Muslims, Jews - we fight Russia as one, says Ukraine's battle-hardened Chasid


With his long, salt-and-pepper beard, velvet kippah and peyot, Asher Joseph Cherkassky is more than a mere oddity amid the crucifix-bearing Ukrainians that make up his battalion.

He could even be described as a warrior in the wrong tribe.

The AK-47-bearing Chabadnik, who enlisted in the Ukrainian army two years ago and was soon engaged in fierce combat against Russian separatists near Donetsk, was part of a frontline force that included the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion and other ultra-nationalist groups.

Speaking to the JC, Mr Cherkassky plays down claims of antisemitism within Ukrainian ranks - allegations complicated by the fact that they have mostly come from Russian propaganda sources keen to paint Kiev as a nest of fascists and Nazis.

"Muslims, Jews and Ukrainians fought together," he says, adding that Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of Pravy Sektor, a Ukrainian far-right party, has even floated the idea of forming a special Jewish unit.

Antisemitism, he says, does exist among the general poulation but it is on the wane because "Ukrainians now realise that it is a big blemish on the modern civilised nation.

"At the same time," he adds, "I don't want to idealise Ukraine."

After sustaining injuries in battle, Mr Cherkassky left his battalion and went to live in the eastern city of Dnepropetrovsk.

On arrival he was held up by city officials to refute Russian propaganda claims that Ukrainian forces were comprised of neo-Nazis and fascists .

Photos of local residents with Mr Cherkassky, dressed in combat fatigues, began popping up on social media while foreign media outlets vied for interviews with the bespectacled former Red Army soldier (he served in the Soviet military as a young man in the 1990s).

In a Facebook post in late 2014, then Dnepropetrovsk deputy regional governor Boris Filitov even called the Crimean native a "hero and a symbol of the resistance".

Speaking with this correspondent at the time, Mr Cherkassky simply said he "felt obligated to serve in the army to defend the country and the citizens of Ukraine."

However, many were asking questions about the composition of Ukraine's forces in the east, pointing to volunteer units like the Azov, which uses a neo-Nazi Wolfsangel symbol on uniforms and is largely comprised of ultra-nationalist groups.

In late 2015, Artyom Vitko, the former commander of the government-backed Luhansk-1 Battalion and a member of the Ukrainian parliament, was caught on video drinking and singing an ode to Adolf Hitler, causing further concern regarding Kiev's tolerance of the far right.

For his part, Mr Cherkassky says he "doesn't have any connection or communications" with groups like the Azov.

While many volunteer units were largely independent at first, Ukrainian authorities slowly integrated them into the regular security services. For many, however, concerns still remain.

Such fears were bolstered by the Ukrainian parliament's passage of a law honouring members of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a group that collaborated with the Germans in massacring their country's Jews during the Holocaust.

In a recent interview with the International Business Times, carried out as Ukrainians marked the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, Mr Cherkassky said: "Yes there is nationalism in Ukraine, but what is nationalism? It is when people are proud about themselves." He added that he had fought alongside members of OUN and Pravy Sektor.

In fact, he said, he considered Pravy Sektor leader Mr Yarosh a friend.

Speaking to the JC, Mr Cherkassky says that facing external dangers is a unifying experience.

But does such language not make him a mere a puppet of the groups currently pumping out propaganda for the Ukrainian government? "I don't think he even thinks about that possibility," his translator says. "He understood your question only from the Russian side."

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