Anyone with a geopolitical sense has been keeping one eye on Russia for thirty years. Malcolm Hoenlein points to that country, and its inscrutable president, Vladimir Putin, as the source of much of the instability around the world.
Will Putin’s targeting Ukraine lead the world to finally confront him? And what are the ramifications of this? More arms than an octopus, asserts Mr. Hoenlein, the vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in an interview with the Yated.
Are Jews in Ukraine safe right now?
What are your worries?
I’m worried about Kharkov right now, because there are rockets and very, very heavy shelling there. All the communities have a lot of elderly people who couldn’t be moved, and overall people can’t get out because of the curfew, so people are literally stuck in their homes. Caretakers have been paid by the Joint and others to stay with their clients — the Joint has 40,000 clients with whom they deal with in Ukraine alone. There’s a lot of concern about what their physical conditions are going to be and how long this will go on.
Some of the stores opened on Monday and you saw that there was a big rush on them. This is understandable, because people were locked up for a few days. And they were not really released from this yet. They lifted some of the restrictions for a short while.
Is this the first war in Ukraine’s history in which Jews are not a target?
I don’t know if it’s the first one, but I would say that it is true that Jews are not an essential target of this and have not been singled out. We have not seen reports of an increase in anti-Semitic attacks. So you could say that those are all positive signs.
The president is Jewish and is now being treated as a hero — even though his poll numbers were down before the war and his popularity numbers were pretty far down. He certainly seems to be emerging as a very popular and heroic president, as he stood his ground and urged people to stay in Ukraine. He himself did not take up the opportunity to leave, but chose to stay and fight with his people. These are all important messages that have been communicated.
On the other hand, we have a lot of vested interests in the relationship with Russia, and it relates both to the condition of the Jews there and to the situation in Syria and perhaps other concerns. So it’s a very complicated relationship. People shouldn’t be looking at this in a simplistic way and say that Israel should do something like condemn Russia the way others are doing. We should do everything we can on the humanitarian front right now and try to save as many people as possible, and be realistic about the circumstances.
You are touching on a lot of different topics, so let’s take them one by one. Obviously, Ukraine is the main target here, but it was interesting that when Putin announced the war, he said he wants the “denazification” of Ukraine. I assume he meant to accuse Ukraine of being anti-Semitic, of mistreating its Jews. Does that sort of give Jews an umbrella of protection? Nobody would want to hand Putin his pretext.
People are asking me if Putin invented this term. No. Denazification was a term that was used at the Nuremberg trials. And the program that the Allies engaged in after the war was called the “denazification” of Germany — going after the former Nazis, making sure that schools made clear that the Nazi ideology was not acceptable. That’s where the term comes from. It’s not something he made up and then just suggested a policy of “denazification.”
What it refers to in this context I don’t know how anybody can know. I was in Ukraine just two months ago or so, and, in fact, the Jewish community was more or less flourishing. The president is Jewish, the deputy president is Jewish, the minister of defense is Jewish, and many officials are of Jewish descent or are Jewish themselves. So it’s strange when you hear somebody saying that they want to denazify a country that elected Jews as leaders.
I also thought it was strange, but I figured that in Russia, where people hear what Putin wants them to hear, they are hearing this over and over in a disinformation campaign.
Denazification is a very hot thing in Russia. I mean, using any references to the Nazis in Russia is very sensitive, because they lost 20 million people in the war and the whole idea of Nazism is a very sensitive one. So he is trying to characterize his involvement not as some sort of an adventure against the people, but something to defend Russia against the people of Ukraine.
Many Russians have close contact with the Ukrainians, just as many Ukrainians have close contact with Russians and Russian culture, not just in those areas of separatists. So this is such a complex situation. Ppeople should not look for simplistic things either to say or to do, because there is nothing simple to do. What we have to be concerned about now is human life.
What are Russians hearing about this conflict? Are news reports there in line with Putin’s campaign of “denazification”?
Well, generally the media there is pretty much controlled, so it would not be surprising that what they see is what the government wants them to see.
So they’re hearing that Ukraine’s government is made up of neo-Nazis?
Yes. They probably hear that. When Putin said that in his speech last week, that was very clear.
Are they hearing now about the losses and about how Ukraine is fighting back instead of welcoming them as liberators?
They are starting to hear. And here is one thing that they don’t have a high tolerance for, which is body bags. Once that news starts to filter back, it could become more complicated for Putin.
