Courtesy Natan Sharansky
Courtesy Natan Sharansky
Navigate to News section

Ten Questions for Natan Sharansky

The legendary Soviet political prisoner and Israeli government minister on the war in Ukraine, the two Vladimirs, and the implications for the Middle East

Tablet News Desk
March 08, 2022
Courtesy Natan Sharansky
Courtesy Natan Sharansky

Born in Donetsk, then called Stalino, in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1948, Natan Sharansky remains the world’s leading anti-Soviet, dissident Zionist, and pro-democracy voice. A chess prodigy, mathematician, refusenik, political prisoner, human rights activist, and Israeli statesman, Sharansky is a living monument to 20th-century Jewish heroism, and is uniquely positioned to analyze the significance of breakdowns in freedom, democracy, and world order in the 21st. On Sunday, he sat down with Tablet to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the two Vladimirs, the dilemmas of Israeli diplomacy, and the wisdom of BDS for Russia.

How do you feel about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a state where you grew up in a Jewish family under the former USSR, and which is led today by a proudly Jewish president?

I have to say that it is very difficult for Jews to believe, but the Jewish question has nothing to do with this conflict. The fact that Zelensky is a devoted Jew is an absolutely outstanding fact of Ukrainian history, as well as the fact that even Putin, with all the awful things he is doing, is unique in Russian history for his positive attitude toward Jews and Israel. There are no anti-Jewish pogroms at this stage, neither in Ukraine nor in Russia, and it’s not the case that Jews are at the center of this.

When I was growing up in Donetsk, “Jew” was the worst thing you could have in your papers. It was like being born with a disease, and many parents dreamed of how to bribe officers to write in anything else for their children. Today, when refugees move to the border, the best thing they can have in their ID is the word “Jew,” because the only country that sends official representatives there to get people and give them citizenship is Israel. So, a lot can be said about it—but again, if you want to understand the roots of this awful, barbaric Russian aggression, it’s not the point from which we have to start.

OK, let’s start here: When I was born in Donetsk, it was then called Stalino. When Stalin died I was 5 years old, and I remember my father explained to me that it was a great day for us, for Jews, but not to tell that to anybody. And then I remember the other big event of my childhood, in 1954, after the death of Stalin, was the celebration of 300 years of the voluntary unification of Russia and Ukraine. In 1654, when Bohdan Khmelnytsky won a war, it made Ukraine independent from Poland. So we had a huge celebration about the brotherhood of Ukrainians and Russians.

Later, when I became a dissident, I got to know Ukrainian nationalists and found out that it was in fact more like a Russian enslavement of Ukraine. But by then it didn’t matter in the same way, because in fact Donetsk was a very international city, it had many nations. It was an industrial center, so for 100 years people had been coming there to look for work from different parts of the Russian empire. There were Ukrainians and Russians in Donetsk, of course, but also Kazakhs and Armenians and Georgians and Tatars. So none of that really mattered. What really mattered was: Are you Jewish or not?

Everyone could agree on that.

Jews were the only people who were really discriminated against. There were jokes about every nation, but the real prejudices and the official discrimination were against Jews. Now, I studied in a Russian school where the second language was Ukrainian, and there were many Ukrainian schools where the second language was Russian. As a Jew, I tried to be the best in everything, so I tried to also be the best in Ukrainian literature. And that is a real literature. Ukraine has its own songs, art, history. This is evidence of a Ukrainian people that Putin denies. It’s true that for only very short periods of time Ukrainians played an independent role. But the culture was real, no doubt.

When I became an activist, I moved to Moscow at the age of 18. And then I started university and became an activist in the Zionist movement, and then also in the human rights movement. And I met Ukrainian nationalists in the Moscow Helsinki Group, in fact the second Helsinki group was created in Kyiv. And later, in prison, I met many Ukrainian nationalists. And it was clear to us then that we had a lot of mutual interests, in freedom and independence and democracy.

