How to win the game with no rules

How to win the game with no rules

Our analyst takes another look at the war in Ukraine

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky

When we last discussed the war that Vladimir Putin began when he attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022 — a war that he thought would be a cakewalk, with his soldiers welcomed by adoring, grateful crowds — our analyst, Alexander Smukler of Montclair, said that the Ukrainians’ failure to win the counteroffensive it had planned for last summer put Putin in a good position.

“Russia had a window of opportunity for offensive operations on the frontlines,” Mr. Smukler said. That’s because Ukraine is dependent on munitions from its Western backers, particularly the United States, but Republican politics, which increasingly have become anti-Ukraine and pro-Russian, led to those munitions being held back for nine months. Ukraine also was not helped by President Biden’s refusal to let it aim missiles into Russian territory, Mr. Smukler added.

Mr. Smukler spent the first 30 years of his life as a Soviet Jew, slightly younger than the most well-known refuseniks who were his teachers. He and his family left just before the Soviet Union fell. Since then, his work in Russia and Ukraine, and more recently his close study of news from eastern Europe, including from sources obscure to most of us, have informed his understanding of the situation.

“That cost Ukraine tens of thousands of lives,” Mr. Smukler said. “Ukraine suffered terribly, and Russia had an enormous window of opportunity to gain territory and break through Ukrainian defense lines. But it seems to me that Russia did not use that opportunity successfully.

“During the last three or four months, Russia gained approximately 500 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory” — that’s about 193 square miles. It’s not a lot, and the price in lives was high — “but Russia did not break through Ukraine’s defense lines. So Russia gained only small tactical advantages during this time.

“Today, slowly, the situation is changing, because Ukraine has started to receive massive supplies of equipment from the United States, and also from some European countries.”

The stalemate is explained in large part because Putin was reluctant to mobilize the numbers of men he would have needed to advance.

Right now, Putin and his government are recruiting “almost 30,000 people a month,” Mr. Smukler said. “That’s approximately his loss rate per month for the last three months. And most of those lost are dead. That’s not even counting the injured.

“Right now, he said, in a press conference in North Korea, that he has almost 700,000 soldiers on the front lines. That obviously is not enough. He needs 600,000 or 700,000 more for a visible strategic success.

“But Putin decided not to do that. He decided not to break through the defense lines — not to take the political risk of mobilizing the numbers of men he’d need — but instead to exhaust Ukraine and the Ukrainians.

“He chose that strategy for two reasons. He decided to wait until November.”

Alexander Smukler

Wait. What’s happening in November? Why, it’s the American presidential election! Vladimir Putin very much hopes that Donald Trump will win. “He knows that the situation can change dramatically. It depends on the outcome of the election. So instead of throwing hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the front lines, he decided to wait for the election. That could change the whole global game.”

To be clear, it’s not that Putin cares about the lives or deaths of Russian soldiers. He does not. But it is always better politics not to send hundreds of thousands of primarily young men to bleed and die.

And he has something to enjoy while he waits.

“He is trying to make the people of Ukraine say ‘We are sick and tired of the war. We are exhausted. We need to sign any kind of peace treaty to stop the war.

“The Russians are concentrating on destroying Ukraine’s energy system, bombing its cities and civilians, to make life impossible for them. To make their lives hell.”

He’s playing cat-and-mouse games with them. Not figuratively, but literally; he’s toying with them, and killing them when he’s bored.

Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-biggest city, with a population of about 2.5 million people, most of them native Russian speakers. “It is one of the most important industrial centers in Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said. But Putin is able to bomb it from the north. “He can destroy it if he wants to. But he doesn’t destroy it. Right now he’s using aerial bombs. Bombs with wings. An aircraft releases it about 30 to 40 miles from the city, and then it flies in and blows up. Mainly it is used against civilians and civic objects.

“Just a few days ago, the Russians used four giant aerial bombs on Kharkiv. It blew up a big apartment building and killed three kids. That happens every few days.”

Russian attacks have destroyed much of eastern Ukraine’s power supply — the western part of the country gets power from Poland and other countries — so people there have power only a few hours a day. In big cities, there is “no refrigerators, no air conditioning, no elevators,” Mr. Smukler said. “It’s an enormously difficult and demoralizing way to live.”

