Those who would know say that Vladimir Putin is a changed person. Never a big tzaddik, last week he delivered an irrational and delusional speech denying that Ukraine is a country with its own long, torturous, history. He said that the Ukrainians are not a people. The whole thing is a lie. It is an artificial republic. He told his nation and the world that he was being forced to undertake a special military operation to rid the appendage to his west of its pro-Nazi government and demilitarize it. He needed to act forcefully to ensure that Ukraine would stop its genocide of Russians.
The ruthless, cruel dictator has locked himself away from people for the past two years over Covid fears. In doing so, he has not only become isolated and out of touch, but he has also become crazed. In his irrational mind, he feels as if he is Russia’s savior, exacting revenge on a country that got away from his grasp and, as it prospered, sought to not only adopt a Western mindset, but also establish serious relationships with Western countries.
Like Hitler and Stalin before him, he used distortion and outright lies to lay the groundwork and attempt to create a façade of support for his planned takeover of Ukraine. Perhaps Putin convinced himself, but not many others. Despite his best efforts and endless Russian media propaganda, even people in Russia saw through his charade and, at great risk to themselves and their freedoms, protest against the wanton, senseless war.
After surrounding Ukraine from three sides with his armed forces and playing diplomatic games for a couple of months, Putin sent his forces into war as the United Nations Security Council met in special session to seek a solution to the aggression. Russia was president of the august body for the month of February, adding to the irony which illustrates the futility of that enterprise.
It was widely assumed that the dictatorial country that was led by such killers as Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev was gone to the ash heap of history and would never be heard from again after Ronald Reagan told Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the wall dividing East and West Berlin. Gorbachev ripped down the Iron Curtain and, through Glasnost, opened the country to reforms and engaged with the West. Jews were free to leave and to practice Yiddishkeit where it had been banned. Jews were no longer seen as enemies of the state. Russia ceased to be the enemy of the Cold War years. Everyone thought that the Evil Empire was gone forever, to be replaced by a democratic, capitalist state.
People came and went freely. Commerce was developed between that country and the rest of the world. States that had been swallowed by Russia broke away and achieved democratic freedom. A new era was afoot and all believed that it would last forever.
A new world order ensued, there was peace, and nobody thought that war would return to Europe. The days of Machiavellian types running countries into the ground as they tortured their citizens and threatened their neighbors and perceived enemies without any care about human lives, misery and suffering were a thing of the past.
In the age in which we live in the 21st century, where the world has advanced in every form of human endeavor and governance, it was thought that there could not be a throwback to the crude, unsophisticated, uncultured days when tyrants would oppress and kill innocent people for no reason other than that they were able to.
And now that has all been changed. While experts and talking heads debate whether Putin lost his mind as a consequence of being locked away for two years or whether the attempted takeover of Ukraine is part of a well-planned strategy for him to gain international renown as the leader who faced down the West and restored the Soviet Union to its former perceived glory, the fact remains that Putin has upended what was thought to be the advanced world order in which the nations or Europe would live peacefully side by side.
Thankfully, there is still a major difference between what is transpiring now and the wars and tortures of the years gone by. This time, neither side is blaming the Jews for what is happening and for the suffering of the masses. All throughout the centuries since the Jews made their way to Russia and Europe, they have been blamed for everything that went wrong. Millions of our forefathers and mothers in years past were butchered by the state and local peasants in pogroms and at regular intervals as retribution for perceived sins and for being enemies of society.
Those following the current war recognize the names of cities with rich Jewish history as targets for attacks, such as Zytomer, Charkov, Levov, Premishlan, Mariupol and Odessa, where the first pogrom is thought to have occurred. In the period prior to the Holocaust, one-third of Ukraine’s population was Jewish.
