Vitali Klitschko attends a Christian Democratic Union Party conference, on Dec. 4, 2012. Credit CDU/CSU-Bundestagsfraktion via Wikimedia Commons.
Vitali Klitschko attends a Christian Democratic Union Party conference, on Dec. 4, 2012. Credit CDU/CSU-Bundestagsfraktion via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Ukraine’s fight is also a fight for the world’s future’

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko talks about life in the Ukrainian capital several months after the retreat of the Russian military. “Putin set out to break our spirit, but instead our people rose to protect our homeland,” he says.

Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko was waiting for me at the entrance to his office on the tenth floor of City Hall. “Shalom,” he said in Hebrew, before switching to English: “How are you? I must apologize, but I have to go to a meeting with the military that cannot be delayed. I’ll be back in 45 minutes. Please wait for me and help yourself to coffee in the meantime.”

He returned exactly 45 minutes later, and before I even had a chance to ask any questions, said, “Everything the Russians are saying is lies. This is not a war, this is the genocide of the Ukrainian people. They are trying to destroy the infrastructure that is vital to our city. They want to freeze people [to death].”

Winters in Ukraine are quite severe, he noted, and the Russians are attempting to damage crucial infrastructure, such as water and electricity. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is interested in Ukrainian territory, just without the Ukrainians—that is his goal. To break our spirit to sink us into depression. But Putin was wrong, because instead of depression, people feel anger, and are ready to fight to protect our homeland,” he said. 

Q: You used the word “genocide.” That’s a harsh one. 

A: They are trying to destroy the entire population of our country. That is not fighting against another military; everything is lies. They’ve killed many thousands and destroyed entire cities and villages. So far in our city around 670 buildings have been destroyed, 350 of those were residential ones. Kyiv is not where the fighting is taking place, but people are dying here from missiles and suicide drones. You in Israel understand very well what I am talking about, and what’s happening in your country is also happening here.

Q: Would you call the Russian president a war criminal?

A: Yes! He is a criminal.

Deceptive calm in Kyiv

Kyiv is different than one would imagine; one cannot feel the war directly here. The only time I heard a siren was when I was entering the city. We later found out that it was a false alarm: A plane had been detected taking off from Belarus. Ukraine takes no risks in such cases, and sounds an alarm in every major city. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, it has reportedly launched more than 16,000 missiles and rockets into Ukrainian territory.

The sirens are heard across the entire city, but residents are also alerted via their smartphones, similar to the system in Israel. When the app turns red, an attack is expected, and when it turns green, the danger is over. Residents also stay updated through groups on messaging apps, such as Telegram.

Ukrainians take refuge in a subway station that serves as a shelter for thousands of people during a rocket and bomb attack by Russian forces, February 2022. Credit: Drop of Light/Shutterstock.

Unlike Israel, however, there are not many bomb shelters in Kyiv. There aren’t many options for those residents caught outdoors when the sirens sound. “We just keep driving,” said the driver who took me from Lviv to the capital.

And although Kyiv has been largely spared by the fighting, the war is still in evidence there. Russian tanks captured during the fighting are displayed in the city center. It looks like a movie scene: a charred Russian tank with Ukrainian flags on it, covered in snow, in Maidan Nezalezhnosti square (Independence Square). Several children had climbed onto the tanks; I asked one of their parents what he had told his son about the monument. “That we are winning,” he replied.

And indeed, victory is what keeps Ukraine going. When the war first began, no one believed Ukraine had a chance. Back then, commentators predicted that Kyiv would fall within days and Putin would march on the Ukrainian capital. In fairness, they were not far off—the western side of Kyiv was heavily destroyed in the fighting, and its suburban areas, such as Bucha and Irpin, saw some of the war’s worst atrocities to date.

A residential building damaged by Russian aircraft in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Credit: Drop of Light/Shutterstock.

Since then, however, Ukraine has managed to push the Russian not only out of Kyiv, but out of many other regions as well. From a military perspective, Ukraine seems to have the upper hand at the moment—but the toll on civilian life is a heavy one.

A hard winter ahead

“The situation in Ukraine is not good,” said Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky, who currently operates out of Warsaw, Poland. “The Russians are targeting vital infrastructure—water, electricity, gas. It leads to prolonged power outages, sometimes for days, in severe cold. Whoever can leave the city, leaves. Whoever cannot, is struggling.”

Electricity problems are evident all around. Escalators in shopping malls and subway stations have been disabled to save power. The same goes for some of the street lights. Until recently, they were turned off completely, but were turned back on, partially, after a six-fold increase in traffic accidents.

“We are trying to save as much electricity as possible,” said Lilia, a local Jewish woman who works at the Israeli embassy. “Power banks are now our best friends. I always charge it first, even before my phone. People walk in the dark streets using flashlights on their phones. At night, we have to sleep dressed warm, because we never know when the electricity will go off.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on TV with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the background, March 7, 2022. Credit: Rokas Tenys/Shutterstock.

