His biggest fight yet: Ukraine-Russia crisis pushes Vitali Klitschko centre-stage

The Kiev mayor, a former world boxing champion, tells Germany to give Ukraine more support

Rory Sullivan
Friday 28 January 2022 17:51
Russian rifle division sets off for drills near Ukraine border

The mayor of Kiev, the former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, knows a thing or two about fighting.

But even he is daunted by a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, the possibility of which has loomed large since Moscow massed tens of thousands of troops near the territory.

The 50-year-old, who turned to politics full-time after his retirement from boxing in 2013, has become a central voice in the crisis, which currently shows no signs of abating.

He has been mayor of the Ukrainian capital since 2014 and was a leading figure in the pro-European Union Euromaidan protests.

Now centre-stage in the current crisis, Mr Klitschko, the only heavyweight boxer in history to have reigned as world champion in three different decades, wants his country’s allies to supply it with weapons to offset the enormous military advantage Russia has over its neighbour.

The UK and the US are among the countries that have so far obliged, sending thousands of anti-tank missiles to Kiev in recent days.

However, Germany, where Mr Klitschko lived for two decades, has taken a different approach to the crisis. Christine Lambrecht, its new defence minister, said Berlin will not send lethal weapons, as they could “fuel the situation”. Instead, her country has confirmed it will send 5,000 military helmets to Ukraine.

Speaking to the German tabloid Bild this week, the Kiev mayor said this constituted a “betrayal” of Ukraine.

“What kind of support will Germany send next?” he asked. “Pillows?”

“The behaviour of the German government leaves me speechless. The defence ministry apparently hasn’t realised that we are confronted with perfectly equipped Russian forces that can start another invasion of Ukraine at any time,” he added.

Mr Klitschko also took Berlin to task for not explicitly stating that it will halt the Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, if Moscow attacks Ukraine.

In contrast, he has thanked the British government for its help.

The former boxer, who was dubbed Dr Ironfist during his career, a nickname that blended his sports science doctorate with his fearsome reputation in the ring, hopes diplomacy will win out. However, he is under no illusion about the threat his country faces.

“Mr Putin’s idea is to rebuild a Soviet empire. We don’t want to go back to the USSR. We see our future as a democratic European country,” he told CNN earlier this month.

He also told BBC Radio 4 that Ukraine has no option but to defend itself if attacked by its neighbour.

“If someone comes to Ukraine, we don’t have a choice... we have to fight for our country,” he said.

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