In 1997 I came back as the minister of trade for Israel. I came to Kyiv, and I signed the first economic agreement between Ukraine and Israel. Many businessmen came to my meetings there, there were a lot of hopes for economic development. It didn’t really develop well because the economy was not transparent, there was a lot of corruption, as you know. But it was and is a democracy.

Now, for the last five years, I’ve been the chairman of the advisory board of Babyn Yar, which closes a very important circle in my life. Babyn Yar is the symbol of the Holocaust for me. It is not only the biggest mass grave of Jews; it is also the symbol of the efforts of the Soviet Union to erase the memory of the Holocaust, to destroy our identity, and to fight against the Jewish nation. So I decided it was an extremely important project that we had to do, to turn this symbol of Holocaust memory destruction into the biggest Holocaust museum and study center in Europe.

And for this reason, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to meet with President Zelensky and his team. And he has always been very positive and very interested. And now he is leading the Ukrainian people, to the big surprise of Putin, in showing such a passionate devotion to Ukrainian national identity, and to their freedom. The fact that they are now an example for people all over the world, and that the one who is leading them and inspiring them and the man who is the most important president in their history is openly Jewish and proud of his Jewish roots and his connection to Israel—that is just really something. I don’t know whether to call it ironic or symbolic or meaningful. But it is really something.

Do you understand the invasion of Ukraine as a border dispute, or as a chapter in a larger, more global Russian or Russo-Chinese assault on the democratic order? What endgame do you think Putin has in mind for this conflict?

Putin, whom I met 15, 20 years ago, in the first years of his presidency, is a very different person than he was then. He has always of course been the same KGB officer with the same approach and view of the world, but back then he was urgently looking for recognition by the leaders of the world—by George W. Bush, by Angela Merkel—and he tried very hard to find ways to convince them that he was a new type of Russian leader. I think what happened with him is that after 20 or more years in power, he saw all these leaders—Bushes and Merkels and Obamas and Bidens and Macrons and all the others—as pawns, they just come and they go, and they’re exchanged, they’re replaced. He is the only one who is never replaced.

He is the one, real, strong leader, and he is the only real historical figure—as he sees himself—and he has a historical mission. He has said over many years that the biggest tragedy of the 20th century was the destruction of the Soviet Union. So his mission is to bring back that unique Russian superpower. He doesn’t want to bring back communist ideology, which he is not interested in. Putin views himself as filling the shoes of Peter the Great, Ekaterina [Catherine the Great], and Stalin. These are three of his big heroes, who brought historical “Russian” lands under one rule.

Sharansky, wearing a fur hat, is escorted by U.S. Ambassador Richard Burt after being released to cross the border between East Germany and West Berlin on the Glienicke Bridge, the so-called Bridge of Spies, during a prisoner exchange on Feb. 11, 1986
Sharansky, wearing a fur hat, is escorted by U.S. Ambassador Richard Burt after being released to cross the border between East Germany and West Berlin on the Glienicke Bridge, the so-called Bridge of Spies, during a prisoner exchange on Feb. 11, 1986Günter Schneider/ullstein bild via Getty Images

So whether it is Poland, or whether it is Kamchatka, he sees these all like a czar—all Russian lands—and he sees bringing them back as his historical charge. For this he has worked already for many years. Belarus is practically part of Russia now. He tried Georgia in 2008, and he got Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are now in fact Russia. Chechnya too, of course, though with a lot of blood, but now it’s his. And he is active all the time in Kazakhstan and the other Stans.

But of course the key here was always Ukraine. Even in our dissidents’ prisons, when we all saw that the Soviet Union would be falling apart, because it was too weak from inside, the critical piece we saw then was Ukraine. In our dreams Ukraine was becoming an independent country, like France or something, not only because of the large population but because it had the wheat and coal and metallurgy and missiles and everything.