Some of the clips that have emerged from the conflict show captured Russian soldiers with a remarkably low morale and no motivation to fight. Some even look like they weren’t told there would be an actual war at all.
I think it was popular in the beginning — this was sold as the reassertion of Russian pride. Putin wants to reassert the former Soviet Union, and he has designs not just on these countries; he also invaded Georgia, annexed the Donbas and Crimea. Until now, he’s gotten away with it, so he might be surprised by the level of resistance and the fact that Ukrainians really did prepare very well. The question is how long they can sustain support at home on this conflict, and what happens when they start getting reports of dead soldiers.
Remember, Russians also get news from Facebook. As much as they try to control it, it’s very hard to truly contain it. Do they get to see the full story? Not from Russian media, obviously, which they control, but the news filters through today. It’s very hard to block information in a serious way.
What, in your opinion, is Putin’s goal here? Does he want to take over the country? Does he want to install a puppet government and then withdraw the way he has in Georgia, for example?
Or all of the above.
In Georgia, he did not put in a puppet government, only in the areas of Ossetia and Abkhazia. He didn’t put it in the whole country. And I certainly don’t think he’s going to be able to do that here, especially with the resistance. Would he want to eliminate the current leadership? Probably. But to control a country that size — you’re talking about a huge country of over 40 million people — is not easy. It’s very hard to pacify a country that size after a conflict. You’ll have people fighting guerrilla warfare and being seriously committed to not giving in — which I think they are. He could get caught in a Vietnam or Afghanistan situation. That’s not something they can sustain for a long time.
Even when he was involved in Syria, they were very reluctant to show the body bags when Russians got killed, and they weren’t in huge numbers. So I think that there’s a great sensitivity to that.
Demonstrations against the war in Russia have not been put down violently, which I find very surprising, because usually there’s a low tolerance level for this. They’ve made some arrests, but it doesn’t seem, at least initially, that they are being heavy-handed. And there have been demonstrations across the country in big numbers. The war was posed as a defense for Russia — he talked about the missiles coming into Ukraine and about the eastern expansion of NATO.
Putin wanted to put his markers down; he wants to be treated like a world leader. And he achieved a lot of that before he crossed the border. Now, why he had to cross the border when he could have negotiated from higher hand, I can’t say. If his troops prove to be unsuccessful, he’s going to have a hard time trying to leverage that into results.
Yes. There’s so much about this war that is strange.
You also have to think that there are many other ramifications. How do the Iranian see this now? What about the other FSU (former Soviet Union) countries? Did they see the initial steps as ones on which they better cooperate with him? Do they now say that, well, the Russian army is not what it was touted to be and the capabilities are not what they said?
We are in an early stage right now. Tomorrow, this whole thing can reverse. That three-and-a-half-mile line of tanks that is coming in towards Kiev, what happens when they strike? There are people who questioned the motivation of the Russian soldiers. We don’t know if perhaps they put these troops up front, but the crack troops are yet coming. It’s all speculative at this point.
I would further your question by asking: What are the Americans and the EU thinking about Russia now? Will they change their thinking, saying that Russia is not more than a paper tiger? I assume that there’s a lot that the West does or doesn’t do based on the assumption that they don’t want to antagonize Putin.
You are making an assumption with your question, that this is what they think. What a lot of this points to is the fact that the Europeans are basically a paper tiger. There isn’t much of an army, and with the British not part of Europe, the French are now the only real EU force.
Germany is now sending weapons into Ukraine. But we had months of advance notice. Why weren’t a lot of these things done until now? Why weren’t sanctions imposed or at least introduced to put the pressure on the Russians to make sure that they didn’t do this? I think that they didn’t believe that he would go in or what impact it will have. The ruble’s collapse is something that every Russian is going to feel; it’s not something you can hide.
Those are things people have to look at and assess. What does this mean? Will they change their posture in Syria? Will they get angry at Israel? Will they not cooperate in security cooperation, which is important for Syria? They’re interested in Syria, but they’re not above being vindictive.
I saw an interview with Julia Ioffe from the New Yorker, who is supposed to be an expert on Russia. She was asked what the realistic best-case outcome in her opinion would be. She said that it is Russia winning in a quick operation and everything ends quickly. Obviously, the best thing would be that he withdraws and everything goes back to what it was before, but realistically, the best would be to have a quick operation with no guerrilla warfare.
