The Global Game of Thrones— winter is coming
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The Global Game of Thrones— winter is coming

Alexander Smukler looks at the war in Ukraine, and the larger implications

This residental building once stood in Borodyanka, Ukraine, before the Russians bombed it during the invasion.
This residental building once stood in Borodyanka, Ukraine, before the Russians bombed it during the invasion.

Everything is connected, Alexander Smukler of Montclair said.

On the one hand, perhaps that isn’t news. The idea of the butterfly effect — the idea, as the internet puts it, that “small things can have non-linear impacts on a complex system” — is not a novel one.

But Mr. Smukler, the Russian-born Jewish entrepreneur who has news sources in Russia and Ukraine and has become our analyst as he decodes the war there, is more specific. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February and the war that followed as Ukraine fought back is not just a bloody confrontation between those two countries. It’s a war between democracy and dictatorship, he says; events around the world provide sideshow, cover, or proof of that statement.

And as often happens, Israel is one of those sideshows.

“I want to talk not only about Ukraine but what took place during the last two weeks, and how they are connected — the situation with Gaza and Israel, Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and what’s going on in both Russia and Ukraine right now,” he said.

First, the situation in Ukraine.

“We are close to the end of the sixth month of the war, and it is obvious now that the Russians are moving forward, but very very very slowly,” Mr. Smukler said. “Is that because the Russians do not have the capability to move forward, or are they just regrouping?

“Putin has time.” What he does not have is access to large numbers of fighters, though. “It is important to him to freeze the conflict instead of having the huge rate of casualties that they had at the beginning, because that would cause him problems internally.

“During the last two weeks, the major battles have been in the Donetsk Oblast. The Luhansk Oblast is entirely under Russian control, but they still cannot complete the occupation of Donetsk; when they finally do, they will have the entire Donbas.

“But now they are moving forward between one and two kilometers a day. That’s less than two miles a day.” The Russians are concentrating on raining artillery on a few small towns, preserving their soldiers but destroying everything in the towns. “Zelensky has ordered the complete evacuation of the civilian population from that area, because both sides understand that it will be completely demolished, just like Mariupol was,” Mr. Smukler said. But still, the question remains — why is it taking so long?

“It seems to me that the Russians cannot afford to lose more soldiers because, according to Ukrainian sources, by today” — that’s Monday, August 8 — “41,736 were killed. And the Ukrainians are saying that more than 50,000 Russian troops were injured. I know that these numbers are incredibly high, and the only source for them is the Ukrainian mass media, but at the same time my sources inside Russia are saying that people there are getting the sense that the death rate is tremendous.

“At the same time, Russia has increased its efforts to sign up more people to send to the Ukrainian front.”

Putin has not called the war in Ukraine a war; officially, it’s a special military operation and he cannot institute a draft to fight it. “But the Russians are opening up kiosks in every big and middle-sized city.” Mr. Smukler has been told that more than 15,000 “so-called volunteers — people who have signed contracts — are prepared to go to the Ukrainian front.

“One of my sources said that the Russians have increased the monthly payment from 200,000 to 300,000 rubles; that’s approximately almost $4,000. This is an amazing opportunity. And the Russians are paying about 5 million rubles to families who lost a father or son or husband in the fighting. That’s about $70,000. It’s a gigantic amount of money for most Russians. So more and more people are signing up, and about 15,000 of them are in training camps in Belarus, ready to be sent to the front lines.”

Quite a few of those recruits will have to have extra training because it’s not easy to learn how to drive the Soviet-era tanks that the Russians have been using; those tanks are not only unwieldy and imprecise but also require four people. Newer tanks take only three.

Vladimir Putin stands with Sergei Lavrov in Moscow in 2015. (Kremlin Media Center)

Another source of Russian soldiers is Russian prisons, Mr. Smukler added. “They are offering criminals contracts; I have heard from different sources that they’ve signed almost 20,000 prisoners already. They’ll be paid like regular soldiers, and their criminal charges will be dropped.” Oh, and after the war is over, if they survive it, they’ll be back on the streets.

Mr. Smukler cited the Oscar-winning Russian movie producer Nikita Mikhalkov, who has a television show and devoted a whole recent episode to the story of a man “who was imprisoned for 14 years for murder and extortion,” but was released after he signed a military contract. “Mikhalkov talked about how this guy had become a national hero because he used a grenade to explode himself and the Ukrainian soldiers who surrounded him in the battle for Donetsk. So he goes from criminal to national hero.

“I know his name but I don’t want to use it,” Mr. Smukler said. “I was amazed and shocked to see this TV show with a world-famous movie director who said, ‘Even criminals are ready to defend their motherland against neo-Nazis.’”

On July 31, “Putin conducted a massive naval parade in Saint Petersburg,” Mr. Smukler continued. “It was to show the whole world the capacity and capability of the Russian navy. You wouldn’t believe how many submarines and military ships were presented to the public. Millions of people were able to see them in person or watch them on TV. The day before the naval parade, Putin signed the so-called Maritime Military Doctrine. The most important part of the 50-page document is the new statement that the main enemy of modern Russia is the United States and its allies, the NATO countries.

