'Absurd': Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov sparks backlash for invoking Holocaust

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP via Getty Images)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

Once again, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has caused widespread outrage by comparing his nation’s international isolation — the result of last year’s unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine — to the murder of European Jews during the Holocaust.

“Just as Hitler wanted a ‘final solution’ to the Jewish question, now, if you read Western politicians ... they clearly say Russia must suffer a strategic defeat,” Lavrov, a close and longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Wednesday.

Israel sharply denounced Lavrov’s self-pitying view of European history — and of the European present, where Russia, not Germany, is seen as the greatest threat to peace and prosperity on the continent.

“Any comparison or relating current events with Hitler’s final solution plan for the extermination of the Jewish People distorts the historical truth, desecrates the memory of those who perished and the survivors and should be strongly rejected,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center
Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters) (REUTERS)

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and memorial in Jerusalem, criticized what it described as “an affront to the actual victims of Nazism” on Lavrov’s part, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

In Washington, Lavrov’s comments — which singled out the United States, the organizing force behind the coalition supporting Ukraine — were met with an equally strong rebuke.

“Our first reaction is, how dare he compare anything to the Holocaust — anything — let alone a war that they started?” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told Yahoo News at a Wednesday press briefing. “It's almost so absurd that it's not worth responding to,” Kirby said of Lavrov’s provocative musings.

Kirby pointed out that since it was Russia that invaded Ukraine — first in 2014, then much more extensively in early 2022 — claims of victimhood made little sense. “Today and from the very beginning,” he said, Putin “has tried to cast this as Mother Russia being under threat. False.”

Kirby went on to describe the comparison to the Holocaust as both “ludicrous” and “ridiculous,” in a departure from the carefully crafted statements that White House officials tend to use when discussing sensitive international concerns. When it comes to Russia, those concerns vanished long ago.

John Kirby, Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council in the White House
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The so-called Endlösung der Judenfrage, or “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” was the genocide implemented in stages by the Nazis as they conquered much of Europe. The campaign culminated in the creation of several death camps, mostly in Poland, where millions of Jews and other people were murdered.

Though it lost millions of civilians and soldiers in World War II, the Soviet Union was instrumental in defeating Hitler. The victory over Nazism remains a central tenet of Russian national identity.

When he first invaded Ukraine, Putin said his intention was to “de-Nazify” the nation’s leadership, a claim made especially dubious by the fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was the first Jew to have been elected to that post.

As the invasion faltered, Russia began to invent increasingly outlandish reasons for a war that had been poorly conceived from the start.

In an apparent effort to revive the original justification for the war, Lavrov told an Italian outlet last spring that Hitler “had Jewish blood.” The falsehood appeared to serve — however preposterously — the argument that Zelensky’s heritage did not absolve him of allowing Ukraine to lapse into fascism.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Amir Levy/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Despite international outrage, the Russian Foreign Ministry deepened the conflict with a social media post that alluded to “tragic examples of Jewish-Nazi collaboration,” a willfully grotesque misreading of history. Putin eventually apologized to Israel’s prime minister at the time, Naftali Bennett.

The Kremlin’s latest invocation of the Holocaust could damage the fraught relationship between Russia and Israel, where a new far-right coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu is now taking shape. Although domestic issues, including the enduring conflict over Palestinian territorial claims, have dominated Israeli politics, the question of Russia is unignorable in the long run.

Returning to office for his sixth term, Netanyahu boasts a close relationship with Putin — and none at all with Zelensky. Russia’s ties with Syria and Iran make it difficult for Netanyahu to offer meaningful military aid to Ukraine. At the same time, Israel’s closest ally, the United States, is leading the pro-Ukrainian alliance.

The United States recently moved some ammunition it was storing in Israel to the battlefield in Ukraine.

“These are sovereign decisions that nations have to make,” Kirby said on Wednesday regarding Israel’s cautious approach to the war in Eastern Europe. “We’re not twisting arms.”