We were hounded, jailed, pillaged, and ripped apart by savages, and both of the countries engaged in this war are drenched with Jewish blood. Thankfully, that has changed, boruch Hashem. Today, both countries are home to many thousands of Jews, who are allowed to live peacefully and treated with the same dignity and respect as all citizens. Ukraine’s president is a proud Jew, and instead of being treated with scorn, he has become the symbol of pride, strength and bravery in Ukraine, Europe, America, and around the world.
When the Russians marched into Ukraine, nobody gave Ukraine and its leader any chance of lasting them out. The Western countries issued their expected statements and some weak sanctions and waited for Putin to take over the country as he had swallowed Crimea. Obama at that time drew a line in the sand, and when Putin crossed it, nothing happened.
But this time, it was different. Zelensky didn’t hide and didn’t run. Framing the conflict and providing inspiration, he addressed his nation, the Russian people, and the world. With erudition and gut, he rose to rally his people. Ordinary Ukrainians drew their own line in the sand and gave Putin a fight he never expected.
The world took notice and the lukewarm support for Ukraine heated up, more serious sanctions were imposed, and nations promised to increase military and financial aid. With improvised weapons, Ukraine fought on against the Russian bear and its Chechen and Belarusian henchmen. Zelensky became the world’s hero and Putin became its villain.
Heartrending photos emanating from Ukraine are beamed around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people left their homes with their shirts on their backs and small children in tow as they sought safety. Close to a million refugees. People hungering for bread and thirsty for water, fearful of what the next day will bring. Residential buildings blown up, civilians targeted, innocent men, women and children killed by vicious Russian attacks.
Ukraine made a fateful decision in 1994 to give up its nuclear weapons in return for written promises from Russia, England and the United States to guarantee its security. They learned the hard way that such promises mean nothing, even when signed by Bill Clinton. Successive U.S. presidents promised Israel that if they would recede to the so-called ‘67 borders, America would guarantee their security. Providentially, Israel rejected the deal.
Leading up to the current war, as Putin was preparing to invade, the Biden administration was publicly threatening Putin that should he take a step into Ukraine, the response would be swift and severe. He wasn’t impressed, and for one year he methodically built up his army at Ukraine’s borders. Although his objective was well known, nobody did anything to stop him. There were meetings and conferences, photo-ops and press conferences – lots of talk, but no action.
Until Biden ascended to the presidency, America was energy independent and a net exporter blessed with low energy prices. Biden changed all of that, and by doing so, he put the world at Russia’s mercy, while enriching Putin. 25% of the petroleum purchased by states that comprise the European Union is from Russia. 43.9% of their gas and 54% of their fossil fuels are from Russia. The rest of Europe gets 40% of its oil and natural gas from them, while America imports over 700,000 barrels a day of Russian oil and petroleum products.
NATO was founded with the express purpose of preventing Russia from invading countries and to maintain stability in Europe. By depending on Russia for fuel, the EU countries have crimped their will to forcefully crack down on Putin’s madness. The world is so dependent on Russian oil that the rapidly escalating sanctions have exemptions for energy needs.
By forgoing American energy independence and imports, not only did Biden put America at the mercy of foreign countries, he also set in place wildly inflated prices for oil and gas. He forced European allies to be more beholden to Russia, and by raising the price of oil and gas, he caused billions of extra dollars to flow to Putin, further enriching and emboldening him, and financing his war effort.
Biden campaigned that as president, he would stand up to Putin. “[Elect me president and Putin will know that] his days of tyranny and trying to intimidate the United States and those in Eastern Europe are over,” he bragged. When it came down to it, his diplomatic gambit failed miserably, and Biden himself admitted after the war began that sanctions were never designed to stop Putin from taking over Ukraine.
Once Putin declared war on Ukraine and by extension the West, Biden and the others scrambled as they realized that the future of world security depended on the outcome of Putin’s latest aggressive move.
