Zelenskyy Emerges as Jewish Hero in Ukraine

Zelenskyy Emerges as Jewish Hero in Ukraine

Facing down the Russian military, Ukraine’s Jewish president reacts to attack near Babyn Yar memorial.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke ahead of Biden’s State of the Union Address.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke ahead of Biden’s State of the Union Address.

Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has become a defiant and highly successful symbol of Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion of his country.

That was the conclusion of Hanna Shelest, a leading academic specialist on Ukraine, who participated in a discussion on the crisis sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Atlanta at Georgia State University.

In the hour-long discussion on March 1, Shelest spoke from her home in Odessa, saying that Zelenskyy’s skillful navigation of the war in his country was not something that most Ukrainians had expected from a man who had been a professional comedian before his election to office.

“He has really positively surprised the whole nation. He has something like 90 percent of the popular support today. Before this, he had something like 25 percent support,” she pointed out. “What is really important is that even his political opponents are saying that he’s our president and we will discuss our domestic disagreements after everything is finished. Now there is no doubt that he’s not just the legitimate president, but he’s the president in charge of the country.”

Shelest is the director of Security Programs at the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” and editor-in-chief at UA: Ukraine Analytica, an English language journal, and previously served as a senior researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Ukraine. Her comments came as reports surfaced that the Russian military had stepped up attacks against civilian targets in the country.

Babyn Yar, a ravine outside Kyiv, was the site of the Nazi massacre of almost 34,000 Jews in 1941.

The Babyn Yar memorial, one of the country’s most important historical sites, was caught in the fighting when the Russian military targeted the nearby Kyiv TV tower. It was at Babyn Yar that the Nazis murdered almost 34,000 Ukrainian Jews during a two-day period in September 1941. The ravine, just outside of Kyiv, also became a mass grave for as many as 150,000 others during the war.

It was not immediately clear if the memorial had sustained any damage. But, in responding to the attack on social media, Zelenskyy challenged the world to speak out more forcefully about the Russian invasion.

“To the world: what is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? At least 5 killed. History repeating. …”

Natan Sharansky, who was born in Soviet Ukraine and spent nine years in various prisons for his pro-Zionist activism, has served as chair of the memorial’s advisory board. He called the invasion “utterly abhorrent” and criticized the attack on the memorial.

“It is symbolic that he starts attacking Kyiv by bombing the site of Babyn Yar, the biggest of Nazi massacres,” Sharansky said.

Israel’s Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, also reacted to the attack by issuing a statement that called for the protection of the site and its “irreplaceable value for research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust.”

On March 1, Zelenskyy had a 30-minute conversation with President Biden prior to the State of the Union address. They discussed American leadership on economic sanctions against Russia and other forms of assistance, as well as the “escalation of attacks on sites used by civilians in Ukraine, including today’s bombing near Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial,” according to a White House readout of the call.

Hanna Shelest is a Ukrainian analyst based in Odessa.

Shelest, who has worked as an intelligence analyst with the Ukrainian government, said that Zelenskyy had been slow to come around to the view that Ukraine’s future lies with Western Europe and not with Russia.

“In terms of pro-Western sentiment, especially in 2019, his predecessor, President Poroshenko, was much more Western. Mr. Zelenskyy, for the last two years, he been changing. Let’s be honest, we are not trying to make an angel out of him. He learned, he really learned and saw the differences. There are still some people around him that make us doubt about how much they are pro-Western, but at least they are not pro-Russian. That’s also very important.”

Shelest pointed out that the Russian war against Ukraine has actually been going on since 2014, when Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean peninsula and its strategic port on the Black Sea. For several years, it has also supported and encouraged pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine to establish independent governments as client states of Russia.

When asked why, after eight years of threats, territorial annexation and proxy wars, Putin chose the present moment to go to war, Shelest suggested that it might have been inspired, in part, by the American withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.

“After the United States left Afghanistan and how it happened last year, he decided that the U.S. is weak, that the U.S. is not going to support its partners and that it is a good moment to use the opportunity. Plus, the elections in Germany happened and there’s a new government, so Angela Merkel is not in charge. And France is expecting elections in April. So three powers that he more or less respected were not in the position to protect Ukraine.”

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