Did the Holocaust contribute to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine? It seems that Volodymyr Zelensky’s connection to the Holocaust may have cost him a chance to sit down with Vladimir Putin. Here is the whole story.
A Personal Diplomatic Visit
Back in January 2020, before the global pandemic took hold, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to Israel.
In office for less than a year at that point, Zelensky’s visit was as much personal as it was diplomatic.
That month, the whole world was commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Jews at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Much of the focus was on Israel, where several world leaders had gathered.
Zelenky was among those who made the trip, and he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on January 24.
As the two men spoke, Zelenksy shared the story of how the Nazis had impacted his own family in Ukraine.
A Dark History
Zelensky’s great-grandparents were shot dead by German soldiers invading Ukraine. And, of their four sons fighting in the war, only one returned alive.
That surviving son went on to have a son of his own, who then gave the former soldier a grandson in 1978. That young child was President Zelensky himself.
In a separate interview, Zelensky related that his grandmother fled to Kazakhstan during the Nazi Invasion.
Once the war was over, she returned to Ukraine.
Right after he was elected, in May of 2019, Zelensky was photographed laying flowers on his grandfather’s grave.
He noted on a Facebook post at the time that he was giving thanks to those who fought to end Nazism.
With that family background and his strong identification with Jews and their torment and persecution at the hands of the Nazis, the Israel trip was a natural fit for Zelensky.
But Zelensky wasn’t alone in making a pilgrimage that winter, just months before the global lockdown.
Instead, leaders from around the globe converged on Jerusalem for the 5th World Holocaust Forum. Each country had a seat at the table, with Zelensky set to represent Ukraine.
A Neutral Meeting Place
Another prominent seat was reserved for Russian president Vladimir Putin.
It was widely assumed that the neutral and somewhat somber setting would provide a natural backdrop for the two leaders of neighboring countries to sit down and talk.
Tensions had been escalating between Russia and Ukraine for years, with Putin annexing the Crimean Peninsula early in 2014.
But with Zelensky, the newly-minted leader of Ukraine, the two had met in Poland late in 2019. The gathering in Jerusalem provided another chance for the men to try and ease some of the animosity around the ongoing border war.
A “Puzzling” Move
Instead, Zelensky forfeited his seat in the forum, giving it to a holocaust survivor.
A statement from Yad Vashem, the museum that hosted the event, called the move “puzzling.” They noted the intention was for world leaders to get together, not to hold a public memorial ceremony.
In the end, Putin and Zelensky ended up as two warships passing in the night.
Would one more meeting have made the difference in holding off the eventual Russian Invasion? Probably not, but nearly four years later, it all seems like a lost opportunity that was worth a shot.
Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock / Oleksandr Osipov