Last week, masked men distributed fliers outside a synagogue in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, demanding that all Jews register with the separatist Donetsk People's Republic and pay a fine - or be deported from "the republic."
On his visit to Ukraine this week, Vice President Biden denounced the fliers, insisting there is no place for anti-Semitism in Ukraine. The pro-Russian militants who have seized control of Donetsk insist they had nothing to do with the outrage and claim it was a "provocation" staged by the government in Kiev.
But the tale of the Donetsk fliers lays bare the cynical manner in which Moscow is whipping up anti-Semitism for its own political purposes while falsely denouncing the Ukrainian government as "neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites." It seems that Russian nationalists will use any means to regain control of Ukraine.
Like so much of Russia's intervention in Ukraine, the origin of the fliers at first seems murky. The best explanation I've heard came from David Fishman, a professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary who closely follows Jewish developments in the former Soviet Union. He wrote a piece published in the Jewish Daily Forward this week titled "The Real Truth About Those Anti-Semitic Flyers in Donetsk." His conclusion: "Russia has its fingerprints all over them."
Fishman first points out that Russia's effort to paint the new Kiev government as Nazi and anti-Semitic "didn't pick up much traction in world opinion."
True, Ukraine's right-wing party Svoboda, which holds three of 21 cabinet posts, including a vice prime minister position, does have a worrisome history of anti-Semitic rhetoric and was denounced as "neo-Nazi" by the World Jewish Congress. But Svoboda polled only 10 percent in the last elections and, for now, appears to be moderating its positions. "At the moment, Svoboda is less of a problem than what the Russians are doing," Fishman told me.
Moreover, the interim Ukrainian government has strongly denounced anti-Semitism. Another vice prime minister in the government is Jewish, as are two newly appointed regional governors. Nearly all the anti-Semitic incidents in recent months have happened not in western Ukraine - which has been labeled fascist by the Kremlin - but in eastern cities where pro-Russian militias are seizing control.
Jewish leaders in Ukraine took out a full-page ad in the New York Times addressed to Vladimir Putin in which they denounced Kremlin attempts to paint the new Kiev government as anti-Russian and anti-Semitic. They stressed that Ukraine's "very few" nationalists were well-controlled by civil society and the new government. This, they wrote, "is more than can be said for the Russian neo-Nazis, who are encouraged by your security services."
This strong stance by Jewish leaders may be the reason the flier distributed in Donetsk denounced them for supporting the Kiev "junta" (the label Russian nationalists give to Ukraine's interim government). Ukraine's Jewish community has refused to be used by the Kremlin as a political tool.
As a result, Fishman said, "The Kremlin has shifted its . . . tactics in playing the 'Jewish card.' " Unable to sell the line that Ukraine's government is anti-Semitic, it is now using anti-Semitic tactics to appeal to Russian nationalists at home and in eastern Ukraine.
"The Kremlin ... has embraced the language of classical Russian nationalism, going back to tsarist times, and has engaged the dark forces of the Russian ultraright," Fishman wrote for the Forward. Playing to a domestic audience that has been whipped up to a frenzy of nationalism by the takeover of Crimea, the Kremlin is now "spreading the line that the Ukrainian leaders are Jews" or in thrall to the Jews. This is a handy way to convince Russians that Ukrainian leaders are undermining Kremlin efforts to rebuild a great Russia.
Russian state-controlled television is running documentaries defaming Ukrainian leaders for criminality and then claiming they are Jewish. Thousands of Russian "tourists" have crossed into eastern Ukraine, many of them from right-wing Russian nationalist groups. The white, yellow, and black flag of the virulently anti-Semitic Russian group known as the Black Hundreds has been seen at pro-Russian separatist rallies in Kharkiv, Odessa, and Donetsk.
So there is much reason to believe the Donetsk fliers were the work of Russian nationalists, whether emissaries from the motherland or right-wingers from Ukraine. The number of ethnic Russians in Ukraine who espouse such extreme views is probably limited. (Polls show that most Ukrainians, even in the east, don't want to be reunited with Russia.)
But the real message of the Donetsk fliers is that the Kremlin and Russian nationalists will use any tactic deemed necessary to divide and destabilize Ukraine - and to delay the May 25 elections, which would reveal the weakness of the Kremlin's supporters in the country. The feeble sanctions endorsed by the White House so far won't prevent Putin from pursuing this goal.