Some places—hospitals, hotels, shopping centers and government buildings—have generators, but most businesses have to make do with very little electricity. Some institutions and cafes close when the sun goes down, which in the winter is around 4 p.m. Others stay open, often by candlelight. The city-wide lockdown begins at 11, which means every errand has to be completed by then. Every day at 10 p.m. residents are reminded on their phones that they have one hour left to get home.

“Don’t even think about breaking the curfew,” a local friend warned me. “They do not appreciate jokes. It could end in fines and even arrest.”

The curfew, which is nationwide, was first declared in major cities for operational reasons during the heavy fighting in Kyiv but has since been maintained for a completely different reason: to prompt residents to identify with those fighting on the front line.

This is especially evident in Lviv, on the border with Poland, which besides being a busy border with Europe is almost completely quiet. The curfew continues in Lviv as well (from midnight), to help maintain a united front.

Maternity Hospital No. 3 in Mariupol, Ukraine, after the Russian Air Force bombed it. March 9, 2022. Credit: Commons.

“No power, no water, no gas—but also no Russians”

Getting to Ukraine was not easy. One can enter the country on land via Poland, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia. The most popular route is through Poland, which absorbed about three million Ukrainian refugees, and hundreds of Jews who are in the process of immigrating to Israel.

It takes about four hours to get from Warsaw to the border, where we joined a long line of private and commercial vehicles—in two separate lines—waiting to cross eastward. The line for private vehicles is much shorter; truckers can sometimes be stuck for several days.

We had a Ukrainian driver with special permission to cross the border—a rarity, as Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country, with drivers with two or three children or a special permit being the only exception. Crossing the border is the trickiest part: On the way into Ukraine it took us two and a half hours, while on the way back, over five and a half. It’s a matter of luck, timing, and border checks.

On the way from Poland to Ukraine, the checks were tougher. The Ukrainians inspected our vehicle to make sure we weren’t smuggling in people or money (no more than $10,000 per person is allowed). When returning to Poland, they checked that we were not smuggling anything into Europe. The border inspectors on either side did not appreciate humor; people in this part of Europe are tough, certainly in wartime.

Maidan Independence Square with Hotel Ukraine. Credit: Milan Sommer/Shutterstock.

It took us an hour to get from the border to Lviv. We could not immediately continue on to Kyiv, as the seven- to eight-hour drive would have meant arriving in the capital after curfew. As such, we only set out the next day; the journey from Israel to Kyiv took us a day and a half in all.

Roads in Ukraine are not bad. Traffic is brisk in the capital despite the war, and drivers are mostly polite and do not honk. Tank fragments could be seen scattered here and there.

Cellular reception is good most of the time, but is sometimes disrupted due to electricity shortages. Every few kilometers there is a gas station; fuel prices—compared to in Israel—are very low. According to the driver, they were even lower before the war.

Prices are also low in Kyiv, despite the fact that most stores are half-empty. Some international brands closed their chains after the outbreak of the war, while others are struggling to stay afloat. The war has also affected the traditional aspects: the Kyiv Christmas market, for example, is half the size this year.

The streets are empty, even in the center. This is mostly due to the cold, but also because of the war. Contrary to the past, there are almost no street vendors left in Kyiv. We only met one woman selling hand-painted dolls at one tourist location.

Ukrainian civilians and soldiers take shelter under a bridge in Kyiv, March 5, 2022. Credit: Міністерство внутрішніх справ України via Wikimedia Commons.

But despite the hardships, Ukraine is patriotic and determined. That much is evident: everyone speaks Ukrainian rather than Russian; for the first time, the winter holidays will be celebrated on Dec. 25, like in the rest of the Christian world, and not on Jan. 1 as in Russia. Some street names have also been changed, such as Krasnodarsk Street, which has been renamed Golda Meir Street, after the Israeli political icon who was born in Kyiv. The capital is also considering renaming Moskva Street and another one named after the famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

All this is part of Ukraine’s message to Russia: “No power, no water, no gas, but also no Russians.”

Ukraine before Russia invaded on Feb. 24, 2022. Credit: Pixabay.

Mayor Klitschko

Klitschko is very popular in Ukraine. A former boxing champion who held the World Boxing Organization title from 1999 to 2000, he’s been mayor of the city since 2014, and head of the country’s Solidarity faction since 2025. Before the war, he was one of the most popular contenders for the presidency.

Both he and the current Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, by the way, have Jewish roots: Klitschko’s father was Jewish, and he has a Hanukkah menorah in his office (next to a Christian icon).

“I received it from the local chief rabbi,” he said.

Klitschko was interviewed on the occasion of the Money Expo conference in Tel Aviv last week.

“It is a huge challenge for us,” he said. “We are fighting for our survival, are in need of political, economical, and humanitarian backing, need generators because there’s no electricity, need defense weapons, because we are protecting our homeland and our city. Ukraine has always been a country that seeks peace, and we never attacked anyone. But now we are forced to defend ourselves, our territory, and our sovereignty.

