The last time we talked to Alexander Smukler of Montclair, who was born in Russia, emigrated to the United States at 30, just a bit more than half his life ago, and has mined his sources in Russia and Ukraine to give us cutting-edge analyses of Russia’s war on Ukraine, he was in Cassandra mode.
In that December 2 story, “Fire and Ice,” Mr. Smukler talked about how Vladimir Putin, Russia’s authoritarian leader, the street-thug-turned-dictator whose desire to take Ukraine has led to nightmarish death and devastation there, had changed his tactics. He planned to destroy the Ukrainian infrastructure and wait until the winter sapped the people’s desire to remain independent and they would beg their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to negotiate a land-for-peace deal with Putin.
None of that has changed. But now, Mr. Smukler gives us the other side of that story. What if the Ukrainians can hold out? What if Putin’s bet fails.
He quotes Leo Tolstoy, “who was not only our greatest writer and philosopher, but also one of the most loved and respected voices in 19th- and early 20th-century czarist Russia against antisemitism.”
In “War and Peace,” Tolstoy wrote, “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”
It is relevant, he said, because if the Ukrainians can wait out the winter, they will be in a strong position.
But first, he described the situation now, at the season’s start. “Odessa and other Ukrainian cities are completely out of electricity,” he said. “On Saturday, there was another massive drone attack on Odessa’s power supply and power stations and, according to my friends there, almost 1.5 million people have no heat, no electricity, no water, no sewage treatment, no transportation. They have nothing. And according to the prime minister’s office, the power possibly could be restored in two or three months.
“The damage is so severe that it will take months to restore the infrastructure.
“People will have to be patient. I don’t know how they’ll do it. I don’t know how they will survive, without any infrastructure. It’s hard for us to understand; when we have a power outage for even a few hours our day is completely abnormal. But now people are having to get through the winter with no refrigerators. No elevators. No working toilets. No running water — not only no hot water, but not even any cold water.
“But if they can survive through this winter, if they can be patient, time will be their ally.
“That is why I am quoting Tolstoy. I do believe that today, time is working against Putin and his army.”
Now, Mr. Smukler said, most of Putin’s war efforts are going into sending drones and missiles to destroy civilian infrastructure. “The most major active battlefield today is in the city of Bakhmut, which is the only large city in the Donetsk region that is still under Ukrainian control. Remember that the Russians annexed four regions; the irony is that they are not fully controlled by the Russians.
“Donetsk is the place where the war started. Bakhmut is a very old town. It was founded in 1581 by the decree of Ivan the Terrible. He decreed that a wooden fortress be built in the south of Russia” — during that period, that part of Ukraine was part of the Russian empire — “to protect themselves from the Tatars and the Ottoman empire.
“Before this war, there used to be a population of about 75,000 there. When the war between Donetsk and Ukraine started in 2014” — Bakhmut, like the rest of Donetsk, was part of Ukraine then — “Bakhmut was a very important part of Ukraine’s defense line against Russia.
“So now the Russians are concentrating their military capacity in trying to take Bakhmut and break Ukraine’s defense line to fully occupy Donetsk. The rest of the front line” — all 1,200 kilometers of it — “is quiet. Nothing is really happening.”
Because the Russians cannot make the claim that they desperately want to make — that they control all of Donetsk — until they get control of Bakhmut, the battle is hugely important to both sides.
“It seems to me that the Russians are fighting there the way they did in Mariupol, and Mariupol was completely leveled,” Mr. Smukler said. “Now they’re doing the same thing in Bakhmut. President Zelensky announced on Saturday that there is no such town anymore. That it is completely leveled.
“The Russians are claiming that the Ukrainians are losing 500 to 800 soldiers every day in Bakhmut. We cannot check or trust those numbers. The Ukrainians never confirm it. They say that the Russians are also losing hundreds of soldiers every day. But it seems to me, from what I hear from several sources, that the Ukrainians slowly are giving up there, and the Russians are advancing.
“Otherwise, the front lines are more or less quiet. Almost 43 percent of the Ukrainian power supplies are destroyed. Ukrainian and international sources say that in some regions Ukrainians have lost 100 percent of their electrical production capacity.”
