(JTA) — Shortly after Russian soldiers occupied the Crimean city of Sevastopol last week, Leah Cyrlikova took her two children out for an afternoon stroll in a city park.
When they passed a group of soldiers, they stopped to have a friendly chat and pose with them for photos.
While many Ukrainian Jews have strongly condemned the Russian military incursion into Crimea, others see the intervention as restoring order in the wake of a violent revolution that overthrew the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych.
“I feel safer with them around,” said Cyrlikova, a Jewish Ukrainian who has lived in Sevastopol for five years. “These are crazy times, and now I know that if something bad happens, they will stop it.”
Divisions within the Ukrainian Jewish community have deepened in the wake of the Russian movement last week into the Crimean Peninsula, where approximately 10,000 Jews live amid an ethnic Russian majority.
Many Ukrainian Jews took part in the opposition movement centered in Kiev’s Maidan, or Independence Square. Jews participated despite the fact that the protests included far-right activists and some political figures who have been known to espouse anti-Semitic views. But support for the revolution is hardly unanimous among the country’s Jews.
Rabbi Misha Kapustin, whose Reform synagogue in the Crimean capital of Simferopol was recently vandalized with swastikas, acknowledged that some Jews support Russian involvement in the crisis.
“In this area there is considerable support for the Russian invasion, and the local [Crimean Jewish] community is very assimilated here,” Kapustin told JTA. “You should take into account the effect of Russian propaganda: the television they watch, what papers they read.”
But he stressed that he felt his country was being invaded by foreigners.
“How would a Brit feel if another nation invaded London? That’s how I feel as a citizen of Ukraine,” Kapustin said. “The city is occupied by Russians, who seem to have decided to take over the Crimea. If this were the case, I would leave the country because I want to live in democratic Ukraine.”
Residents of Crimea are at present able to move around freely at all hours, Kapustin said. They are also free to leave the peninsula for other parts of Ukraine. Kapustin asked his wife, Marina, to leave for Israel until the situation stabilizes. She refused.
“I stayed to remain with my community, but I wasn’t very happy my family also stayed,” Kapustin said. “I would rather see them as far away from the action as possible, but I respect Marina’s choice.”
The United States has condemned Russian “aggression” in Ukraine and threatened to impose economic sanctions in response. Major news agencies, as well as American and Ukrainian officials, have reported a massive mobilization of Russian troops in Crimea. But speaking at a news conference near Moscow on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that his troops had occupied Crimea, while reserving the right to act militarily to protect Ukrainian citizens from an “orgy” of radical nationalists and anti-Semites.
“We have seen the work of neo-Nazis in Ukraine,” Putin said. “They and anti-Semites are rampant in Ukraine today.”