For a lesson in defending the indefensible, Sergei Lavrov is your man. Russia’s Foreign Minister’s comments broadcast Sunday that Hitler had “Jewish blood” and the “most rabid antisemites tend to be Jews” has shocked much of the world, especially Israel, which denounced an “unforgivable” lie that besmirched the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust.
But Lavrov doubled down on these sentiments Tuesday. In a statement, his ministry said that the subsequent uproar explained “to a large extent why the current Israeli government supports the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.”
Lavrov’s original comments came after he was asked by an Italian TV station to explain his government’s “denazification” justification for invading Ukraine when the nation’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, is himself Jewish and comes from a family partially wiped out in the Holocaust.
His response—which included the assertion that “there is no family without a monster”—sparked a diplomatic spat with Russia’s close partner Israel, which summoned Moscow’s Ambassador, Anatoly Viktorov, for a “tough conversation.”
“His words are untrue and their intentions are wrong,” said Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. “Using the Holocaust of the Jewish people as a political tool must cease immediately.”
Israel has not joined sanctions against Russia over its invasion nor has it provided military aid to Ukraine, though it’s yet to be seen whether Sergei Lavrov’s words will change that dynamic. At the very least, the spat prompted Israel for the first time to publicly condemn Russia’s claim that Zelensky is a Nazi.
Still, experts say it’s wrong to simply attribute Lavrov’s comments to simple blundering. Despite Russia’s insistence that Ukraine must be “denazified,” the government of Vladimir Putin is all too willing to wield antisemitic conspiracies when they suit. Oliver Bullough, author of Looting Ukraine: How East and West Teamed Up to Steal a Country, tells TIME that Lavrov’s comments “reflect the weirdly irrational conspiratorial mindset of most senior Russian officials.”
Even so, it’s rare for a senior Kremlin official to openly voice such views. “At the moment, the Russian political class has crossed the red line,” says Ilya Yablokov, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield and author of Anti-Jewish conspiracy theories in Putin’s Russia. “Basically, they have no limitations and can talk about whatever they want.”
Russia’s relations reset with Israel
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced an uptick in mainstream anti-Jewish rhetoric as curbs on speech were rolled back. However, since Putin came to power antisemitic hate speech and violence has dwindled.
Instead, from the mid-2000s, the Putin regime has leaned into the idea that the West is a singular enemy hellbent on destroying Russia. In support of this proposition, all manner of subplots percolate despite some blatant inherent contradictions, including of gay people, Nazis and Jews conspiring toward the same goal: Russia’s downfall.
While Putin has avoided antisemitic language himself, and poses with Russia’s chief Rabbi on Jewish holidays, he frequently cites antisemitic Russian thinkers in his speeches, such as philosopher Ivan Ilyin and historian Lev Gumilev. Russia’s President has even saddled up with notorious antisemitic motorcycle gang the Night Wolves, to whom he gave a slice of seized Crimea. Putin has also showered praise on ultra-nationalist Russian writer Alexander Prokhanov, who, among many other rants, in 2012 said that “Jews took over the world and are using their power for evil.”
And it ultimately seems that in today’s Russia, any conspiracy theory is a good one. When anti-Putin protest rock group Pussy Riot stormed Moscow’s Church of Christ the Saviour, media allies of the president suggested that Jews were possible instigators in a nefarious bid to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church, while Putin himself claimed the group might be antisemitic.
Lavrov’s comments also echo a popular strand of antisemitism in eastern Europe that Jews have co-opted the Holocaust to seize the victimhood narrative from its “genuine” victims, who were Eastern European Christians. The Foreign Ministry’s statement Tuesday that Israel’s condemnation was “anti-historical” also suggests such a tactic. Whether that was unintentional, or a deliberate attempt to win approval in the Middle East, is unclear.
Still, such sentiments work better for domestic consumption and Lavrov’s very public broadcasting of revisionist Christian nationalism may score an own goal in Russia’s military aims. Already, Moscow’s relations with Jerusalem had been cooling as it tilts toward Tehran.
The U.S, E.U. and other Western nations have also been pressing Israel to take a firmer position against Russia. In February, Israel condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “violation of the world order” but has stopped short of condemning Russia itself, which holds enormous influence in neighboring Syria, while still allowing Israel freely conduct its own operations against Tehran-backed forces there. Lavrov’s comments may alter that relationship.
“Israel used to be a reliable partner for Russia,” says Yablokov. “But they have no reason to be loyal after these remarks. So strategically, it’s a big failure.”
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