Food is another very real problem. “In many Ukrainian cities, more and more people are suffering from hunger,” Mr. Smukler said. “The stores are closed. The refrigeration facilities are not working.
“Today, there are only two ways to get food supplies. One way is the marketplace,” the open-air bazaar where farmers bring their wares to the city. “Odessa is surrounded by farms, and the farmers bring the food to the markets there,” he continued. “I don’t know how they control the prices, or how people can afford it, but that’s what they’re doing.
“The second way to get food is through humanitarian aid, which the government distributes to civilians. There is a very wide and effective network of trucks that come to big, populated areas, and they give people the most important products — bread, milk, eggs. It’s free.
“Let’s imagine a big apartment building. The people who live there cannot walk up and down very often, because the elevators aren’t working, and neither are the toilets. So maybe they go up there to sleep. But they spend most of the day on the street.
“They make fires in firepits, and they cook on them. They start fires with small amounts of gas or diesel fuel, which they have, and they cut trees to add to the flames.”
To be realistic, though, “you can do that for a day or two, or three, or five, but you can’t do it for months, especially not in a country with 46 million people. We are getting messages from more and more places about hunger being a problem.
“It’s not the biggest issue yet, but it’s coming.”
That’s why the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution last week recognizing the Russians’ actions in Ukraine as genocide. The resolution was sponsored by both Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho, and Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland. The list of cosponsors was similarly — and fully — nonpartisan.
“So the Russians are continuing to destroy the Ukrainian civil infrastructure, simply to freeze the Ukrainian population and create the conditions for them to demand that their president start negotiations.”
Why would Putin destroy a country he hopes to take over? We native-born Americans do not understand that, Mr. Smukler said. “You have to understand a fundamental difference between Russian and American psychology. There has never been a war on the territory of the United States” — that is, a war waged by outside enemies, since the Revolution. “That is a mistake our politicians make. I hear it when I talk to people in the political elite. The fundamental difference is that the Russians know how to fight, how to suffer, how to win, and how to rebuild. They have the patience to live through generations, sacrifice their lives, or years of their lives, in order to rebuild.
“History repeats itself,” Mr. Smukler said.
“I don’t want to go back before World War I, but as a result of that war, in 1914, which ended as a civil war in Russia, the country was completely destroyed. It took Stalin almost 25 years to rebuild; he built a huge industrial empire.
“In 1941, the Second World War started and everything in the European part of Russia, up to Moscow, was destroyed. Demolished. There was nothing left. It was such a brutal war. So Russia rebuilt the whole European part of it, including Ukraine, which also was destroyed, just not as badly as the Russian cities.”
He also pointed out that Russia’s war with Chechnya, from 1991 to 2009, resulted in Chechnya’s near-total destruction. “After they signed a peace agreement with Putin, the Russians completely rebuilt it. I think that Putin thinks he’ll repeat that in Ukraine.
“The Russians’ slogan is ‘We will demolish the old world and build a new one.’”
Still, Mr. Smukler said, “I think that time, time and patience, are working against the Russians.
“I think that the Ukrainian army is getting stronger and stronger, and that their allies are trying to help by supplying more and more weaponry and equipment. And most importantly, they’re supplying training.
“We know that European countries, the United States, and NATO are budgeting special funds to train Ukrainian military personnel on how to operate very sophisticated missile systems, and helicopters, and fighter jets, and drones. During the previous months, one of the Ukrainian army’s biggest problems was learning to operate the sophisticated equipment they’d been getting.” That’s not because the Ukrainians were inherently unsophisticated or untrained, but because every country has developed its own weapons systems, and each system is incompatible with all the others. So there has to be a lot of very specific training to make it all work. Aside from everything else, “all the different users’ manuals are in different languages,” Mr. Smukler said.
But it’s all starting to work.
“Time is working against Putin because NATO and its allies are actively putting together special forces for training Ukrainian personnel and making the Ukrainian army stronger and stronger.”
Now we go from the macro to the micro.
We know that some Ukrainians who collaborated with Nazis were brutal during World War II, although many other Ukrainians risked their lives to save Jews. “Those who had been part of Stefan Bandera and Roman Shuahevich’s SS units were murderers, and responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews,” Mr. Smukler said. Because of that, “it is very difficult for many in the American Jewish community to even think of ever forgiving those Ukrainians.
