KYIV – “Shalom!” Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko burst into his second-floor office in the city’s municipal building and suddenly took my small and undersized hand in his large paw.
When we met in the center of the Ukrainian capital last Tuesday, the Hebrew greeting was not the only evidence of the former heavyweight boxing champion’s ties to Judaism and Israel: he prominently displayed a menorah, a Kiddush cup, a sculpture of Jerusalem, a hamsa and Hebrew. – Russian Bible on the shelf behind his desk. His son recently returned from a four-month internship at an investment firm in Israel. Klitschko’s grandmother was Jewish.
But those ties — and a 2014 trip to Israel as the newly elected mayor — don’t stop him from criticizing Israel’s stance on the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.
“If Israel promotes democratic values and sees Ukraine as a peaceful country, taking a neutral stance is the biggest mistake right now,” Klitschko said, speaking in English reminiscent of his boxing style – awkward but forceful. “It has always been a peaceful country inhabited by peaceful people. We were never aggressive towards anyone.”
Some of Klitschko’s Jewish ancestors, who have seen violent pogroms over the past 400 years at the hands of Ukrainian Cossacks, nationalists and Nazi collaborators, may have taken issue with that characterization. Members of the Jewish side of Klitschko’s family were killed during the Holocaust.
But if he refers to the recent past, he is on firmer ground.
Klitschko argued that Israel has a moral obligation to impose sanctions on Russia.
“Right now, what Russia did is a violation of all international rules,” Klitschko said. “At the end of the day, it may also touch Israel’s interests. And my message is: Stop trade relations with Russia because every cent, every dollar you send to Russia, is bloody money.
Israel has tried to maintain open lines with both Russia and Ukraine during the war. Senior leaders have condemned the February 24 attack, but Israel has not joined sanctions against Moscow or provided weapons to Ukraine’s military, though it has sent aid.
“The biggest mistake is to see war as something distant,” Klitschko said, picking up on Ukraine’s line that it is fighting for Western values against a Russian regime that opposes liberal freedoms.
“Everyone needs to be active. We are only fighting and protecting our homes and our motherland. we [are] Actually defending values and defending Europe. trust me I know the mentality and the Russians go as far as we allow [them] to go And that is why we are fighting for everyone in Europe right now. We are currently defending Europe. “
Klitschko argued that the war could have been avoided if the international community had reacted more forcefully in 2014, as well as Russia’s support for separatists in Abkhazia and Transnistria.
Despite the Russian military suffering significant losses in the five-month war, Klitschko believes they will not stop until they get out of Ukraine.
“It would be the biggest mistake to think that part of Mariupol and the south of Ukraine will be happy,” he said. “They have a plan to occupy [the whole of] Ukraine.”
And according to Klitschko, Ukraine is only the first step in Putin’s attempt to rebuild the neo-Soviet empire.
“They’re talking about the Baltic countries, they’re talking about Poland right now. We must also never forget that part of Germany was part of the Soviet Empire.”
“We [were] In the USSR and we do not want [to go] Back to the USSR,” said the Kyrgyzstan-born mayor. “The reason for this stupid war is very clear. We want to be part of the European Union, the European family. And Putin [doesn’t] Ukraine wants to be given a chance to become part of the European family.
Despite the support Ukraine receives from European allies, Klitschko wants more urgency: “In general I’m happy, but the decisions they make to support Ukraine are very slow.”
He particularly took issue with the slow decision-making process on arms shipments to the West.
“We have been waiting a long time for defensive weapons for Ukraine,” he said. “We defend our motherland. We are not attacking anyone. They think about it for a long time, but in the final decision they give weapons – currently, artillery, tanks. Because we need weapons.”
Boxer and comedian
Klitschko, who has Jewish roots in Ukraine, is not the only major figure to have moved from an entertainment career into politics. Before winning the 2019 presidential election, the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was a famous comedian.
Mayor of Kyiv @Vitaliy_Klitchko, whose grandmother was Jewish, has many Jewish memorabilia etc. in his office. – Chumash, Menorah, Kiddush Cup, Chamsa and more pic.twitter.com/mC46esmDIX
— Lazar Berman (@Lazar_Berman) 9 August 2022
Relations between the two were strained before the war. The show, produced by Zelenskiy’s Quarter 95, mocked Klitschko’s slow and often inattentive manner of speaking. The mayor has publicly stated that he voted for Zelenskyi’s rival, Petro Poroshenko, in the 2019 election. At one point the president reportedly considered removing Klitschko as head of the Kyiv City State Administration before backing him. under pressure From allies of then US President Donald Trump.
But now, Klitschko is praising his former opponent and says it’s time to “forget about the political game”.
“Great respect,” the mayor said of the country’s leader, adding that Zelensky refused to leave the capital when Russian troops attacked at the start of the war.
“It was very important because the president is a symbolic figure for Ukraine. It was very necessary to stay in our village. therefore [I have] Respect for him. It was an obvious and smart decision to stay here and never leave, as we have many international partners [gave] Advice to the President of Ukraine to leave Kyiv.
Klitschko’s run for the presidency has been marred in the past. Although he would not rule it out, the mayor said that this was not the right time to discuss such issues. But he is looking to the future.
“We have all the opportunities to become one of the richest countries in the world,” argued Klitschko. “Agriculture, we have a lot [resources] in our country. and main [resource] There are very smart people [who are] not lazy, [who are] Good job actually. And we just need to give people new standards of life and new rules – European rules.
“We are fighting for this, for a better life for our children,” he added. “And the main priority for us is European values and human rights.”