Fire and ice
Putin’s war against Ukraine takes a devastating new turn
The war that began on February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, promising to denazify it, has changed, Alexander Smukler of Montclair says.
Mr. Smukler, our Russian-born-and-bred Jewish American analyst, who takes and synthesizes information from his many contacts in both Russia and Ukraine, is not sanguine about the next few months.
December 2 will be the 285th day of the war, Mr. Smukler said. British intelligence reports, which he credits as accurate, “reported that 84,270 Russian soldiers lost their lives during 280 days of the war. Nobody publishes the casualties from the Ukrainian army, and different sources give a wide range of estimates. But the losses on the Ukrainian side are said to be between 100,000 and 400,000.” That is a huge range; even the low end is a monumental loss of life.
“The Ukrainian government keeps the number of losses secret, which is very understandable, but we already can see that this is an incredibly high number,” Mr. Smukler said, and it includes neither wounded fighters nor civilian deaths or injuries. Given those numbers, and the length of the front line where Russians are stationed — longer than 1,200 kilometers, or nearly 750 miles — “This is the largest conflict in Europe since the Second World War.
“Compared to Russia, Ukraine has no problem sending more and more men, mobilizing more and more people,” he continued. “The country is basically under martial law, and every man under 60 has to go into the army. Not everyone has been recruited yet. Potentially, Ukraine has almost a million people involved in various aspects of the military conflict, including the front lines and territorial defense.”
On the other hand, the “Russians have about 400,000 to 450,000 soldiers on the front line,” which, if you consider its length, “is not much,” he said. That lack of soldiers –- or cannon fodder, their real function — has led to such Ukrainian victories as the Russian withdrawal from Kherson. “Now, the Russians are concentrating their efforts with the counteroffensive in the northern part of Ukraine,” the four regions it annexed in the fake referendum earlier this year.
That seems good for Ukraine — but Mr. Smukler fears that the balance will shift.
“A few months ago, we said that winter was coming,” he said. “Now winter came.
“Now the whole nature of the military action has changed.”
Months ago, Mr. Smukler said that the advantage the Ukrainians got from the dense foliage covering much of the country would be gone as the seasons changed. The leaves have fallen, and the men and weapons below them are visible. “It is now extremely difficult to hide artillery and tanks from satellites and drones. Both sides’ artillery and missile systems are much easier to discover and to eliminate than they were just a few months ago.
“You don’t have to be an expert to have predicted that.”
It’s been murderously cold in Ukraine; November was unusually frigid, Mr. Smukler said. “It’s extremely hard for the soldiers to be on the front lines, because it requires heat sources. The soldiers sit in underground bunkers; when you heat them, the smoke is visible. It is very dangerous.”
Many of the Russian soldiers come from the country’s far north — from Siberia, and the Urals — where they are used to even colder temperatures, and their equipment is better suited to conditions than what the Ukrainians put into the field.
Mr. Smukler pointed to three historic episodes where the Russians won over better-equipped enemies because of the cold. First, Napoleon, who invaded Russia in 1812 and lost everything. “He did not understand how difficult it would be for his army to survive during the winter. He invaded in August and took Moscow in a few months.” But the weather, and the Russians’ ability to withstand it, devastated the French. “Napoleon gave the order to withdraw, and 90 percent of his army was killed on the way back to France. Killed or frozen to death.
“The second example is in December 1941, when the Germans were 14 miles away from Moscow. It was an incredibly cold winter, minus 30 Celsius” — that’s 22 below Fahrenheit — “and that’s why the Russians won the battle of Moscow. They were better prepared to fight in the wintertime.
“The third example is the battle of Stalingrad, in 1942,” he continued. The Russians killed nearly a million German soldiers, because it was winter and the Russians were better equipped for it.
The analogy isn’t exact; in all three examples Russians were defending their country, so they were the equivalent of the Ukrainians today, but it shows their ability to understand and even weaponize winter. It’s like comparing people who live in northern Canada to Midwesterners, Mr. Smukler said. There’s major winter in the Midwest — but not like in northern Canada.
