Sacrificing pawns and bishop, Putin moves his chess game to mittlespiel

Sacrificing pawns and bishop, Putin moves his chess game to mittlespiel

Former Kfar Aza resident Gili Okev sits outside his ruined house, a month after Hamas terrorists invaded and killed many of his neighbors. (Deborah Danan)
Former Kfar Aza resident Gili Okev sits outside his ruined house, a month after Hamas terrorists invaded and killed many of his neighbors. (Deborah Danan)

Hey, remember that there’s a brutal war going in Ukraine? The one that started when Vladimir Putin, the aspirant to the throne of Peter the Great, invaded next door, citing a number of unlikely reasons that boiled down to his bloodthirsty ambition?

That was on February 24, 2022.

The war has slipped out of the front of most people’s awareness because of the nightmare in Israel, when members of the terrorist group Hamas, chartered to destroy the Jewish state, invaded and slaughtered everyone they encountered with maniacal medieval glee, with the kind of brutality that sane people’s imaginations reject. They killed about 1,400 people, babies, Holocaust survivors, peaceniks, everyone. Many of them were raped first, many were tortured — and we are right to have our minds shy away from it, even though we have to know they did it.

They also took some 200 people — again babies, toddlers, old people, whoever — and are holding them hostage. We, the outside world, know nothing about what happened to them.

Everyone knows what happened next.

Israel began to fight back. The world exploded into paroxysms of antisemitism. President Joe Biden flew to Israel and has been steadfast in his support. Innocents in Gaza are being killed as Israel works to fulfill its duty to protect itself; we don’t know how many because the data we get comes from the Orwellian-named Gaza Health Ministry, which has a rare gift for counting dead bodies even before missiles fall on them.

Ukraine? What’s that?

According to Alexander Smukler of Montclair, who analyzes the war in Ukraine for us, the war in Gaza is a useful diversion for Putin and his Chinese and Iranian allies. (Mr. Smukler talked about this on April 20, in “To be or not to be,” and on May 4, in “Building dragon’s teeth,” and summarized it on October 12, in “Putin paid — Hamas delivered.”)

On October 26, “a high-ranking delegation of Hamas leaders went to Moscow, ostensibly to talk about the hostages.” According to the bloggers and other sources Mr. Smukler follows, “Number one, obviously, to rush to get support from the Russian government, and from Russian leadership, on the political level, on the international level, and especially in the United Nations, particularly in the Security Council.”

Russia seems to be doing just fine in the U.N.

Simcha Greineman of ZAKA, which specializes in search and rescue for bodies, is at Kibbutz Kfar Aza. (Deborah Danan)

In late October, the General Assembly passed a resolution taking the bold stance that terrorism and murder are bad, but not naming the murdering terrorists or their victims. Instead, it called for a ceasefire. In the October 27 resolution, the U.N. cited “protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations,” and attacked Israel for its response to some unspecified event.

In some ways it doesn’t matter, because General Assembly resolutions, unlike those from the Security Council, do not obligate Israel to comply. But they’re ominous. The General Assembly “did not condemn Hamas,” Mr. Smukler said. “It did not recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization.

And that was very, very upsetting.

“In some ways, it’s the usual situation,” he continued. “How many anti-Israel resolutions have there been during its short life? Seventy.

“What was really upsetting for me was that 120 countries voted in favor of that resolution, and 45 abstained. The resolution did not mention what started the war. It did not condemn Hamas. It did not recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization. It did not recognize the right of Israel defend itself. Only 14 countries voted against the resolution.”

He posed a question.

“Why did Ukraine abstain? Why isn’t it supporting Israel? Why didn’t it join the small club of countries that ruled against this resolution?

“I have no answer. One day I hope to be able to ask the minister of foreign affairs, or even the president of Ukraine. Why does it never fully support Israel, if it is looking for the EU’s support against Russia?”

As for Russia, “it condemned Israel for its disproportionate use of force against Gaza and Hamas, it did not recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization, it did not support Israel, and it did not express condolences to the Israeli government after October 7.”

Because everything connects, Mr. Smukler hears echoes from when he was in high school in Moscow — he and his family left the USSR for the United States in 1991, when he was 30, just months before it fell. “Every day in high school — every day! — we were told that Zionism was imperialism and apartheid, that we were Soviet people and against Zionism, and that Zionism was not antisemitism. But we love our Jews.” (They certainly had counterintuitive ways of showing that love.)

From left, Iliya Salita, executive vice president of the Genesis Philanthropy group, Ambassador John Huntsman, and Alexander Smukler.

It was all Soviet propaganda.

“I was part of the underground Jewish movement at that time,” he said. “We were fighting for the right to immigrate, to make aliyah to Israel. Our major goal was to teach that anti-Zionism is a form of modern antisemitism. Israel, and the miracle of its existence, is a central pillar in our self-identity.”

Mr. Smukler thinks that part of the reason that Jews are being attacked once again, that anti-Zionism is being decoupled rhetorically from antisemitism, and that often Jews join in the Jew-hatred is because they’ve been convinced they’re fighting against colonialism and oppression, not Jews. In fact they are fighting against Jews, and that is because older generations have failed them.

After a generation dies out, its historical memory vanishes, he believes. That’s why things like this happen. And that’s why we can wring a bitter sort of victory out of them.

