Russia agonistes

Russia agonistes

The last hiccups of the Soviet dragon

This is a building in Bahkmut after the Russians shelled it in July.
This is a building in Bahkmut after the Russians shelled it in July.

For at least a month, Alexander Smukler of Montclair, who analyzes the war Russia began with its invasion of Ukraine, has been saying that militarily, the two sides are at a stalemate.

It’s winter, Mr. Smukler — an entrepreneur who spent nearly the first half of his life so far in Moscow, and the rest in the United States, arriving here just before the fall of the Soviet Union, and whose ties to Russia and Ukraine, both inside and outside the Jewish community, give him access to many sources of information — explained. The Russians are regrouping, fighting hard to demolish civilian infrastructure, because to some extent the cruelty is the point, and the Ukrainians are hoping that patience, time, and fortitude are on their side.

The lack of progress, however that’s defined, during the last two weeks, though, was even more striking. “There are several reasons, but number one is that it was a major holiday,” Mr. Smukler said. Christmas.

But wait. Christmas was on December 25, right? Even readers of a Jewish newspaper know that. But no, not in Russia, and not in eastern Ukraine. “In Russia, nobody celebrates December 25th,” Mr. Smukler said. “That’s the Catholic Christmas. Russians celebrate it on January 7.” That’s not a theological difference. Eastern Europe, like most of the world, including North America, and for that matter Israel, uses the Gregorian calendar. Russia still uses the Julian calendar, which pushed everything 13 days back.

“Western Ukraine is mostly Catholic” — as its general orientation toward western Europe would dictate — “and its Christmas is December 25,” Mr. Smukler continued. “But eastern and southern Ukraine is mostly Russian Orthodox, and they celebrate it like the Russians, on January 7.

“But now, the Ukrainian government is strongly encouraging the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to change their religious calendar and celebrate Christmas on December 25.” That didn’t happen in time to change this year’s celebration, but it might well be in effect by next year, Mr. Smukler suggested.

This dispute over the calendar, which is a dispute over which church is the spiritual home of most people in the country, is symbolic of the dispute at the heart of the war. “The nature of the conflict that we are witnessing right now, that started 325 days ago, was formed centuries and centuries ago, when there always was a fight between the Catholic Church, which was spreading from Poland to Ukraine, and the Russian Orthodox Church, which considered Kyiv a holy place.

Alexander Smukler

“Kyiv was the first Russian city to adopt Christianity. Prince Vladimir” — Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kyiv, who lived from 980 to 1015 — “basically adopted Russian Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium, and that is why the church considers Kyiv a holy place.

“It’s like Jerusalem is for us. Like the Western Wall.

“There is a sacred temple in Kyiv, if we can call it that,” Mr. Smukler continued. “It’s called the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. It’s the oldest Russian Orthodox monastery in that part of the world, and it is considered to be absolutely holy. It has been the center of the Russian Orthodox Church since Russia adopted Christianity 1,000 years ago.”

But although it’s at the heart of the so-called Russian world, the monastery is not in Russia — not unless Ukraine is annexed, conquered, or otherwise subdued and renamed.

“So Zelensky” — that’s Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, a fact that here might be ironic but is not otherwise relevant — “signed a decree from the Ukrainian government that said that the Russian Orthodox Church, under the rule of the patriarch in Moscow, no longer is allowed to have a service in Lavra. This was the first time that the service was conducted by what is now called the independent Ukrainian church. So the monastery no longer is under the patriarch’s rule, the Ukrainian government took control, and it kicked out all of the priests who have been living and serving there.

“This was a major, major event, that I think will escalate incredible tension among the people who follow the Russian Orthodox Church, because now their most sacred, holiest place does not belong to them anymore.

“President Zelensky offered the Ukrainian religious leaders a chance to choose which side to be on, and he decreed that Ukrainian citizenship will be withdrawn from the highest priests in the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine — who refused his offer — and they will be deported. They all have Russian passports.

Eli Cohen, Israel’s new foreign minister, has signaled that he will be pursuing less fractious ties with Russia, despite the war.Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

“Of course, it will give enormous strength to Putin’s supporters, and help him transform the situation from a political war to a holy war.” (That’s Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the angry dwarf in this series’ name, whose apparent and oddly mixed feelings of insecurity, rage, absolute power, and the need to become Prince Vladimir II led to his ill-considered invasion of Ukraine.)

