It was all a lie

It was all a lie

Aleksander Smukler looks at this week’s news from Ukraine

The Russians destroyed this street in Mariupol during their siege of the city. (Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine)
The Russians destroyed this street in Mariupol during their siege of the city. (Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine)

Last week, Aleksander Smukler, who now lives in Montclair but spent the first half of his life in Russia — he and his family left in 1990 — predicted the fall of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

The rest of the war was going well for Ukraine, according to Mr. Smukler, who still has many connections to both Russia and Ukraine, is a leader in the community of former Soviet Jews, and is following the war closely. Russia is losing, at least for now, he said; it’s running out of troops, resources, and hope, fueled mainly by lies and the smoldering resentments of its leader, the angry moral dwarf Vladimir Putin.

But the situation at the steel plant was a stark demonstration of Dark Age siege warfare, and necessarily would end in nightmare, propelled by lies.

That has happened.

The Azovstal plant, as Mr. Smukler explained last week, was not only a huge factory, but a vast network of deep underground tunnels and bombs shelters, created and stocked during the Cold War. It held about 1,200 to 1,600 people; by last week all of them were fighters and many of them were wounded. The civilians who had sheltered there all had been smoked or talked out; the Russians laid medieval siege to the plant. It was clear that the troops inside, without food, water, medicine, or any other resources, would have to surrender or die, Mr. Smukler said.

But the remaining fighters inside the plant were a mixed group — Ukrainian soldiers, marines, military police, and members of the country’s National Guard, as well as members of the nationalist Azov Battalion, he explained. The Azov Battalion has its roots in Ukraine’s undeniably Nazi sector, although in recent years, we’ve been told, its members have focused their attention on fighting Russians.

Although the Russians have been losing most of the little territory they’ve gained in Ukraine, they’ve managed to destroy Mariupol. Last weekend, the Russians and the Ukrainians negotiated the surrender of the fighters left in the Azovstal plant, Mr. Smukler said. The Ukrainians, in the understanding that they’d swap their captured Russian prisoners for the Russians’ captured Ukrainians, told the besieged fighters to surrender.

They did. But Putin lied.

They were arrested.

Then they were told to strip to their underwear, and it turns out that the Azov Battalion members are covered in tattoos. Terrible tattoos. Nazi tattoos. They have swastikas, symbols of various SS battalions, and portraits of Stefan Bandera, the World War II Ukrainian leader and Nazi collaborator, and of Hitler inked on their bodies. “One or two of them had slogans from the death camps — Arbeit macht frei” — Work will make you free, from the gate leading to Auschwitz, and “Jedem das Seine,” more or less “To each what he is due,” from Buchenwald, tattooed on their bodies, Mr. Smukler said. The slogans were in their original German, to make their provenance and point as clear as possible. “Other tattoos were quotes from Mein Kampf,” he added.

This is a prewar photograph of the Azor Brigade; the orange armbands signal their Ukrainian identity. (Wikimedia Commons)

We know about these tattooed prisoners because images of them have been all over Russian state television — which is to say, Russian television, because it’s all state-controlled. “I don’t think it’s fake,” Mr. Smukler said. “I think the Russians captured people who really are decorated this way, although I don’t know if they are real Nazis.

“But as a Jew, and as a person who — well, between me and my wife, we lost 65 members of our family in the Holocaust — I feel terrible.” It makes him sick, he said.

But that’s the point.

“This gives Putin an incredible opportunity to claim victory. To say, ‘Look who we captured. This is exactly against whom we are fighting. These are Nazis, and denazification is in process.’”

Every Russian news program showed these men. No western program did, Mr. Smukler said. “Not CNN. Not NBC. Not CBS. Not the BBC. Not Fox.” And the Russians showed nothing else.

So pull back a little, he counseled. There were no images of the rest of the men who surrendered in Mariupol, even though most of them were not Azov Brigade members.

“You can’t tell how big this group with the tattoos is,” he said. “Among those hundreds, more than a thousand, I have no idea how many there were. Five? Six? Ten? It is hard to judge.

“There were no foreign journalists there,” Mr. Smukler said. Everyone had to use the images from Russian television, although they could cut them as they chose. “We have seen the pictures of the soldiers leaving the plant, but no one showed the moment when they were told ‘Take off your clothes and show us your tattoos.’

“We can’t believe the Russian propaganda. But I know for a fact that no other station in the world showed that these soldiers are wearing the tattoos.” And when he sees them, “I feel terrible,” he said.

That’s how he’s meant to feel.

“Russian propaganda used this. They said ‘These are Nazis, and we will show them publicly.’ The Duma” — the Russian Parliament — “already is asking for a death sentence for them.

Alexander Smukler of Montclair

“There is no death sentence in Russia, so they want an exception for them.”

But, Mr. Smukler repeated, “based on what I heard from my Ukrainian sources, the Russians lied to the Ukrainians, and it was huge lie.

