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Monday, 04 July 2022
Lavrov, Putin and Hitler
Ian Black

In yet another unanticipated consequence of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, generated worldwide controversy last week by saying that Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood.”

 It was almost unbelievable that Lavrov, a highly experienced diplomat who has been Russia’s worldwide representative for 18 years, should make a remark so insensitive and ignorant – and on such a toxic and divisive issue. And before he was promoted he served as Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations for a decade.

 What Lavrov said in an interview with Italian TV on May 1 was really shocking. Asked to explain Russia’s motives he focused on “deNazifying” the Kyiv government. When the presenter replied that the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was Jewish himself, Lavrov responded: “I believe Hitler also had Jewish blood”. It was neither a slip of the tongue or a mistake.

 The identity of one of Hitler's grandfathers is not known but there has been speculation, never backed up by any evidence, that he might have been a Jew.

 Evoking Russia’s deeply-rooted narrative of suffering and heroism in World War II, Putin has portrayed the war in Ukraine as a struggle against Nazis, even though the country has a democratically-elected government and a Jewish president, whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust.

 It was a classic example of historical error and delusional conspiracy theories that debased the horrors of the Holocaust and turned victims into perpetrators. But Russia’s foreign ministry doubled down after Lavrov spoke. For Moscow, the rebukes "explained to a large extent why the current Israeli government supports the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv."

 Government officials in Canada, the US, Italy and Germany were quick to condemn the comments. Israel summoned Russia's ambassador to demand an apology.

 The Kremlin says it launched its "special military operation" on February 24 to demilitarize and "denazify" Ukraine, claiming its aim is to disarm and defeat nationalists within the country. Kyiv and its western allies reject that as a false pretext for the invasion.

 But it was a very revealing incident in terms of Putin’s rationale behind his widely-condemned and world-changing event. Putin is pragmatic in maintaining support despite adamant western opposition to his invasion. The Russian president doesn’t want Israel to abandon its near-neutrality in the Ukraine war. In the big picture the unwieldy coalition government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wants to avoid taking sides.

 On March 20 Zelensky addressed Israel’s parliament on Zoom, invoked the Holocaust and repeatedly used the term “final solution.” Calling for Israel to back his country against Russia, he emphasised Ukrainians who saved Jews in the Holocaust but ignored those who co-operated with Hitler. He noted that February 24 was the date on which the Nazi party was founded in Germany in 1920.

 The reason for his scathing speech was that Israel has refused to provide weapons to Ukraine and has not chosen to impose strong sanctions. It has echoed China (along with Turkey, Egypt and Jordan) by offering to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv.

 Israel has been seeking to avoid antagonizing Russia, because of its presence in Syria, where Israel regularly carries out military action against Iran-linked groups and is keen to preserve its “deconfliction mechanism” with the Kremlin.

 Lavrov’s comments provoked understandable outrage in Israel and in Jewish communities across the world. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who has criticized Russia more than Bennett, called Lavrov’s statement “unforgivable and scandalous and a horrible historical error” adding: “The Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust.”

 Putin obviously wants to downplay any criticism from Israel or Jewish organizations, but it is probably too late. He waited four days after the Lavrov interview to apologize, and in the meantime the Russian Foreign Ministry piled on with accusations that Israel “supports the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv” and that “Israeli mercenaries” are serving in the Azov Battalion in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol. 

 Bennett and Putin talked by phone last Thursday, after which an Israeli statement said Putin had apologised. “The Prime Minister accepted President Putin’s apology for Lavrov’s remarks and thanked him for clarifying the President’s attitude towards the Jewish people and the memory of the Holocaust,” Bennett’s office said.

 But the Russian statement after the call made no mention of an apology. Instead, it said they emphasised the importance of marking the Nazi defeat in World War II, which Russia celebrates on May 9. The timing of Lavrov’s remarks were not great either since Israel marked its annual Holocaust memorial last week in memory of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis and their collaborators.

 “When Putin and his loyal servant Lavrov need to justify the crusade against a Ukrainian president who happens to be a Jew, any comparison, metaphor, hyperbole or blood libel is good enough,” wrote a former Israeli MP and Russian speaker Ksenia Svetlova. “Nothing – from facts to basic human norms – are sacred: in this Putinverse, Ukrainians are killing fellow Ukrainians in Mariupol, Bucha and Irpin - because they are Nazis”.

 Maybe, sometime soon, Putin will also say sorry for his evil decision to invade Ukraine?