Famed Jewish dissident, human-rights activist and former Knesset member Natan Sharansky provided his opinion on the situation in Ukraine on Tuesday, analyzing what could be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motivations for the invasion into Ukraine, as well as the moral obligation Israel and the West have to support Ukraine.
In a Zoom session hosted by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) and moderated by JINSA president and CEO Mike Makovsky, Sharansky said that he believed that Putin is looking to recreate the Russian Empire, rather than the Soviet Union since Putin is not interested in bringing back Communist ideology. Instead, as one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, he considers his heroes Tsar Peter the Great, Empress Catherine the Great and former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan late last year and showed what Sharansky called great weakness in its dealings with Syria during the country’s civil war, Putin began to believe that the United States was too weak to respond to an invasion in Ukraine just as the world did not respond to the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Putin has also used his nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the west’s intervention, even though Sharansky thinks he won’t use them.
“I think Putin doesn’t want to use nuclear weapons. He’s not an Iranian leader who thinks about the next world,” said Sharansky. “He wants to rule this world. But to use the threat? That’s his main weapon, and it does work.”
But according to Sharansky, Putin underestimated that Ukraine is also a proud nation and that Russia’s onslaught has contributed to the strengthening of Ukrainian will, having been thrust into the center of history.
Putin may also have underestimated the resolve of the rest of the world, which has united in its condemnation of the invasion, possibly believing the old Soviet saying that capitalists are never united when their profits are threatened.
“Whether he has second thoughts, I don’t know,” said Sharansky. “He definitely knows that he doesn’t have all the time in the world to conquer Ukraine, so he has to act quickly. But I think he believes that his readiness to use the threat of nuclear weapons is the main deterrence which will help him.”
Sharansky, a well-known Soviet refusenik and former prisoner born in Ukraine’s Donbas region who now serves as chairman of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, said that despite accusations of Nazism from Russia, he has found Ukraine’s recent presidents, especially Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky, to be very supportive of the memorial’s work.
“We couldn’t imagine that he will emerge as such a strong, courageous, devoted, passionate leader of his people as he is now,” said Sharansky.
Speaking to friends both in Russia and Ukraine, he said that nobody can understand how this conflict began so quickly; “without any real reason, their lives are destroyed, millions are abandoning everything and fleeing.”
Unlike the support and patriotic feelings aroused when Russia annexed Crimea, which for Russians was historically symbolic, nobody was interested or understood why Russia should attack Kiev (Kyiv) and isolate itself from the world in return.
‘We have to take clear sides’
As far as the plight of Jews is concerned, Sharansky said that the Jews are being affected in the conflict on both sides in the same way non-Jews are.
For all his faults, Sharansky said that Putin has been unique in the history of Russian leaders to have a positive view of Jews and Israel. With the opposing side represented by a Jewish leader, this fight, he said, was not about the Jews. Throughout the decade, Sharansky has been asked by both sides to condemn what they believed to be anti-Semitism coming from the opposing side, and in both cases, they were wrong.
“Now it is a real fight against good and evil. We have to take clear sides,” he said. “The challenge, the threat, is so much bigger, and, of course, the world as [Putin] wants to change is not the world in which Jews and Israel want to live.”
This moral clarity is something Sharansky has recently criticized Israeli leaders for not taking, though he explained his rationale.
Sharansky said he didn’t think that if Israel took a position on the war, it would harm Jewish communities in Russia. The only problem for Israel is that Russia holds what he called the “keys” to the skies over Syria, through which Israel is able to neutralize threats, as well as a potential re-entry into a nuclear deal with Iran which could provide billions in sanctions relief that could go to strengthening Iran’s terrorist proxies on the border with Israel.
The same West that stands against Putin is also making Israel more dependent on him, noted Sharansky.
One lesson that could be drawn from the war in Ukraine, he said, is that Israel should never be “dependent on the military power of any country.”
“Our military power always has to be such that we could destroy all our enemies—and it’s clear looking at Ukraine that [even] with the sympathy of the world, it is destroyed,” said Sharansky. “So we need not only sympathy; we need a very strong military advantage.”
He also questioned the Western allies’ resistance to the idea of creating a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
“[Putin’s] aim is, as he says, demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine. That’s laughable. What practically it means, that I want Ukraine as part of Russia formally—maybe some parts of Ukraine would be still independent—but they will have no army, and ‘they will do what I say to them. And I want all this leadership to be removed and to bring my leadership,’ ” explained Sharansky. “And how far he will go? He will go as far as the free world will let him. And that’s why I believe that the courageous, self-sacrifice and standing of the Ukrainian people have to be supported.
“Well, it is supported by a lot of weapons, but yes, I think a no-fly zone or any form of protecting Ukrainians from this barbarous bombardment is a very urgent thing that people have to do. And the argument that it brings us closer to the war? The earlier you challenge it, the less is the chance that it will turn into a World War.”
Sharansky did caution the West against canceling everything and everyone Russian—whether they are supportive of Putin’s invasion or not—saying that he was against anti-Russia hysteria. He did not, however, call it a product of “cancel culture,” which he said was the canceling of people who hold opposing political views from the mainstream.
“Here, we’re not speaking about some suspicions or some political views,” he said. “In front of all the world, the beautiful cities of Europe are destroyed without any reason, and more and more peaceful citizens are killed. So that is the reaction of these awful pictures which are totally happening.”
He cautioned that the blanket sanction on Russian oligarchs, including some Jews like Roman Abramovich and Mikhail Fridman, who have extensive records of philanthropy towards Jewish causes and fighting anti-Semitism, should be made with considerations about how much their wealth contributes to Russia’s ability to fight the war in Ukraine or provides tools for it to subvert the West’s economic sanctions. Yad Vashem cut ties with Abramovich on Thursday.
“Some sanctions are very important,” he attested, and putting them in place requires “clear criteria” about whether their money plays an “important role in anti-democratic stands of Putin, and whether this money and the tools that they have can be used to undermine the sanctions,” he said. “And then apply it. Don’t apply it only because they are rich people from Russia.”