KYIV — “Shalom!” exclaimed Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko as he bounded into his second-floor office at the city’s municipal building and took my suddenly tiny and inadequate hand in his massive paw.
The Hebrew greeting when we met in the heart of the Ukrainian capital last Tuesday wasn’t the only evidence of the former heavyweight boxing champion’s connection to Judaism and Israel: He prominently displays a menorah, kiddush cup, sculpture of Jerusalem, hamsa, and Hebrew-Russian Bible on the shelf behind his desk. His son recently returned from a four-month internship at an investment firm in Israel. Klitschko’s paternal grandmother was Jewish.
But those ties — and his 2014 trip to Israel as a newly elected mayor — don’t keep him from criticizing Israel’s stance on the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.
“It’s the biggest mistake, right now, to take a neutral position if Israel promotes democratic values and sees Ukraine as a peaceful country,” Klitschko said, speaking an English reminiscent of his boxing style — awkward but forceful. “It always was a peaceful country where peaceful people live. We never, ever were aggressive to anyone.”
Some of Klitschko’s Jewish ancestors, who would have witnessed the violent pogroms over the last 400 years at the hands of Ukrainian Cossacks, nationalists, and Nazi collaborators, may have taken issue with that characterization. Members of the Jewish side of Klitschko’s family were killed during the Holocaust.
But if he’s referring to the recent past, he’s on far firmer footing.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko speaks to The Times of Israel in Kyiv, August 7, 2022 (The Times of Israel)
Klitschko argued that it is Israel’s moral duty to impose sanctions on Russia.
“Right now, what Russia did is break all international rules,” Klitschko said. “At the end of the day, it can touch the interest of Israel also. And my message is: Stop the trade relationship with Russia because every cent, every dollar you send to Russia, it’s bloody money.”
Israel has sought to maintain open channels with both Russia and Ukraine during the war. Senior leaders have condemned the February 24 invasion, but Israel has not joined sanctions against Moscow, nor has it provided weapons to Ukraine’s military, though it has sent aid.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko visits Ukrainian troops (courtesy Kyiv Mayor’s office)
“It’s the biggest mistake to see the war as something far away,” Klitschko said, taking up Ukraine’s line that it is fighting for Western values against a benighted Russian regime that opposes liberal freedoms.
“Everyone has to be proactive. We are fighting and defending not just our homes and our homeland. We [are] actually defending values and defending Europe. Believe me. I know the mentality and the Russians go as far we allow [them] to go. And that’s why we’re fighting right now for everyone in Europe. We’re defending Europe right now. ”
Klitschko argued that if the international community had reacted more forcefully in 2014, as well as to Russia’s backing of separatists in Abkhazia and Transnistria, this war could have been prevented.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, left, walks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as they arrive for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, April 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
Despite the significant losses suffered by Russian forces in the five months of war, Klitschko believes that they won’t stop without being forced out of Ukraine.
“The biggest mistake will be to think they will be happy with part of Mariupol and the south of Ukraine,” he said. “They have plans to occupy [the whole of] Ukraine.”
And according to Klitschko, Ukraine is only the first stage in Putin’s attempt to reconstitute a neo-Soviet empire.
“They’re talking about Baltic countries, they’re talking about Poland right now. We must also never forget that part of Germany was part of the Soviet empire.”
“We [were] in USSR and we don’t want [to go] back to USSR,” the Kyrgyzstan-born mayor said. “The reason of this senseless war is very clear. Our wish to be a part of the European Union, of European family. And Putin [doesn’t] want to give a chance to Ukraine to be part of European family.”
Despite the support that Ukraine has been receiving from European allies, Klitschko wishes for a greater sense of urgency: “Generally I’m happy, but decisions they make to support Ukraine take too slow.”
In this file photo taken on March 26, 2019 a worker puts a lid on a pipe at the construction site of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in Lubmin, northeastern Germany. (Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)
He particularly took issue with the slow decision-making process about weapons shipments from the West.
“We waited for a long time about defensive weapons for Ukraine,” he said. “We defend our homeland. We don’t attack anyone. They think about this such a long time, but in the final decision, they give the weapons — right now, artillery, tanks. It’s because we need the weapons.”
The boxer and the comedian
Klitschko is of course not the only prominent leader in Ukraine with Jewish roots to move into politics from a career in entertainment. The country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was a famous comedian before winning the 2019 presidential election.
The relationship between the two men was tense before the war. A show produced by Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 mocked Klitschko’s slow and often unfocused manner of speech. The mayor has said publicly that he voted for Zelensky rival Petro Poroshenko in the 2019 election. At one point the president had intended to strip Klitschko of his position heading the Kyiv City State Administration before backing off, reportedly under pressure from allies of then-US president Donald Trump.
But now, Klitschko is full of praise for his former rival and says it’s time to “forget about the political games.”
Ukainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) speaks to the press in the town of Bucha, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, on April 4, 2022. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)
“Big respect,” the mayor said of the country’s leader, noting how Zelensky refused to leave the capital when it was under attack by Russian forces at the start of the war.
“It was very important because the president is a symbolic figure for Ukraine. It was very important to stay in our hometown. That’s why [I have] respect for him. It was a clear and smart decision to stay here and never leave, because so many of our international partners [gave] advice to the president of Ukraine to leave Kyiv.”
There have been murmurs in the past of Klitschko running for president. Though he would not rule it out, the mayor said that it was not the right time to discuss such things. But he is looking to the future.
Ukrainian brothers and former heavyweight champions Wladimir (L) and Vitali Klitschko (courtesy Kyiv Mayor’s Office)
“We actually have all opportunities to be one of the richest countries in the world,” Klitschko argued. “The agriculture, we have so many [resources] in our land. And the main [resource] is very smart people [who are] not lazy, [who are] actually good working. And we just need to give new standards of life to the people, and new rules — the European rules.
“We are fighting for that, for a better life for our children,” he continued. “And the main priority for us is European values and human rights.”