It didn’t happen exactly so. Because of corruption and other things, Ukraine went through a difficult period. But nevertheless, a democratic Ukraine was born. So that was a big shock to Putin, and that’s why he has to declare openly that Ukraine is not a state and Ukraine is not a nation, and calls them neo-Nazis, and talks about bringing back its “historical status.”

How does Russia imagine it will reincorporate Ukraine into a reborn imperial Russian state?

Russia is not the strongest country and Putin is not the strongest leader in the world. In fact, Russia today is something like 3% of the world economy and NATO represents something closer to 50%. And here it is very important to understand Putin’s psychology. From my time among criminals in prison, I know very well that the one who’s the ringleader in the cell is not the one who is physically strongest, but the one who is ready to use his knife. Everybody has a knife, but not everybody is prepared to use it. Putin believes that he is willing to use his knife and the West isn’t, that the West can only talk, even if it is physically stronger.

I have to remind you that the first step in this Ukraine process was Crimea. It started after President Obama drew a red line in Syria about chemical weapons, and then when it was crossed he did nothing. That was an awful sign. The immediate results were that Putin brought his armies to Syria and established a base there—in fact, he got the keys to Syria’s airspace—and then he went into Crimea. He checked whether the West would react, and when it didn’t he not only took Crimea but he also started this separatist movement in the Donbas, saying that it all was historical Russia. So that was the beginning.

Now, he’s in the second stage, and he is especially feeling the weakness of America. I think—I don’t know for sure, but I think—that the withdrawal from Afghanistan showed him that it would be very difficult for this American government to mobilize for military action. And so he can threaten nuclear weapons. He says, “Ukraine is not a country, we’re going to bring it back to Russia, and those who stand in our way will suffer such damage they’ve never known in their history.” So all his means of deterrence are prepared.

And America’s answer is to cancel training of their nuclear forces which had been planned for a year. The Pentagon cancels it and says, “It’s because we don’t want to be responsible for bringing danger to the United States.” So Putin couldn’t get a better sign that his deterrence works. So now he really believes he is the strongest leader in the world, not only because he is prominent, and not only because he doesn’t have to worry about things like these silly Western elections, but also because he is ready to threaten nuclear war and his enemies are not. He is willing to use his knife.

Was he right?

Of course, there have been some surprises for him.

First, he’s rather isolated from the real world, so he convinced himself that Ukrainians agree that they are not a people and that they therefore would not put up any serious resistance.

Second, he was right that the West would not be ready to meet his military threat, but the West is mobilized by sanctions. So now, the sanctions are a very dangerous weapon against him, and they will have an effect for a long time. So he understands now that he does not have much time—but the time he does have, he has to use it effectively, using the threat of nuclear war in order to invade, to destroy, to occupy, and then if the world is scared, to continue testing the limits.

Is Israel’s relative quiet in the face of Putin’s assault a sane recognition of the reality of Russian military strength in Syria, or does it unwisely lend strength to forces of dictatorship and illiberalism? And what role does America’s revived nuclear deal with Iran, which is how Russia got into Syria in the first place, play in this?

I can tell you my position, but unfortunately I am in the minority. From the very first day of the invasion I said that this is not simply a historical struggle between Russia and Ukraine. It’s not simply between a vicious dictator and a sympathetic, democratic leader. It’s an effort to change all the basic principles on which the free world has stood since the Second World War. The whole free world is in danger, and Israel is a part of that.

Israel cannot survive simply by playing itself off between dictators. We should be the first to understand that. So for us morally, and for the world publicly, and for the survival of the free world, we have to be clearly on one side. Strategically, we should not be hesitant to speak very clearly and publicly about it.

People here tell me I don’t understand that the most important moral obligation of Israel is to the security of Israeli citizens, and that to protect that security we must have the freedom to operate in Syria. Now, on the tactical level, there is no doubt that we are dependent on an agreement with Putin when we attack Iranian bases in Syria. From 2013 onward, there was such weakness with the Obama administration in Syria, where they weren’t going to challenge this new Russian military presence, and then in 2015, there was an additional agreement with Iran, under which America sent billions and billions of dollars to Tehran, some of it in cash. And with Hezbollah turning into a real army and building new bases together with Iran and Syria and Lebanon, we had no choice but to have a strategic understanding with Putin. So Putin is always using Iran as his threat to America, and at the same time he permits Israel to attack the bases of Iran in Syria.