Well, we are already seeing that there’s no quick operation. There could be accelerating efforts to give Ukraine more missiles, more rockets, more heavy tanks. I mean, Russia has not deployed the majority of its forces yet. So we’ll have to see. And, you know, it’s a big country and there are many places where they will be fighting. If they are losing in one place, do they have to ship troops there? How do they sustain it?
Why a quick victory for Putin would be good is something somebody has to explain, other than that fewer people may be dying.
That’s what she was referring to.
If Putin takes Ukraine, what will the situation for the Yidden there be?
It’s not going to be good, because the street fighting and the inability for them to get out are going to make things very hard. There is a lot of chesed being done, and people are really remarkable, both what is going on by the general community, but especially amongst the religious community. They are raising lots of money.
I was on a conference call last night with a bunch of baalei batim and others from the US and Canada. I mean, they are doing remarkable things. People are putting up significant money and responding to the humanitarian need. People will have to be careful where they give to make sure that they give to those who are really going to use the money and have direct contact to people in need. The banks are closed, so you can’t send in money freely. You need those who have real expertise on the ground to make sure that the money goes where it’s intended.
What are the primary needs of the Jews in Ukraine right now?
In some places, food is running short and water is in short supply. In other places, they stockpiled stuff ahead of time — I don’t think it’s something that should be talked about much since it could create resentment and it could lead to criminal acts when people think that there’s gold in those hills and there isn’t. Jews are running out of everything just like everybody else. There were efforts to prepare, and I think we’re seeing the results of that. But still, the demands are great.
The number of people who have fled is in the tens of thousands, including many Holocaust survivors and elderly people. There were people who are moving toward the Romanian border, toward the Polish border. Once they get there, one part wants to eventually go home, one part wants to go to Israel, and one part wants to go to Germany and Poland and other countries.
Are they being welcomed over there?
Poland has taken in a lot of people. Of the experts I’ve spoken to, some feel that some of the countries, Romania and others, are overestimating their ability to absorb large numbers of people. But it is expected that up to 4 million people could become refugees. Anyone between 18 and 60 is not being allowed to leave Ukraine, so families are being divided when they get to the borders and the men are being sent back. That is obviously not a great circumstance.
Sometimes, women and children are being sent out, and then there’s the question of getting kosher food to them and getting other things for those who require it. They were efforts made to get security people into the community before the fighting started.
There were a lot of preparatory steps taken. People ask me, “Well, why didn’t they do anything?” The Jewish organizations did a lot before the fighting started. They tried to anticipate it, and I would say that, by and large, they have done remarkable work. There are very courageous people who are going in there to service the communities. Schools are moving in so they can keep the kids together and the classes and programs going on.
As I said, it’s an extremely complex circumstance. I’ve talked to representatives of different organizations. The Jewish Agency can’t operate inside the country, but they set up six stations along the border for people who want to come to Israel. HIAS has been working to protect groups in the country, and the JDC (the Joint) has the biggest in-country infrastructure of the general organizations. And you have a lot of others who have been working there and have been doing projects, whether it’s in Odessa or Dnipropetrovsk.
An Israeli was killed. I know that the government is investigating that right now. Again, people don’t understand all the ramifications of such a conflict situation and look for simple answers, which we all would like to see. But we are dealing with so many locations where conflict is taking place or where assistance is needed.
Are Jews from the western part of Ukraine also escaping or are they watching and waiting where they are?
A lot of Jews have moved to the western part, but some people in the western part have left. It’s easier for people who are near the Hungarian border, the Romanian border, the Slovakian border, and they are trying to take advantage of the opportunities to get out. Who knows when borders will close?
How many Jews are there in Ukraine?
Nobody knows exact numbers, but estimates range. I’ve heard people say 200,000, 150,000, 80,000. You have a lot of hidden Jews who are not necessarily part of a community, so that doesn’t always show up in a census. But it’s probably about 200,000. They say that there are 110,000 Jews in Kiev, 45,000 in Odessa and 60,000 in Dnipropetrovsk — that already is close to 200,000. So it seems like a high number, but I don’t know if that’s correct.
I guess it depends on whether you consider someone like Zelensky Jewish or not.
Why isn’t he Jewish? He was always openly Jewish. His parents are both Jewish and he certainly never hid his Jewishness. You know, the mayor of Kiev is supposedly Jewish. When I met him, he did say something about that, but I think it’s only one of his parents. You have a lot of such people in Kiev and in Ukraine.