What are we to do? We know that while we examine the war through the eyes of teva, in truth it is Hakadosh Boruch Hu who pulls the strings as He executes His will. As we say, “Lev melochim vesorim beYad Hashem.” We can affect the outcome through tefillah and shemiras hamitzvos, and dedicating ourselves to helping and supporting each other.
We all have the ability to rid the world of evil and bring about yeshuos.
Rav Yitzchok Zilber was held for several years in a Soviet prison. He recounted that when Purim arrived, he gathered the Jews around him and began to tell them the story of the Megillah, since they didn’t have one to read from in that awful place. He told the fellow detainees about the wicked Haman, who sought to kill all the Jews, and how Hashem sent Mordechai and Esther to save them.
One man stood up and began shouting: “Why are you telling us stories that happened thousands of years ago and about some guy Haman who wanted to kill the Jews? Today we have a Haman! We have Stalin, who wants to kill all of us. Let’s see Hashem spare us from his plan. That is much more interesting to me than the story of how He saved the Jews from a wicked guy thousands of years ago.”
That winter, Stalin had begun targeting Soviet Jews for destruction.
Rav Zilber responded to the aggrieved man, “You should know that at the end of the day, Stalin is human. He could kill ten million people, twenty million, fifty million, but know this: He will not be able to destroy the Jewish people! It won’t happen.”
The man grew angrier. “Who told you that? What is the basis for what you are saying? The man is at the peak of his strength. He destroyed anyone who stood up to him. Take a look at him. He is the picture of strength.”
The rabbi answered, “That may be true. But I repeat, Stalin is human, and if Hashem wills it so, he will be dead in a half-hour.”
The man looked at Rav Zilber as if he had lost his mind, so Rav Zilber said to him, “You know what? Not a half-hour. In twenty minutes, he won’t be here anymore.”
Twenty minutes later, there was a loud commotion. The guards were dashing to and fro, and there was lots of shouting. Something happened. Nobody knew what.
Then they found out what caused the commotion. On that Purim evening, Stalin suffered a stroke and collapsed.
Rav Zilber recounted that he said Tehillim for three days and asked Hashem to rid the world of the evil killer. After hovering between life and death for three days, Stalin was declared dead.
Rav Zilber would repeat the story to demonstrate the power of a Jew’s heartfelt tefillos.
Rav Yitzchok Brilliant recounted that in that same year, on Purim, a young boy sat in a Yerushalmi shul and listened to the laining of the Megillah. He was a fine boy who was totally dedicated to his Torah learning. He would study day and night and didn’t engage in fun and games like the other young men his age. When it came time to bang at the sound of Haman’s name during the Megillah reading, he sat still. But when it came to the final mention of Haman, he began to pound and pound and pound again. He seemingly wouldn’t stop. Knowing him and his usual nature, the people waited silently for the banging to stop. And finally, it did.
When davening was over, the people asked him to explain his repeated pounding. He said to them, “Hashem enabled me to learn with great hasmodah, and thus I have a certain koach haTorah. I believe that with that power, just as Haman died, Stalin, who recently commenced his campaign against Soviet Jews, will also die. So I banged with much strength and thought. As I did so, I asked Hashem that in the merit of my Torah study, he should save the Jews from Stalin’s plot, just as He saved them from Haman and his.”
And so it was. With the strength of the emunah and tefillos of a tzaddik jailed in Soviet Russia, the koach haTorah and tefillos of a boy in Yerushalayim, and the prayers and hopes of Jews around the world, on Purim in 1953, the most powerful man in the world fell to the ground and died shortly thereafter.
Beyodeinu hadovor. It is up to us.
People around the world are talking about the war and they ask each other how this will end. What will be Putin’s next move? Will this escalate or recede? Will Lithuania be next or will Putin be stopped and maybe toppled? The real answer is that nobody knows. There is no one who can predict what will happen. But we, each of us reading this, can make a difference.
Each of us can daven for the memshelos harisha to crumble, for peace to be restored, and for us to merit the ultimate yeshuah bekarov.