“The reason for this senseless war lies in the fact that we, the Ukrainians, want a modern, democratic and European country. To be part of the family of the European continent. And our desire is not acceptable to Putin, who wants to build the Russian empire, and Ukraine is a very large part of his vision. It is a war of values: We do not want to live in an autocracy where there are no human rights, freedom of the press, and democratic values. We are fighting for the future of our children.”

Q: Do you want to be part of the European Union? Of NATO?

A: Of course, we want to be part of the European Union, and we now see how much the neutral status given to Ukraine was a grave mistake. Ukraine was the third country in the world in the number of nuclear weapons it had. We gave it up as a gesture of goodwill, and for a guarantee that our sovereignty and territorial integrity would be preserved. That was a big mistake.

Q: And when it comes to Israel, what do you expect?

A: Israel is an excellent example for Ukraine. A small country that has been fighting aggressors for so many years, and successfully defends its citizens and its territory. We need Israel’s support, technology, knowledge and defensive weapons.

Ukraine, Israel and the West

One of the factors that have allowed Ukraine to persevere is the aid it receives—military, intelligence, economic and humanitarian. So far, the West is estimated to have allocated over a trillion dollars in aid to the war-stricken country.

Its attitude toward Israel, however, is ambivalent. On the one hand, the nation has a deep appreciation for humanitarian support, and on the other, openly criticizes the lack of military aid from the Jewish state. Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine Brodsky has been interviewed dozens of times since the outbreak of the war, and Israel has marketed in every way the aid it has given—mainly medical and generators—and will also hold an innovation conference in Warsaw in mid-December unofficially titled “How to turn Ukraine into Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with members of the Israeli delegation on its way to set up a field hospital for Ukrainian refugees, at Ben Gurion Airport, March 21, 2022. Credit: Haim Zach.

This was the direction even before the war. Ukraine has become a base for many high-tech companies, which established their development centers there. It led to a considerable middle class in the country, which until then had a minority of oligarchs and a majority of lower-class citizens. Since the outbreak of the war, most of these centers have been transferred to other countries, and some of the workers have also left. This happened at the same time as the departure of many of Ukraine’s Jews—about 14,000—although the vast majority remained in the country.

Doctors at the Israeli field hospital in Ukraine evaluating MRI images, March 2022. Photo by Naama Frank Azriel.

The Jewish community, which numbers some 150,000-200,000 people, is organized, said Brodsky. “They receive assistance from many sources, and in general, are better off than the local population. There are even claims that the community grew during the war because many [Jews who were not affiliated with any community before] joined to receive assistance,” he said.

One of the families in a group of 250 new immigrants from Ukraine who landed in Israel as part of a flight organized by International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, March 25, 2019. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/IFCJ.

Ukraine wishes to receive military and financial aid from Israel, as well as for Israel to impose sanctions on Russia. Jerusalem has so far avoided this, although Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu said before the elections that he would consider changing this policy if elected.

One thing Ukraine and Israel fully agree on is that Iran is an enemy nation.

“Ukraine is even considering cutting ties with Iran,” said Brodsky. “They hope it will make us help them more.”

Klitschko described Russia’s attacks using Iranian-made drones as “terrorism.” He said that Israelis should understand better than anyone what the residents of his city are going through. “We are in one of the largest cities in Eastern Europe and are being attacked by missiles and suicide drones. Our historic center has been attacked. The Russians are killing innocent civilians. We have to fight for our dream, our future, our country and our children.”

A picture of what Ukrainian military authorities have described as an Iranian-made Shahed-136 suicide drone shot down near the town of Kupiansk, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, released by the Ukrainian military on Sept. 13, 2022. Credit: Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Q: And how are things in Kyiv at this time? 

A: There are close to 300,000 refugees from other regions in Ukraine, because the best services are in Kyiv and we are more protected here, and people feel safer here. The personal safety of the residents is our top priority. We are fighting to save lives and enable a normal life as much as possible throughout the city.

Q: Would you say that Ukraine’s fight is a fight for all of Europe and perhaps even the whole world? 

A: Absolutely. Many thought that Putin would be satisfied with the annexation of Crimea [in 2014], and did not realize that he wanted all of Ukraine. He is a sort of collector of property—former Soviet territories—and has mentioned that the Baltic states are also formerly part of the USSR, as were Poland, Czechia and Slovakia. I told the Germans not to forget that part of their country also used to belong to the Soviet Union, and the Russians would go as far as they let them. This is why we are not only fighting for our home, and this is why European countries should help us because we are also fighting for them.

This war can reach anywhere in Europe and the world. Let’s not forget, Ukraine has five nuclear reactors. A fire broke out in one of them a few weeks ago. An explosion in one of these reactors would be a greater disaster than Chernobyl. In that case, this war will reach each of us. Please be active on Ukraine’s behalf. Peace in Ukraine, which is one of the largest countries in Europe, means stability for the entire region and the entire world, so we must do everything to stop this senseless war. 

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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