This is going to be an ongoing story. What happens when the Jews want to go back? They’re expecting up to 10,000 Jews to move to Israel.
How will the Ukraine crisis affect the negotiations with Iran? Just days ago, there were reports that Europe and the United States were close to a nuclear deal with Iran. With Russia, Iran’s biggest defender, bogged down, how do you think this will affect that?
It may make the Russians even worse than they were. There were a lot of reports about how the Russians, while they were negotiating in Vienna, were pushing the Iranians to take a hard line, and we are very definitely seeing the hard line in Tehran. So it hasn’t derailed talks there.
Here’s the interesting thing — the US complains about others having dealings with Russia, but they’re continuing to talk with the Russians in Vienna.
They are still talking to them even now?
So there’s no diplomatic boycott. You say that talks are ongoing right now toward an Iran deal?
They have been working toward it. Now the question is, do they want it or not? How this will impact the Iranians is difficult to say. Do they see that the West is powerless and therefore feel less pressure? They were clearly getting a lot of direction from the Russians. Clearly, the Russians want to see this issue off the table so they won’t have to deal with two fronts at the same time. I think that there was a hiatus in the talks, if I’m not mistaken. But Robert Malley, Biden’s special envoy to Iran, is there, so negotiations have not broken off.
You know, we have not imposed oil sanctions on the Russians. We have not done a lot of the stuff that we could do.
I think that was since they didn’t want to disrupt the oil markets.
One way to not do that is by reopening the closed facilities here — I’m referring to the Keystone Pipeline. Incentivizing more fracking might help as well.
You know, Russia is the biggest oil exporter, even more than Saudi Arabia. They benefit from the high price of oil. Russia’s economy is very small — it’s about the size of Italy — and you see what Putin has been able to accomplish. Even in Syria, he does not invest heavily. In Ukraine he made this huge investment. And the question is, how long can they sustain 150,000 troops? With the ruble’s collapse and the body bags start piling up, how will that impact the situation at home?
People are seeing the impact of the high prices and the fact that businesses can’t use SWIFT for banking — this could be significant. Does the war become increasingly unpopular and pressure Putin to reach an accord and get out?
Talking about oil, regardless of how this war ends, how will it affect Europe? Europe has been increasingly reliant on Russian oil for the past few years. Now, Germany just canceled the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Will they try to diversify their energy supplies to not be reliant on Russia? Will they bring back nuclear power?
What they should do and what they will do are two different stories. What they should do is look to diversify. They wanted to do the East-Med pipeline with Israel, but it was recently canceled. The United States that it would support that.
There is the electric grid with Israel, Greece and Cyprus. There are alternative opportunities out there, pipelines like the one in Azerbaijan, oil and gas from Israel, LNG (liquefied natural gas) from Egypt and from Cyprus, of course. These oil discoveries could produce sources of energy that would be able to be sent through Turkey and through Azerbaijan and through various other means that don’t pass through Russia. That would help diversify the demand.
But we keep shooting ourselves in the foot when sources of energy from our own country are closed off when they find it becomes too complicated and difficult. America was until recently a net exporter of energy, and that creates energy independence. It no longer makes us dependent on any foreign country’s oil.
Energy is so critical. We have to take a longer view of how this will impact the rise in price of oil, how having it reach well over $100 enriches Iran and Russia and increases inflation in the countries that import oil.
Taking a broader view of this conflict, do you see any historical parallel?
You mean to World War II? It’s too simple. You have to be very careful when comparing things. We learn from history, and we learned to take the threats of dictators seriously. And I think a lot of the countries in Europe should be taking seriously the lessons that they learned. What do they do about building up their own defense system? America has long wanted to see Europe take on greater responsibility and not be dependent on our troops for defense to the degree to which they are. Maybe now there will be more attention paid to that.
I was thinking of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, when czarist Russia thought they will have a quick victory over a backwards country, and when they lost, it proved that Russia was not as invincible as they thought they were.
The question is, will people learn the lessons, or do they try to prove that they can be different than the historical antecedents? And that’s always a challenge, especially when you have somebody like Putin, who is a very strong nationalist. He has designs to assert Russia’s dominance in the former Soviet Union, even if not outright control. He went into Kazakhstan, but he put the marker down that Russia was not an invader but was the arbiter, and that Russia was the country they could turn to when they had problems.
The question is: Who is he listening to? Who is advising him?