Putin also knows that although his armies are suffering from a self-imposed manpower shortage, a problem he could solve whenever he wants to take the political hit it would entail, Ukraine, which is far smaller than massive Russia, is running out of fighters. There’s basically no one else to draft, and the fighters are exhausted. “It has a huge deficit of manpower,” Mr. Smukler said.

“So Putin’s tactics are simple. Just wait and see what happens.” Increasingly, Ukrainians, particularly those in the country’s west, just want the war to be over.

Meanwhile, back in Russia, Putin has been able to grow his country’s military supply surprisngly quickly, but he is running out of the manpower needed to keep it going. Russia needs from 380,000 to 420,000 workers, and it needs them quickly.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin

Yes, Russia has a huge population, Mr. Smukler said. But most of its military manufacturing facilities are behind the Ural Mountains, and most of its people are not. It would take a massive relocation and retraining program to get enough workers to the factories quickly enough.

And that, Mr. Smukler said, explains Putin’s trip to North Korea. “He didn’t go there looking for military equipment, which North Korea already supplies,” he said. “And most experts already know that North Korean artillery shells are very low quality, and Russians don’t want them.

“Most commentators say that this is a new level of cooperation between North Korea and Russia, a union against the United States. But it is my opinion, based on analysis, that Putin has an agreement with the North Korean dictator about sending workers to Russia.

“North Korean workers get pennies by comparison to Russian workers. They are able and more sophisticated workers. And it is much easier moving them than relocating Russian families. They don’t need a civilian infrastructure.” And it takes much less to convince someone whose government wants him to do something if that government is full-on autocratic, and North Korean autocracy makes Putin look almost liberal. Almost. Everything is relative.

Meanwhile, Putin continues to try to wear down the Ukrainians. Last week in Saint Petersburg, right after the conference called the Russian Davos, Putin “offered a peace resolution to Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said. “He offered to immediately stop any military actions on the front lines if Ukraine would recognize once and forever that Crimea, Zaporizhia, the Kherson region, the Luhansk republic, and the Donetsk republic are parts of Russia. There was a second demand, that Ukraine would sign a document that would make it neutral forever. It would not be able to join any military blocs, like NATO, and it could never be part of the European Union. And there was a third demand, that all the sanctions implemented against Russia would be lifted.

“This was Putin taking the mask off. There was no talk of denazification or demilitarization, as there was at the beginning of the war. He was saying that he’d be willing to stop if Ukraine would give up almost 26 percent of its territory.

“He was really addressing only two groups,” Mr. Smukler continued, and those groups are not in the West. “He was telling Russians that he was ready to stop, that he could not and would not invade all of Ukraine. He was showing his own people the light at the end of the tunnel.

“And the second audience was the Ukrainian people. He said that we will stop killing you and destroying your cities. We will leave you in peace if you give us these cities. He is pressuring Zelensky to stop the war.

“He is making his move, and now he will see what happens.”

This is all about not following the rules or making new ones. “When Putin went to North Korea and signed a military agreement of mutual defense, he violated every possible resolution of the United Nations.” (It’s not as if Putin had been a big U.N.-rule follower before this, either.) “By this move, he showed the world that the existing rules, which had been written after the Second World War, don’t matter anymore. We are building a new world with new rules.”

Putin is imagining a new summit, like the one where FDR, Churchill, and Stalin planned the world that would follow the war. “One day, Putin thinks, there will be another summit, with him and China and maybe India. I don’t know who from the West he will recognize as equal to them. Possibly no one.”

And then there’s Israel. “I kept saying, from the beginning, that the Russians initiated the war with Hamas,” Mr. Smukler said. That’s because Putin needed a massive diversion to allow him out of the corner into which he’d backed himself. “Now there will be a war between Israel and Hezbollah because Putin needs it so badly. And there’s no way that Bibi will avoid it. Putin knows very well that Bibi needs it too. He will do everything possible to ignite that confict, because it will keep the U.S. administration busy for the next five months.

“Putin is preparing for Trump’s return. With Putin’s help, Trump will be able to make it look as if he is ending the war between Israel and Hezbollah.  That’s because the cooperation between Putin and Iran is so strong that Putin can influence Iran to stop Hezbollah, and to make it look like Trump did it.”

So this is now a waiting game. A game with no rules, many possible outcomes, and extreme danger.

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