“On October 7, I felt the terrible pain that all Jews in the world feel in their hearts, losing all those people, all those young children,” he said. “But for me, it’s a wakeup call. Jews of the world are fighting now. We’re fighting against evil. We all need to teach the world what we are doing and why we are fighting.”

He talked about his grandmother.

“She told me how her family survived a pogrom in 1920 in Ukraine,” he said. “The only reason they survived is because her father was a teacher in the school and his students hid them from the Red Army Cossacks who came to their little shtetl, looking for Jews to rape and kill.

“My grandmother told me that the blood was streaming on the street,” as it did on October 7. “She saw through the small window in the basement of the Ukrainian family who used to be her father’s students and hid them.

“My children and my grandson do not understand that. They don’t remember the stories. That’s why we need to teach them. That’s why October 7 is the wakeup call for everyone who has Jewish blood.

“I feel like the world does not understand what’s evil, what’s good, or what’s bad. And our generation is responsible for teaching not only our own people but the whole world what’s good and what’s bad.”

Jewish students and supporters rally near NYU on October 26, 2023. (Luke Tress)

When he looks at the young people supporting Hamas butchery and blaming Israel for what they call its disproportionate response to the attacks, and having that blame spill over into overt antisemitism, “I blame not only myself, but also I blame my people, because our generation and especially the young generation in the United States, I mean young Jews in the United States, completely forgot what a pogrom is.

“The fault is on us. We are guilty. We did not raise them properly. We did not give them a sense of their identity. But I believe that now, after October 7, Jews will unite, not only to protect our communities but also to stand for Israel.”

Mr. Smukler deplores the antisemitism that not only lurks but by now actively capers at college demonstrations against Israel. “But I applaud the philanthropists who withdrew their funds from some schools that supported these demonstrations against Israel and the antisemitic events on their campuses,” he said. He is heartened by such non-Jews as John Huntsman, who is supporting Israel.

So many things go full circle. Mr. Huntsman, a Republican, has been the governor of Utah, an adviser to presidents, U.S. ambassador to China and Russia, and a would-be presidential candidate. Mr. Smukler met Mr. Huntsman when he was U.S. ambassador to Russia.

“I always tell myself that every generation has its own war,” Mr. Smukler said “Every generation needs to learn the face of the evil. We need to understand what is good, what is bad, how to teach us to understand, to separate, who is evil, who is not.

“We need it to grow.”

Returning to the Hamas leaders’ meeting in Moscow, “some of my sources tell me that there was discussion about how Russia can influence Iran in order to open the second front on the north of Israel.” (That’s because Iran supports Hezbollah, which attacks Israel from Lebanon.)

During that meeting, he continued, the question of the eight Hamas-held hostages carrying Russian passports did come up. “The Russians don’t care,” Mr. Smukler said. “They’re just pawns to Putin. They don’t matter. He contrasted that with U.S. efforts to get American passport holders out of Gaza, as well as to free American hostages. The comparison is stark.

The Russians want to support Hamas; the discussions explored how they could help arm the terrorists. They also discussed how Russia’s notorious troll farms — the same organizations, some started by the late Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mysteriously dead leader of the Wagner group, that interfered in U.S. elections — could disseminate misinformation to help Hamas.

To sum up, Putin found himself cornered, Mr. Smukler said. His expected cakewalk into Kyiv turned into bloody stalemate.

Imagine the world as a chess board. “Putin has only one move that could possibly help him to survive,” Mr. Smukler said. “He has found the catwalk from the cage he was in.

“He had to sacrifice one of the important figures in the chess game: his bishop. Not only did he give up his pawns, he sacrificed his bishop — his relationship with Israel. He completely rerouted all the tension from the situation in Ukraine to the Middle East.

“Now he’s in mittlespiel, the middle of the chess game. It will intensify from here.”

What’s going on in Ukraine now?

“Putin’s situation on the front line is now much more stable than it was back in April,” Mr. Smukler said. He’d been running short of munitions; “he needs more time because his military industry is modernizing and producing more and more missiles, drones, artillery shells, helicopters, fighter jets, at an incredible pace now. He needs another four to six months to accumulate enormous amounts of military power on the front lines for the major offensive operation.”

Meanwhile, he said, it is necessary to admit that Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive failed. Ukraine is running out of supplies. The EU is running out of resources to give it. Most importantly, Kyiv is running out of human resources, its fighters. “Ukraine already exhausted its mobilization efforts,” Mr. Smukler said. About 200,000 of its fighters died, and another 100,000 are too wounded to return to the field. (By contrast, Russia doesn’t count its dead. “They don’t care,” Mr. Smukler said.)

The political situation in the United States adds to Ukraine’s tenuous position. Many Republicans had grown cold on Ukraine before October 7; if the government shuts down on November 17, there would be no way for even a willing administration to fund anything.

Ukraine’s first wave of soldiers were patriots, people who wanted to defend their country. By now, everyone who wanted to fight and was physically capable of fighting has fought; those who otherwise would be able to keep fighting are exhausted. The ones left now either were too young last year or really don’t want to. That also means that the morale that was so crucial to the Ukrainians’ ability to keep going has waned.

Some people — including Ukraine’s chief of staff, General Valery Zaluzhny, who was quoted in the Economist this week — believe that a long stalemate is inevitable. Mr. Smukler thinks it’s more likely that Ukraine will lose, in either the spring or the summer. He very much hopes he’s wrong.

It’s a grim world, he said.

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