Neither war nor peace

Neither war nor peace

Our analyst looks at the latest from Ukraine’s battlefield, the effect of sanctions, engaging China, and Prigozhin’s still-untold secrets

As the war continued, many of the Jews who remain in Kyiv went to the Brodsky Central Synagogue there to celebrate its 125th anniversary. The sign, in Ukrainian, welcomes them. (Courtesy Chief Rabbi of Ukraine)
As the war continued, many of the Jews who remain in Kyiv went to the Brodsky Central Synagogue there to celebrate its 125th anniversary. The sign, in Ukrainian, welcomes them. (Courtesy Chief Rabbi of Ukraine)

Neither war nor peace is a famous formula thought up by Leon Trotsky — ne Lev Davidovich Bronstein, the Jewish-born Marxist revolutionary who was one of the prime architects of the Soviet Union.

“He basically was trying to stop Russia’s participation in the First World War,” our analyst of today’s war in Ukraine, Alexander Smukler of Montclair, said. “He stopped the war between Russia and Germany because his government became involved in a massive civil war in Russia.” That was the Russian revolution.

Now, Russia seems to be embroiled in what might be a stalemated war in Ukraine; a war that it began when it invaded its neighbor on February 24, 2022, for made-up reasons (no, Ukraine was not run by Nazis) and for made-up rewards (no, Ukrainians did not meet their would-be liberators with hugs, roses, and confetti-sparkled parades).

There had been high hopes in the West that Ukraine’s long-awaited summer offensive would end in its breaking through Russia lines and chasing them out of the country. But the stalemate that preceded the offensive gave Russia enough time to dig trenches and plant mines and reinforce dragons’ teeth. It fortified its position, and now the Ukrainians are having a terribly hard, bloody time breaking through them.

There might be some hope, Mr. Smukler said, and he made clear that the situation keeps changing. “There have been promising reports coming from the southern part of the front lines saying that the Ukrainians have broken through the first Russian offensive lines, in the direction of the cities of Berdiansk and Mariupol.” The Russians control both those cities, and both of them are ports on the Azov Sea, and therefore they are enormously important. Now they’re critical supply depots for the Russians, and if they’re liberated, they will connect Ukraine to the outside world. The Russians demolished Mariupol at the beginning of the war, bombing and bombarding it to rubble.

Still, “this is very promising news,” Mr. Smukler said. The Ukrainians appear to have taken the village called Robotyne. “Every military expert now is looking for news from that part of the front line, hoping that Ukraine will liberate Berdiansk. They’re now about 25 miles away. After Berdiansk, their next target would be Mariupol.”

It hadn’t been clear that the Ukrainian counteroffensive would move in the direction of Robotyne, Berdiansk, and Mariupol. “The front line is almost 1,000 miles long, and the Ukrainians have been looking for the weakest point, where they could break though,” Mr. Smukler said. “Now that Robotyne has been won — if it truly has been won — the Ukrainians will go through that small window and pour every Ukrainian reserve brigade in that direction.”

If the Ukrainians do manage to take back Berdiansk and Mariupol, “that would open the gates very wide into Crimea,” the peninsula that the Russians grabbed from Ukraine in 2014, as the West impotently watched and waffled.

It’s not at all clear that the Ukrainians will be able to pull off that part of the counteroffensive, though. “Several military experts are saying that now Ukraine is using its last military reserves, four fresh brigades, equipped with Western tanks and munitions.” The Ukrainians, despite Russian assumptions about their solidarity with Russia, have been energized to fight against the invaders, but there is not an endless supply of fighting-age men. “Most military experts realize that this is the last reserve that the Ukrainian army has,” Mr. Smukler said.

The Russians have been working overtime to rebuild Mariupol, he said. “It was leveled. It had no population left. It had nothing.

Alexander Smukler

“Putin went there to visit a few months ago, and he gave the order to rebuild it immediately, so the Russians are trying to rebuild it as fast as they can. They sent thousands and thousands of construction workers, and lots and lots of construction equipment.