“But it seems to me that the Ukrainian Jewish community is ready to forgive and to fight for Ukrainian independence and freedom.”
He’s heard stories from friends about many such Ukrainian Jews, he continued.
In November, Vladislav Shain, a 21-year-old Jewish Ukrainian from Dnipro, who had volunteered in the Ukrainian army soon after Russia invaded his country on February 24, was killed in action.
“I got a message from a friend of mine on the battlefield who shares some information with me from time to time,” Mr. Smukler said. It was an obituary, in Ukrainian. “After that I started to investigate.
“Vladislav Shain was famous,” he continued. “He was from Rabbi Kaminetsky’s community in Dnipro. He was a martial arts champion and a law student.”
Shmuel Kaminetsky, who was born in Israel, is a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi who has led the Jewish community in Dnipro since 1990. “He is a very dear friend of mine,” Mr. Smukler said. “He’s my friend and also my mentor. He’s had a huge influence on my life.
“And he is so devoted to his community. He was sent to Dnipropetrovsk” — that was the city’s name until 2016, when a Ukrainian initiative shortened, simplified, and de-Sovietized some place names — “as a shaliach when he was very young, and he built up the most amazing, amazing community there.
“He is one of the most outstanding rabbis of our time.”
The Jewish community of Dnipro came from the area, Mr. Smukler said. “Dnipropetrovsk was one of the largest, most prosperous shtetls in Ukraine. President Zelensky is from a neighboring town, Kryvyy Rih. During the Soviet times, Dnipropetrovsk was one of the most industrialized cities in Ukraine. It had a gigantic plant in it, called Yuzhmash, which produced Russian antimissile and antiaircraft systems. The Ukrainians are now actively using whatever’s left from the stockpiles there. Yuzhmash was one of the war’s first targets.
Mr. Smukler last saw Rabbi Kaminetsky in Dnipro about five years ago, he reported. “When I saw how vibrant the community is, how many young people, young couples, surrounded him, I was shocked. I was amazed to see how many young Jews lived happy, and actively, and especially traditionally, in his community.
“They organized a meeting for me with young community members. When I met with these kids, it was like time went backward. I felt like I was in a time machine. I was surrounded by about 240 young kids in a big community center that Rabbi Kaminetsky had built, and I felt like I was back in the early 20th century, meeting my grandparents. It was like a stopped clock.
“I said that I was shocked seeing them there. I asked them, ‘Why are you here, in Dnipropetrovsk, instead of in Israel, or in any other place. Why are you in modern Ukraine, instead of the places where all the Jews live?’
“And they said, ‘What are you talking about? We have our community. We have our rabbi. We have boys and girls who marry each other and have children. We have our parents here. We have our families. We want to be here. We want to come back here.’
“And I said, ‘What do you mean, come back here? Where were you?’ And a young girl said, ‘I just graduated from medical school in Switzerland, and I came back, and I’m a dentist here.’ I asked a young boy, and he said, ‘I just graduated from law school in Berlin, and I came back because I want to be with my community.’ Another boy had just finished journalist school in Barcelona. ‘I came back here to write blogs and for a bunch of newspapers,’ he told me.
“This is such a mystical place. Such a vibrant, alive, young community.
“And these kids were not chasidic. They go to services, they lead traditional lives, they were wearing kippot, but they were not chasidic. That means that Rabbi Kaminetsky and his assistants never put pressure on them. Everyone is free to find their own paths.”
What happened to this community? He doesn’t know.
But there is something that he does know. “This boy who just died” — Vladislav Shain — “was a son of the community.
“We don’t know how many Jews are still on the battlefield in the Ukrainian army, but it seems to me that it wasn’t just this one single case. I know others. It seems to me that Jews are contributing to the war in the Ukrainian army.”
So because of what he knows about Russian and Ukrainian history, and because of what he and his wife, Alla, lived through themselves, and because of what their parents and grandparents lived through, Alexander Smukler thinks that with time and patience, the Ukrainians will survive, and it is entirely possible that they will win. And he very much hopes they do.