“As far as I understand it, and I have heard from Ukrainian sources, the Ukrainians and the Russians agreed that the Ukrainian military leadership would order them” — the fighters holed up in the steel plant — “to surrender. They were told that a deal was negotiated, and that the soldiers who surrendered would be exchanged with Russian prisoners of war.” When they surrendered, they expected to be taken to the place where the exchange would happen.

The Ukrainians have many Russians prisoners, Mr. Smukler said. An exchange made sense. They got the order from the leadership of Ukraine to surrender rather than to die fighting.

“But it was a big lie.”

But that’s disgusting! “Yes it is,” Mr. Smukler said. “But that’s war. And remember, we’ve already said that Putin is fighting now. There are no white gloves on his hands anymore.”

“The Russians also said that we will save their lives; we will respect the Geneva Convention,” which would demand that the prisoners be exchanged, as the Ukrainians thought they had arranged to do. “But just a day later, the Russian Parliament was discussing the death penalty for some of them.

“And it is also important to note that all of them were moved not to Russian territory but to the Dombas area, which is controlled by the pro-Russian rebels. That means that now the Russians can say that the prisoners are not under their jurisdiction. If they’re tried by a tribunal, the Russians can say, it will not be us. It will be the governments in Donetsk and Luhansk.

“It will be a show trial, a Nuremberg-like trial, and it will fit the Russians’ propaganda needs perfectly. These men will be tried and judged, and they can’t say they’re not Nazis. It’s written on their skin.”

Meanwhile, the big news outside Russia is the resignation of a diplomat. Boris Bondarev, who was a counsel to Russia’s UN mission in Geneva, is ending his 20-year career with a corrosive public letter of denunciation. “The aggressive war unleashed by Putin against Ukraine, and in fact against the entire Western world, is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people, but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the people of Russia, with a bold letter Z crossing out all hopes and prospects for a prosperous free society in our country,” Mr. Bondarev wrote.

“That’s a huge thing,” Mr. Smukler said. “Can you imagine? This is a career diplomat, and he is quitting. There is no way for him to go home. He will need political asylum. His life is a question mark now.

The Ukrainians destroyed this Russian tank outside the city. (Wikimedia Commons)

“This guy has given up his career, any property he had in Russia, any real estate, and any relatives he has. I think that this is a first sign that there is a big crack in the Russian political leadership, because if a career diplomat quits like that, it means a lot.

“Lots of sources are saying that the Russian army is exhausted and absolutely not capable of attacking any more. Now it’s a huge issue for Putin to defend what he’s holding. The Ukrainians say ‘We will not stop. We will attack Russia.’ That means that the major battles are in the future.

“The war will continue for a long time. What Putin can do now is shoot missiles, destroy cities, and kill civilians. He has to draft and mobilize more soldiers, and get more troops, more weaponry, more tanks in order to continue his attacks. But he will have to defend a huge front line, and the Ukrainians will attack them, with all the weaponry they are getting from the West.

“On the Ukrainian side, Zelensky just extended martial law for another 90 days. They will mobilize any man who is younger than 60. He will put more and more soldiers with more and more guns coming from the West.

“I am concerned that it will start to remind us of the Iraq-Iran war, which lasted for eight years.” He worries that it will become a drag on the European Union and the United States. “We have to understand that we will have to supply Ukraine not only with weapons and ammunition, but also with financial support. They have to pay their soldiers. They have to pay pensions. The Ukrainians have lost every possible channel for getting money. Their export is grain — they’re the third largest grain exporter in the world —  the Russians are blocking their Black Sea ports. This will be a huge burden on us for years and years.

“And because Putin is blocking that huge stock of grain, we have no idea how it will impact commodity prices, especially on grain and food products.

“For Putin, this probably is a solution. He wants the West exhausted. So instead of continuing his attack, he probably will continue to defend the territories he’s already captured, and continue to block Ukraine’s exports, and see what happens.”

Oh, and one other thing.

The Azov Brigade marches in Mariopul in June 2021. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Last week, we talked about how McDonald’s left Russia,” Mr. Smukler said; that was a symbolic blow to Russia’s understanding that the Cold War was over, and the country was opening to the West.

“This week, Starbucks left,” he said.

“Starbucks was so popular! It was everywhere. It was on every corner. I don’t know how many stores they opened in the last six or seven years, but now they are leaving Russia. It’s not a franchise; the stores are all company owned, and they are all closing.”

Like MacDonald’s entry and then exit from Russia, Starbucks’ coming and going has meaning. “Starbucks is a symbol of the global economy,” Mr. Smukler said. “When it came to Russia in 2007, it was symbolic of Russia becoming part of the global economy. And it came on a wave of globalism.

“So now it’s another symbol of Russia being a shell,” he said. And an increasingly fragile one at that.

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