This might turn out to have been unwise, but certainly it was not accidental. “Obviously, the Ukrainians knew what they were doing,” Mr. Smukler said. “It is obvious that during these 325 days of war, its president is building and uniting Ukraine as a nation that has nothing to do with the Russians. It is obvious that in order to defend the country, the Ukrainian government is willing to do everything possible to distance themselves, their country, their history, their culture from the Russian world.”

That’s necessary, given the two countries’ linked history, he explained. “For years, for decades, for centuries, everyone knew” — or vaguely thought they knew — that Ukraine and Russia were the same country,” he said; everyone outside Ukraine or Russia, that is. And that’s particularly true for North American Jews; we tend to think that our ancestors came from Russia, and many of us have learned only since the war began that no, they came from Ukraine. Russia, unlike Ukraine, was outside the Pale of Settlement.

“It was like Canada, split into the English and French parts, but still one country, at least in American minds,” Mr. Smukler said. “The Russians and the Ukrainians had “the same culture, the same music, the same religions. They were all part of the Slavic nation, part of the huge Russian empire.

“But now the Russian empire is in its final agony. These are its last hiccups. This is the final collapse of the Soviet Union. We are witnessing the creation not only of a new nation, Ukraine, but also how Putin finally cut the umbilical cord that connected Russia and Ukraine once and forever.”

Next, Mr. Smukler talked about what’s happening on the front lines. “It’s amazing to me that the Russians are fighting like crazy to take over Bakhmut,” he said. “They still are unable to take it, or the neighboring city, called Soledar. The Russians have lost thousands and thousands of lives trying to take these two cities.

“Nobody really understands, from a military point of view why the Russians are throwing so many lives into this battle, and why they still can’t control it. The Ukrainians are defending it amazingly.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“So many experts around the world are questioning it. One of the theories is that the Russians need Bakhmut and Soledar not only because Bakhmut is a very important logistical center, but because they have enormous tunnels below the cities.

“I have recently read many sources saying that Bakhmut used to be a major salt mine, and that’s why those underground facilities are there. They can hold airplanes, tanks, and military munitions, and it’s also a huge salt reserve.

“So now the theory is that the Russians really need these underground facilities for their logistics center for future offensive operations.

“I also have reason to believe that the Ukrainians have major munition stockpiles in these areas, and that is why they are fighting so hard to make sure that the Russians will not get it.

“That’s why this is the only place where an active military engagement is taking place now.

“We also know that during the last two weeks there have been very active artillery exchanges and missile attacks, and on New Year’s Eve the Ukrainians hit the Russian military center in Makiivka, where more than 700 people used to stay to train. They were mostly from Samara,” a city in southwest Russia.

“According to many experts, the Russian military made a serious mistake, because the training center was next to a major munitions storage facility, and just before midnight the Ukrainians hit the facility with HIMARS rockets. There was an enormous explosion, and according to official Russian accounts, 89 soldiers were dead and an unknown number were wounded. Ukrainian sources are saying that more than 600 people died; British intelligence is saying that about 400 are dead.

Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra has been the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church for a millennium.

“Makiivka is in Donbas, about 50 miles away from the front lines. It’s an enormous ruin. Everything was demolished. There was a big building, part of a former college, that was leveled. It was built in the early 1970s, of concrete panels.” They fell in, and “hundreds of people were buried there. Most of them had never been on the front lines yet.

“The Russians are saying that the reason for the attack was the soldiers’ intense use of cell phones because it was New Year’s Eve.” Ukrainian intelligence was able to use that data to pinpoint their target. “But most of the experts are saying — British intelligence said this first — that the Ukrainians have a very wide network of agents on the ground, they knew about this training facility, and they waited until New Year’s Eve because they knew that all the soldiers would be inside celebrating. They just waited for the perfect time.”

So, although most outside experts believe that the Ukrainians found their target through their spy networks, the Russians “announced that the tragic accident happened because the soldiers violated the rules by calling their families, and Ukrainian intelligence followed up.” In other words, Russian leaders find it more politic to blame their own conscripts than themselves.

