. As a people, they are no better or worse than others, but they are a people prepared to die in defense of their own land, and to kill for its defense.

All that being said, global media interest in the Russo-Ukrainian war has been waning. This is an exceptionally dangerous trend, given that Putin aims to distract the world’s attention from Ukraine, a region that he considers to be within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. The war is not over. People are dying on the frontlines and many are suffering on the home front. A Jewish friend from Odessa writes to me: “I am grateful for a night with no shelling. I am grateful for a day with no air raids. Why do I see children being led from school to the shelter basement in the morning? Why do I go to bed wearing jeans and not pajamas? I dream of a time when I’ll be asking different questions.”

 “We cannot retreat. Ukraine is with us”

Jews are a paradoxical people, and this war has been no exception. Though the populations of Jewish communities in many Ukrainian cities and towns have been depleted by evacuations due to the war, these days Jewish religious and community events draw more participants than they did before the war. This can be explained in part by people trying to escape the wartime reality by exploring pursuits that they previously were not drawn to. Many have unlocked a feeling of connection to Jewishness, some for the first time in their lives.

There are also the Ukrainian refugees who have integrated into Jewish communities in their host cities. And then there are the meaningful number of Jews who initially escaped to Europe and Israel, but have now returned to Ukraine. Among them are multiple participants of the “Exodus-2022” Project. For example, Dr. Boris Zabarko, the author of a dozen books and the recipient of both Ukrainian and German Orders of Merit, is the chairman of the Ukrainian Association of Jews Formerly Incarcerated in Ghettos and Nazi Concentration Camps (as a young child, Boris spent three years in the Shargorod ghetto). Having evacuated to Stuttgart, Germany at the beginning of the war, the 88-year old historian recently returned to Kyiv, where he is completing an anthology of memoirs by Ukrainian Jews who survived the Holocaust.

In March of 2022, the writer Anna Kunitskaya, who lived close to Babyn Yar in Kyiv, managed to get to Cyprus with her 11-year old son, via Moldova, Romania, and Greece. From there, she supported a charity foundation in Ukraine and hoped for the chance to return home to Kyiv. Six months later, she returned to her homeland. Another participant in the Exodus-2022 project described escaping from Mariupol with her mom and going through interrogations by the Russian Federal Security Service. With the help of Jewish organizations she repatriated to Israel via Russia, Kazakhstan, and Georgia. She writes: “I dreamed about coming back to the mainland, and now I am back. There is no retreat; Ukraine is with us. I lost it once, and I won’t let it happen again. Mariupol will be vibrant and free, with a Ukrainian flag waving in the sky.”

People’s identities are also changing during the war: more and more people in Ukrainian Jewish communities are switching to the Ukrainian language. Of course, it is a lengthy process, but I personally have heard from many Ukrainian Jews that these days they are ashamed to speak Russian, their native language. As a Jewish activist from Vinnytsia admits, even Jewish grandmothers are switching to Ukrainian, which can sound amusing with a Yiddish accent. The first translation of the Torah into Ukrainian was completed last year, and local Jewish schools have started using it.

The most pro-Israel country in the world

Despite the claims of Russian propaganda, the level of antisemitism in Ukraine remains exceptionally low. According to Vyacheslav Likhachev, the head of Ukraine’s National Minority Rights Monitoring Group, in 2023 there were only three cases of antisemitic vandalism documented in Ukraine and not a single reported violent crime against Jews. For comparison, there were about 1,500 antisemitic incidents recorded in France in 2023 between October 7th and November 14th. As for the United States, according to an Anti-Defamation League report, the rate of antisemitic acts increased by over three times in the three months following the Hamas attacks (between October 7, 2023 and January 7, 2024, the ADL tracked 3,282 antisemitic incidents in the USA).

At the same time, Ukraine remains one of the very few countries in the world with no pro-Palestinian demonstrations taking place, and both the Ukrainian government and civil society widely support Israel. Specifically, polls show that 69% of Ukrainians support Israel and only 1% support Palestinians during the ongoing war in Gaza. It is thus fair to call Ukraine the most pro-Israel country in the world, even compared to the USA.

Another factor that cannot be discounted is the ethnicity of President and Commander-in-Chief Zelensky. It is conceivable that some Ukrainians would conveniently place responsibility for the absence of much visible success on the warfront over the past year on an ethnic Jew. But no — there has been no rise in antisemitism, and although the level of trust in President Zelensky has decreased, it is still fluctuating between 62-72%, which is higher than that of any other president in the history of independent Ukraine. Critics of Zelensky on social media do not hold back, but antisemitic connotations are almost completely absent from their rhetoric.

Churchill’s warning

What is Ukraine like, as it enters the third year of the war? Wounded, gray-haired from grief and tears, but certainly not broken. And yet today, the existential threat for the largest country in Eastern Europe is greater than it was a year ago. And that is not just because the Russian military maintains superiority in aviation and long-range rockets.

The indifference of the world — that’s what can propel Putin to prevail over the country that dared to choose a path unapproved by the Kremlin. Western aid to Kyiv continues, but it is not unconditional and currently not sufficient to drastically change the situation on the frontlines. We must all understand that, in the worst possible scenario, it won’t end with Ukraine. In 1938, Chamberlain sacrificed Czechoslovakia and ended up with both “shame and war.” At that time, Churchill wrote, quoting the Jewish prophet, Daniel: “the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.’”

During the 1940 elections in the United States, the three leading Republican presidential candidates were committed isolationists (the nomination was unexpectedly won by Wendell Willkie). During the election campaign, even Roosevelt promised that “American boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” What would have happened had he kept his word?

Of course, these comparisons are imperfect, and unlike Czechoslovakia, Ukraine has not been left to face off one on one with the invader. But will democracy be able to withstand the fierce pressure (military and otherwise) of the Russian regime? A regime, under which the number of political prisoners has increased by 15 times, and publicly criticizing the Russian government can carry a 25 year prison sentence? A regime that counts Iran and North Korea as close allies and which has officially designated the LGBT movement as extremist? The country whose former president (Dmitry Medvedev) publicly claims that Ukraine will soon disappear from the map of the world? That is how the Kremlin sees “the final solution of the Ukrainian question.” Will the West have enough fortitude to counter Russia’s brutal force? I hope it will. Because otherwise, again to paraphrase Churchill, Ukraine “is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year…”

About the Author
Michael Gold is the editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian Jewish Newspaper 'Hadashot,' founder and editor-in-chief of the project 'Exodus-2022': Testimonies of Jewish Refugees from the Russo-Ukrainian War.
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