“Putin made it the responsibility of the governor of St. Petersburg to rebuild it; the Russians announced that Mariupol and St. Petersburg had become sister cities.” (No, they are nowhere near each other. St. Petersburg is in the north of Russia.) “St. Petersburg is pouring in billions and billions of dollars, and Russian propaganda shows how fast it’s being rebuilt — they’re fixing roads, apartment buildings, hospitals, social infrastructure, and the state propaganda stations are reporting on it.”

The city’s population used to be around 500,000, Mr. Smukler said. Some have come back; it is now home to about 70,000, including construction workers.

Most of the rebuilding is “an enormous infrastructure around Mariupol. They’re making it into a fortress, because it’s the gate to Crimea.”

So the symbolism would be clear, both for the Russians to hang on to Mariupol and Crimea, and for the Ukrainians to take them back. “The Russian propaganda channels show most how the civil infrastructure is being rebuilt, but intelligence sources are saying that the Russians really are concentrating on converting the city into a fortress.” Now that the direction of the Ukrainian counteroffensive seems to be coming into focus, it would be even more important to the Russians to fortify Mariupol.

“I hope that the Ukrainians succeed, but it will be difficult,” Mr. Smukler said. “If they can, then Zelensky” — that’s President Volodymyr Zelensky — “will be able to announce an incredible victory, and the success of the summer/fall counteroffensive campaign.

“But today we are very far from that, and it will cost the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian people an enormous price,” he said grimly.

Just about two weeks ago, “several major information sources, including British intelligence, announced that after 18 months into the war of Russian aggression against Ukraine, about 500,000 troops were lost or severely injured. Military experts say that about 280,000 of them were Russian soldiers.” About 220,000 Ukrainians soldiers were similarly killed or grievously wounded. “So after 18 months of war, 500,000 people, mainly young men, either lost their lives or will spend the rest of their lives suffering from war wounds, for unknown reasons.”

This does not account for the civilian lives lost since Putin’s invasion. “The United Nations secretary general’s office recently announced that according to their documentation, 9,600 civilians were killed in Ukraine, and almost 700 of them were children.” This is a very low number, Mr. Smukler continued; that’s because each of those deaths is thoroughly documented. “Prosecutors are collecting information as proof of war crimes,” he said.

“Putin’s government is responsible for this massive loss of life. For no reason.

Moshe Reuven Azman, the chief rabbi of Ukraine, welcomes the guests. (Courtesy Chief Rabbi of Ukraine)

“And don’t forget that more than 9.5 million Ukrainians have become homeless and displaced, and about 4 million of them are refugees in different countries around the world, looking for refugee status. Most of them are in Europe, but a substantial number of them are in Canada and the United States

“And based on other sources, including from the Russian opposition, at least one million Russians have run away from Putin’s regime. They’re spread around in European countries, but concentrated in Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. They’re mainly young people, or young families, and 99 percent of them are highly educated and grew up after the collapse of the Soviet Union.” In other words, they’re the intelligentsia whom Russia can least afford to lose — and they’re gone.

Next, Mr. Smukler talked about sanctions. “Now, after 18 months of the heaviest sanctions in the history of mankind, imposed by the United States, Canada, and the EU, we see that they’re not working,” he said.

“The only sanctions that are hurting the Russian economy is the devaluation of the Russian ruble. Today, the exchange rate is 1 to 94 —one dollar costs 94 rubles. Before March 2014, when Putin invaded Crimea and the first sanctions were implemented, one dollar cost 24 rubles. During the last nine years, the Russian ruble was devaluated four times.

“The Russians were used to thinking and living in the dollar world. For example, when you sell your house or apartment, you give the price in dollars, not in rubles.” That makes the ruble’s weakness painfully clear. “People realize that they’re losing their savings,” Mr. Smukler said.

“But in every other way, the sanctions are not working,” he continued. “You can buy everything in Moscow — Apple products, HP products, electronics in general. They’re 25 to 30 percent more expensive than they used to be, but you can find them.”