“I can see that right now, the situation is changing to the Russians’ benefit,” Mr. Smukler said grimly. “Because of the weather, because of the winter, because of the cold, and because of the exhaustion. We see signs that the Ukrainian soldiers are exhausted, and so is the system, the supply chains, the logistics, and their population.
“This is after nine months of war, and as winter came.”
Vladimir Putin’s new strategy, which he has begun to use against the exhausted, depleted Ukrainians, is not to use — and use up — his soldiers. Instead, it’s fire and ice.
“The Russians are slowly destroying the Ukrainian civilian infrastructure,” Mr. Smukler said. “The first target is Ukrainian energy and power stations, power supplies, and power lines. During the last two weeks, they destroyed almost 45 percent of the Ukrainian capacity for electrical power generation.
“Today, every Ukrainian nuclear power station is disconnected from the main electric lines. Most Ukrainian power stations and hydro stations on the Dnieper River are shut down. Some of them can produce power, but they can’t transport it to major cities. And the Russians continue to destroy Ukrainian power stations and power supplies.
“During the last two weeks, from satellite images, Ukraine at night looks like a black hole.”
Life in Ukrainian cities has become very difficult. “Kyiv has three million people, and it is completely shut,” Mr. Smukler said. “There is no power there.
“That means that elevators are not working. Water purification stations are not working. The hospitals are out of energy; only emergency rooms and operating rooms have generators, but there are just a few of them.
“So the cities are without water, without heat, without transportation. Everything is shut down. And the cities have no sewage system.
“I didn’t know this before, but I learned that sewage systems use pumps, and they are not operating.”
Because Ukraine’s cities are modern, with tall apartment buildings, the lack of power is a huge problem. Mr. Smukler knows people in that situation. “My friends live on the 19th floor of a high-rise. There are no elevators and no water and no working toilets. You can’t survive there.”
Modern urban life needs power. Without power, traffic would be anarchic — traffic lights don’t work. But that problem is somewhat neutralized because there are few cars on the roads. Without power, the pumps at gas stations don’t work either.
“So, basically, the Russians have entirely changed tactics. They realized that they don’t have to bomb civilian apartment buildings. They don’t have to fight on the front lines. They just have to destroy the civilian infrastructure and freeze the cities.”
This is not just a short-term problem. “If the water system is not operating, and the pumps are not working, all the pipes will freeze,” Mr. Smukler said. “They will burst in a few months.
“The Russians are destroying civilian infrastructure in the largest cities in Ukraine — Kyiv, Kharkov, Odesa, Mykolaiv, Dnipro. The damage is enormous. It will cost trillions of dollars to bring it back.”
“This is just the first layer of the Russians’ new tactics,” he continued. “The second layer is destroying the transportation infrastructure.” Ukraine’s railroad system is highly developed, extensive, and sophisticated; it’s the second most-advanced such system in Europe, second only to Russia’s, he said. But the Russians have rendered most of it entirely inoperable in the last few weeks. “The Ukrainians have started using very old-fashioned trains — they have a few of them — that are powered by diesel, or even with coal.”
Yet another problem with railroads — even when those old coal-power trains chug along their tracks, what about the switches? Without them, trains just keep going straight. But it takes either electricity or a person, a switchman, standing by each switch to change it manually.
Demolishing the railroads not only punishes civilians, it also affects the military, Mr. Smukler said. “The Russians fully understand that by shutting down the Ukrainian railway system, they basically shut down the major supply artery for the Ukrainian military.”
Fire and ice.
How are people surviving? “We already see that everyone is trying to move out of Kyiv,” Mr. Smukler said. “It is impossible to live there.”
On the other hand, he continued, “not everyone can leave. For example, my friend on the 19th floor, Margarita. She has an elderly mother, who has millions of medical issues. She cannot simply move. They don’t have any relatives in villages. They don’t have any place to go. Just to have water, they have to bring it upstairs.” Remember, there is no functioning elevator, and the toilets do not flush. Therefore, “they spend most of the time in the shelter in the subway. It’s warm there. There are generators. The mayor of Kyiv organized hundreds of places where people can stay. They can charge their phones” — which is vital because that’s the only way they can stay in touch with family and friends — “and the toilets work.