Still, “although Russian propagandists find different ways to explain how this happened, I think that this kind of tragic events impacts on Russian society. This sent a very strong message to Russians about the stupidity of Russian military leadership.”

The war is being fought “not only for political and religious reasons, but it’s also a war of generations,” Mr. Smukler continued, picking up a theme he’s mentioned before.

“In a very well-known quote, Putin said that the major geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. That drew a lot of questions. Not the Second World War, where more than 45 million people died? Not the First World War, with 20 million casualties?

“The reason is that Putin is a product not only of the Soviet empire but of the quintessence of the Soviet regime, the KGB. The Russian leaders were all born and raised and educated during the Soviet time. Their mentality, their psychology, their roots are all back in the Soviet empire, and during the last 20 years they have been trying to rebuild it.

The tunnels in the Soledar salt mines are big enough to hold a concert hall. This is from a show In 2011.

“The Ukrainian leadership, including the president, is a younger generation. They grew up in the free world, and their values are completely different. So we are talking about a war fought not only for political reasons, but also a war of two very different mentalities. And the Soviet Russian mentality is disappearing. Very soon it will be gone forever.

“The Ukrainian leadership and the values they defend are the future of the free world. It’s a war between democracy and authoritarianism. And it is the last hiccups of the Soviet dragon.” This war is the dragon’s death throes.

“There is no future for the dragon, but it still is biting,” Mr. Smukler said.

Lastly, Mr. Smukler turned to a more emotionally draining question, about the relationship between Israel and Russia, Israel and Ukraine, and Ukraine and the Jews.

On Friday, December 30, the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution asking the International Court of Justice in the Hague to write a legal opinion on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The GA approved it; the vote was 87 in favor, 24, opposed, and 53 abstaining. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reported to have asked Volodymyr Zelensky to direct Ukraine’s ambassador to vote against the resolution, or at least to abstain. Instead, the ambassador arranged not to be in the room and did not vote at all.

“This was very painful for Israel,” Mr. Smukler said. “The resolution was another attempt by the Palestinians to wage war against Israel.

“This situation really upsets me. As a Jew, I feel terrible for Ukraine, on the one hand, and I am supporting it unconditionally in its war against Russian aggression. On the other hand, as a Jew I am extremely upset that the Ukrainian president, who is a Jew by blood, does not understand how difficult and how complicated the Israeli position is right now.

Pinchas Goldschmidt is the former chief rabbi of Moscow.

“Aside from the fact that Ukrainians are glorifying Nazi collaborators like Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych and others, who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Poles and Jews during the war, Israel simply cannot take sides on this conflict because its relationship with Russia and with Ukraine both are so important to Israel.”

The relationship to Russia is important in large part because of Israel’s need to save its Jews as they attempt to get out.

“If Israel were finally to start providing Ukraine with military munitions and especially anti-aircraft and antimissile systems, Russia would immediately close its borders to the thousands and thousands of Russian Jews waiting for permission to leave Russia for Israel,” Mr. Smukler said. “The Israeli prime minister is responsible for the lives of those who are trying to get out of Russia and Putin’s regime. He cannot provide military help and ammunition to Ukraine because he is responsible for keeping Israel’s door open.

“We know how many times the Soviets closed their doors to those who wanted to leave. And Putin easily could close the door on thousands of people who are still waiting for their documents and their interview. The Russians already sent a strong message in trying to shut down the Jewish Agency’s operations in Russia.

“We also heard the famous former Russian chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, tell every Russian Jew to leave as soon as possible. To run away from Putin’s terrorist regime. In a letter that was recently published, he said that sooner or later, the Russians will blame the Jews for losing the war. So he said that everybody of any Jewish descent should leave Russia for Israel.”

Remember, Mr. Smukler said, there are only two countries that accept Russian Jews — Israel and Germany. “The United States has completely closed its doors to Russian Jews,” he said. And Germany processes visa applications with an infuriating lack of urgency. So that leaves just Israel — and it leaves Israel with the obligation to do what it takes to make sure that its doors remain open.

There’s more winter coming. More stalemate militarily; more time for diplomacy, or at least for arm-twisting. So far, time and patience, as we wrote a month ago, seem to be favoring the Ukrainians. We’ll see what happens next.

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