The Russians work around the sanctions in what is called the gray market, which involves, among many other things, closed containers with Western goods trans-shipped through Russia by rail to their destination in, say, Kazakhstan, when somehow or other, to everyone’s shock, the containers just vanish. Whoops!

“That’s just one example,” Mr. Smukler said. “The Russian economy has found lots of ways of getting goods into Russia.”

The economy continues to feel more or less normal because “China, India, Brazil, and other countries continue to buy Russian minerals, oil, and resources,” Mr. Smukler said. “Putin will continue to have enough money to keep the war going.” Putin’s selling those resources at a significant discount, but still, he’s fine. He gets enough to keep the country going.

“So the economic sanctions aren’t working, and Russia has been able to increase its military production during the 18 months of the war,” Mr. Smukler said. “Russian military plants are working 24/7, and in six to eight months, Russia will no longer have a deficit in military equipment.”

Members of the local Jewish community fill the sanctuary at the Brodsky Central Synagogue. (Courtesy Chief Rabbi of Ukraine)

Ukraine, on the other hand, “cannot build or recreate its own military industry, because every plant it builds is a potential target for the Russians,” Mr. Smukler said; it’s far more practical to be the invader than the victim.

“The Ukrainian defense is based on getting supplies from the West, and that supply is not big enough and it’s not getting to Ukraine fast enough. Western countries failed to provide Ukraine with enough military equipment to enable them to break through Russian lines. Ukraine now is suffering from problems with equipment they did get from the West. They are suffering from a deficit of shells, of HIMARS, of antiaircraft missiles, of batteries.

“They don’t have enough tanks. A lot of the tanks they were given were old. The Ukrainian military personnel didn’t have enough time to be trained, so they can’t use the equipment with 100 percent effectiveness.

“These are the problems that the Ukrainians are seeing today.”

Mr. Smukler believes that barring a nearly miraculous victory in the Azov Sea cities, the only way to resolve the situation will be through China. He talks about the World War II summits between the U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Great Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the murderous Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. “Remember that Roosevelt and Churchill met with the brutal communist dictator several times, to discuss the situation with him and to make deals with him,” Mr. Smukler said. He thinks that the most likely way out of the war would be for China’s President Xi Jinping to be involved in discussions. “It’s time for the Western leaders to sit with Xi Jinping and talk with him about how to stop this war, and about the postwar world,” he said. The Chinese already have started such efforts, he said.

He thinks that it might be necessary for Ukraine to concede the loss of the territory that Russia now at least says it controls. In return, he said, Putin will have to accept the already unmistakable truth that he will not get any more of Ukraine than he has now.

For now, though, the situation is in stalemate, and he believes that it will remain that way unless the Ukrainian offensive somehow works.

Meanwhile, what about Yevgeny Prigozhin, the ex-con/hot dog cart operator/caterer/warlord/oligarch whose Wagner Group started to march on Moscow, in open revolt against Vladimir Putin, about two months ago, until the group unexpectedly stopped and turned around, and he was given asylum in Belarus?

“What happened to him was a small blink of an eye in this bloody conflict,” Mr. Smukler said. “He was killed” — although Putin says that he has no idea who killed Prigozhin, the rest of the world understands that Putin did, and of course Putin wants that fact known, because that’s how street thugs work — “exactly two months after he started his military revolt, and despite the fact that Putin, in front of millions of people on Russia state television, said that because Prigozhin stopped his revolt and turned back, Putin promised him safety and security.

“But remember, since we first started talking about Putin,” back in the last week of February 2022 – “we said that he was a street fighter.”

A Jewish woman brings flowers that match her dress as she tries to celebrate in the midst of very hard times. (Courtesy Chief Rabbi of Ukraine)

Back then, in fact, we wrote that “one of the biggest components of our childhood was street fights.” (Mr. Smukler, eight years younger than Putin, lived in a joyless, privacy-free communal apartment block. But unlike Putin he was loved by parents and grandparents who were war-scarred but not embittered, as Putin’s parents were. His childhood was close enough to Putin’s to let him understand it, but far enough away that he can see it with some clarity.)