Now we are facing the new Iran deal in a few days maybe. So the free world is taking many steps to take away billions of dollars from Putin, and at the same time, it is making sure Iran will receive billions of dollars—and as in the case of Obama, it will not be linked to any Iranian obligation to stop terrorist activity in the region, or to drop their commitment to destroying the state of Israel. So, no doubt, a lot of that new money will go to their operations in Syria. And Israel will have to destroy them. So we will be even more dependent on Putin.

The free world is taking steps to take away billions of dollars from Putin, and at the same time, it is making sure Iran will receive billions of dollars.

I think as part of the struggle of the free world against Putin, it also has to help Israel fight against its dependence on him in Syria. Because in general, the interests of Jewish people and the interests of Israel, of course, are that Putin’s aggression should be stopped.

Today, we see that even with all the love and compassion and sympathy which the world has directed to Zelensky and the Ukrainians, in fact the free world has already decided that they will be the victims. So we have to always be capable of defending ourselves.

Are boycotts and sanctions against Russia, and especially targeting individual Russians, a good way to affect Russian policy? If so, why aren’t they also a good way to express disapproval of Israeli policies that some people don’t like?

It has absolutely nothing to do with the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] of Israel, and I’ll explain why. First of all, BDS of Israel was invented not to influence Israeli policy but to help lead to the destruction of Israel. Israel should not exist, but we cannot destroy it militarily, therefore we have to destroy it by encouraging all the world to boycott it economically. And second, it’s based on an obvious double standard. Meaning, OK, you decide that those who violate human rights should be boycotted, you define what is a human rights violation, and then you choose not to uphold the definition or enforce the boycott anywhere in the world—in Xinjiang, etc.—except in Israel.

Now, with Russia, if the world was ready to challenge Putin militarily, like to send its airplanes and troops, there would be no need of sanctions. But because the free world is not ready to do this, and we are looking for ways to do something without having to fight in Ukraine, the idea is to make people inside Russia feel bad about what Putin is doing and to make him change the policy. So it’s very different from trying to isolate Israel in order to destroy it; it’s trying to just put a stop to this awful aggression. I’d prefer that we stop the aggression by sending in the airplanes. But I understand that this is difficult. And Putin didn’t expect that there would be such strong sanctions. So I do think they are justified.

What effect will placing personal sanctions on the so-called Navalny list of Putin-linked oligarchs including Mikhail Fridman and others have on Jewish life, both in Israel and in the diaspora? Are these sanctions on individuals a good idea as public policy? Are they good for the Jews?

Some of these people do very good things for Israel and the Jewish people, like Mikhail Fridman, who give to the defense of Jewish communities all over the world, and bring not only their pride in being Jewish and their financial generosity but also new ideas, like the Genesis Prize and of course the Babyn Yar memorial. But I have to say that when the Americans and Europeans are deciding about sanctions, these things should not be considered. The criteria should be if their money is being used to help Putin fight democracy and freedom and the opposition and so on, or if the money and tools of these people can be used to undermine sanctions.

I hope very sincerely that those who are helpful to the Jewish people are not involved in this. But that’s of course up to the appropriate bodies in America and in Europe to decide. And I propose not to mix these two things.

We should always be very grateful to those who are doing good things for Israel. But we also have to understand the importance of these sanctions, and I hope that they will be employed with real criteria and with real action, and not simply to contribute to this atmosphere of hating all these rich Russians.

The Tablet News Desk covers News, Israel & the Middle East, Science, and Sports. Pitches can be sent to news editor Jeremy Stern, [email protected].