“Margo said that she doesn’t’ know what to do. She doesn’t have money to get to Poland, and she can’t abandon her mother. It is a tragedy, and thousands of people are facing that same tragedy.
“The next three months will be extremely exhausting, and it will be difficult for the Ukrainians to survive as a state,” he said. “The population will run away.” Men under 60 are not allowed to leave, although they are free to move within the country. Women, children, and older men can immigrate elsewhere. “Those who can will cross the border to Poland or Romania or Moldova or Slovenia. Almost 9 million Ukrainians are displaced; about 4.5 million are seeking refugee status. This winter will push millions and millions of people away from the big cities. That will create an enormous migrant crisis in Europe.
“That is what Putin wants.
“The new tactic is not to fight to defeat Ukraine on the battlefield, but to create the conditions where the Ukrainian government will have no choice except to sign a peace treaty for the exchange of territory.”
Mr. Smukler is certain that Putin will not try to invade and conquer Ukrainian cities. If that still was his goal, he would not destroy them. There is no point to taking over an unlivable city. “It is totally clear to me that he is trying to destroy Ukraine as a country and exhaust the Western countries that are helping Ukraine. They want the West to spend billions of dollars to restore Ukraine, after Ukraine signs a peace treaty.
“So now it all depends on how long Ukraine can survive without electricity, without water, without railways, without transportation, and how the country can supply and hold onto the front lines.”
This war is extraordinarily expensive; for now, the Russians seem to be able to afford the cost. “But hopefully the sanctions will start working, and maybe in a few months we will see signs that the Russians also are exhausted, but today there are no signs of that,” Mr. Smukler said, raising hope only to dash it.
There is something else that has been bothering Mr. Smukler, whose strong support for Ukraine has been clear since the war started and remains unchanged. Still, “as a Jew from Montclair, I was very disturbed by the message we got from what happened in the city of Vinnytsia,” an ancient city that ricocheted between Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian control, and is in Ukraine today.
“There was a brutal ghetto there during the war,” Mr. Smukler said. “There was a major avenue in Vinnytsia named after Leo Tolstoy.
“It was renamed for Stefan Bandera,” the Ukrainian nationalist who many Ukrainians revere, but who was a vicious antisemitic Nazi collaborator responsible for the deaths of many Jews, and also many non-Jewish Poles.
“For me, as a Jew, I found this so disturbing,” Mr. Smukler said. “In a time when we are all supporting and sympathizing with the Ukrainian people in the tragedy, I can’t believe that in Vinnytsia, a town that used to be a famous Jewish shtetl, with a Jewish district called Yerushalinka, for little Jerusalem, there would be a street named for Bandera.
“Tolstoy was the one among the Russian intellectuals who stood up against the pogroms in Ukraine and Bessarabia. He was the one who condemned the czar’s government for organizing pogroms. He was a major voice in the Russian empire against antisemitism.
“That is why for me personally, in the city that used to have a large Jewish presence, to name a street not for Tolstoy, but for Bandera, who had Jewish blood on his hands, is so hard.
“We feel empathy for modern-day Ukraine, but also a certain sorrow.”
By now, Mr. Smukler said, “the situation in Ukraine is becoming so difficult that I don’t see any reason for Jews to stay there. They can go to Israel. More and more people are going there, thousands and thousands of them, from Russia and especially Ukraine. The Jewish Agency is working so actively for them.
“And more and more Jews are going to Germany.” Under that country’s law of return, “any Jew born in the former Soviet Union” could go there, Mr. Smukler said.
The war in Ukraine continues to rage, however, as the cities become increasingly unlivable, and Vladimir Putin, the angry dwarf whose miscalculations have led to catastrophic death and misery, continues to try to take control of a sovereign nation that does not want to live in his would-be empire.
And he keeps trying to get it back, through fire