Putin was a small child — he’s not a physically big man now — and “physically he was not strong, so he had to find another way to show his friends, the members of his gang, that he was smart and strong,” Mr. Smukler said last year. “You have to get revenge on the ones who put pressure on you, who are trying to diminish you.

“That is in our blood. In his blood. This I know for a fact.”

So although Putin promised Prigozhin safety, as a gang leader “he can give a promise, but in the back of his mind the rule is revenge.” Revenge must be exacted. “That sends a message to everyone, that nobody can betray the godfather.

“So for me, Prigozhin’s death was not a surprise,” Mr. Smukler said. “And the way it was done was typical.” Prigozhin was on the plane with other Wagner leaders. “In one move, Putin completely cut off the head of the Wagner group, and solved many of his problems.

“I’m surprised by how foolish Prigozhin was in putting all his major people on the same plane,” Mr. Smukler continued. “He must have thought he was untouchable.”

Still, he’s sure that we haven’t heard the end of the story, because although Prigozhin acted foolishly, he was not stupid.

“I’m expecting that any day now some information will appear on the internet,” he said. “Something from Prigozhin’s safety deposit box. I cannot imagine that no one will not use his insurance policy, in case of his sudden death. I won’t be surprised if information about his activities in Africa or Syria will leak. Probably, Western intelligence soon will learn where Prigozhin’s gold and diamonds are.

“There was enormous wealth that was collected in Africa and hidden somewhere. There could be tens of metric tons of gold and diamonds. And I’m sure that Prigozhin collected files about Putin and his inner circle over the 30 years that they were together.

“So we’ll hear from him. He’s dead, but his story isn’t over. I am not Nostradamus, but based on my life experience, based on the rules of the street gang, I know that he is supposed to do something after his death, despite being dead. I expect that very soon, the world will learn more about this story.”

In fact, Mr. Smukler said, he thinks of Prigozhin as the new Rasputin, the mysterious, divisive figure whose influence on the Russian family seemed to lead to its overthrow. “I think Prigozhin’s death symbolizes the collapse of Putin’s Russia,” he said. “Brothers will kill brothers,” Rasputin wrote to Empress Alexandra in 1916, soon before his death. “If it was your relations who have wrought my death, then no one of your family, that is to say none of your children or relations, will remain alive for more than two years.” They didn’t.

Next, Mr. Smukler talked about Michael McFaul, the diplomat who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2011 to 2014. Mr. Smukler has met Mr. McFaul several times and respects him tremendously. “I think he’s one of the best, smartest experts on Russia,” Mr. Smukler said. “He said that one of the biggest mistakes that the United States is making is not giving visas to the Russians who are asking for political asylum.

“Michael — Ambassador McFaul — thinks that granting political asylum could have a major impact on Putin’s Russia, and I fully agree with him.” The brain drain would have serious, long-term effects on Russia, were those brains allowed to drain in the West. “I know thousands of people who are trying to break through the wall built by Western countries,” Mr. Smukler said. “I think that is a key mistake.”

Lastly, Mr. Smukler talked about Evan Gershkovitch, the young American Jewish journalist from New Jersey who writes for the Wall Street Journal and has been held in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison in pretrial detention since March, on patently false charges of spying. “As far as I know, the Biden administration is quietly looking for a way to exchange him for whomever the Russians are interested in,” Mr. Smukler said. “Unfortunately, there is no news now, but there are diplomatic efforts to find a way to exchange him. Sooner or later, I hope, he will be exchanged,” and set free.

“But we also shouldn’t forget that there are more than 600 political prisoners sentenced in the last four or five months.” Those prisoners are Russian; they have no hope of being exchanged for anyone. “Remember that they’re in prison because they were brave enough to oppose Putin,” Mr. Smukler said.

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