“No one since Stalin has had power in Russia like Putin does,” said Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia program.
“He is isolated from bad news; he listens only apparently to a select few advisers incentivized to tell him what he wants to hear.”
Blank spoke to an audience on March 6 at Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring. Blank described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a leader who didn’t camouflage his views.
“The personal aspect of this is his obsession with being the man who restores the Russian empire or, to use the Russian phrase, ‘regathers Russian lands.’ The point here is that he’s saying Ukraine is Russian, and he’s been saying it for a long time.”
Blank quoted Putin’s statement to President George W. Bush in 2008: “George, what are you doing? Ukraine is not a country. Its territory is a gift from us, and if you persist in trying to take it into NATO we will destroy it.”
“In other words, this is a man who has drank his own Kool-Aid, believes his own propaganda, and is being fed more by a system that is incentivized institutionally and intellectually by virtue of the paranoia that pervades the entire Russian political system . . . in order for him to think that he has to carry out his sacred mission.”
Blank said that signing “umpteen” treaties, Russia has never accepted the territorial integrity or the sovereignty of any of the European states east of Germany. An empire demands the diminution of everyone’s sovereignty, and if Ukraine has sovereignty then that means Russia is not a great power.
“This will not stop with Ukraine,” said Blank. “Ukraine is a springboard, if he accomplishes his mission, to Eastern Europe.”
There are similar areas of tension where Putin can sell invasion as Russia swooping in to “rescue” oppressed minorities with a relationship to the Russian empire, be it language, ethnicity or religion. This was a tactic of Hitler and Stalin, but it goes back to Peter the Great and Catherine the Great centuries ago.
Jewish life in Ukraine (at least before this invasion) looked a lot like Jewish life in America
American Jews need to hit the refresh button when it comes to their notions of post-World War II Jewish life in Ukraine, according to Daniel Moshinsky, who also spoke at Kemp Mill Synagogue.
Moshinsky spent his formative years in Soviet and post-Soviet Ukraine before his family moved to the United States in 1996 when he was 16 years old.
“The most common questions I get are ‘Are there still Jews in Ukraine?’ and ‘Isn’t it an antisemitic country?’ American Jews associate Ukraine with pogroms and Holocaust.”
During the Soviet era, there were quotas on Jewish participation in state institutions and restrictions on practicing Judaism. In Moshinsky’s community in Kyiv, the local rabbi was widely known to be a KGB informant, he said.
“In the last 30 years, however, things have changed quite a bit,” Moshinsky continued. “Today, President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and was elected with 70 percent of the vote. None of the ultranationalist, antisemitic parties in Ukraine won any seats at all.”
Many Jews in Ukraine are assimilated, just like in the U.S.. But many are active in synagogues, schools, Chabad centers and Hillels. There are Jewish community centers, kosher restaurants, summer camps and social organizations, he said.
“It’s a much more organized and committed community than it ever was during Soviet times,” he said. “And, just like American Jews can have a dual Jewish-American identity, so do Ukrainian Jews. If you listen to many Jewish young people in Ukraine, you will see that there is a new and proud Ukrainian identity that was really strengthened in the last 10 to 15 years. This identity is open, free, multicultural. These are energetic committed people who have been working from the ground up to take their country back from corrupt bureaucrats — and they are proudly and actively Jewish.”