“The doctrine shows Russia’s global ambitions as a maritime power. It says that the United States’ strategic policy is to dominate the world’s oceans, and that Russians may use every possible military force on land or in the ocean if soft or diplomatic forces are exhausted.”

This is new, Mr. Smukler said. “Even during Soviet times, there never was such a doctrine, which called the United States the enemy. This is another proof that the Cold War has returned. And, of course, this isn’t the Cold War but a phase of a hot war.”

The fighting itself “has become a war of drones and artillery and missiles,” he said. “Both sides are using very heavy artillery.” The Ukrainians are doing well now; “they successfully destroyed a huge Russian arsenal and stockpiles of their military ammunition.

“But it is becoming absolutely clear that the Ukrainians do not have the capability to destroy the Russian army. They are using the Himars and all the other heavy artillery they’ve gotten from other countries, and it’s helped slow the Russians, but they don’t have enough to help their own army move forward. They can defend themselves but they don’t have enough to kick the Russians out from Ukrainian territory.

“That’s why the war is in limbo.

“The Ukrainians are exhausted, and we can see it more and more every day. The Ukrainian casualty rate also is very high — they never release information about how many soldiers they lose, but it seems to me that they are losing a lot of people. They have to send more and more to the front lines, and that is becoming a real issue. A lot of Ukrainian men do not want to lose their lives.”

The West, too, is starting to get tired, and to exhaust its resources, Mr. Smukler said. That’s another reason why Putin is not in a hurry. He knows that.

“Last Friday, Biden signed another bill, with about another billion dollars for Ukraine. But we all understand that he can’t give a billion dollars every week. That obviously will become an issue; it’s bipartisan now but it won’t be closer to the election.

“Europe is exhausting its capability. It doesn’t have that much more equipment left; they’ve already sent Ukraine what they have. They’re reaching the point where sending more military ammunition and weaponry will affect their own safety and security. So many of the European countries are saying, ‘Sorry. That’s it. We’re done.’ And even in the United States — Zelensky asked for 100 Himars, but the U.S. will supply about 20 more. That will bring the number that they’ll have to 36. This is absolutely not enough to scare the Russian army.

“According to my sources, Russian generals and Putin’s leadership already understand this.”

Next, there’s the economics of the situation, and the new, perhaps welcome bedfellows who come out of it. “Putin realizes that the sanctions are not having a huge impact on the Russian economy, and that Russia can survive even under the sanctions.” That’s because there is a big market for their mineral resources. China and India are avidly buying Russian oil and gas, at discount prices. “According to several major sources, in the second quarter of 2022 China increased its importing of Russian oil by 50 percent, compared to the previous year,” Mr. Smukler said. And then, he said, China “is able to resell this oil on the world market.” Minus the discount, of course. “Several sources are saying that the Saudis are buying Russian oil and mixing it with their own brands. It is very profitable.

Mr. Smukler meets with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdo˘gan, in New York in 2018.

“Russia sells oil at a 50 percent discount. When the Saudis mix it with their oil, they can avoid being blamed for importing oil. It is a huge scam, and at the same time Europe and the United States are suffering from the price of oil; Europe, in particular, is suffering with an incredible increase in the price of gas.

“We, the United States, are a gas producer, so we are okay, but Europe has to find sources of liquid propane to fill their needs instead of using Russian gas. But unfortunately, the world is not able to fill the Europeans’ needs because of the lack of tankers. As we get closer to winter, this will cause major economic problems for Europe. And Ukraine will suffer terribly, because there will be no gas at all. That is why I am positive that Putin is waiting for the winter.”

And as we all know, winter is coming.

That brings us to the game of thrones, and specifically to the quick visit the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, made to Taiwan last week. “I don’t want to discuss the reasons for the trip, or how it will affect our internal politics,” Mr. Smukler disclaimed. But when he looks at in the context of the war in Ukraine, and Russia’s worldview and Putin’s advantages, “the visit was the best gift that Putin received in the last six months. It cemented the relationship and cooperation between Russia and China more strongly than anything else.

“The Russians, thanks to Russian propaganda, now understand that they are in the same situation, with Crimea and the Donbas, that China is with Taiwan.” According to Russia, it was just taking back its own territory when it invaded and reconquered Crimea in 2014, and it’s doing the same rough justice now in the Donbas. China believes that Taiwan belongs to it, and that the United States is perpetuating a global theft by pretending otherwise. “The Russians think that the United States demonstrated that the world is divided into two parts, the West and the world that is against that West. Pelosi’ visit to Taiwan demonstrated to the whole world how dangerous the United States is, and that the countries that suffer from its domination have to gather to fight against it and its allies.

“In the last few days, Russian propaganda has been nonstop about the visit, and how strong the relationship between China and Russia became after it. The Russians already are saying that with Chinese help, the United Nations will be much more flexible in understanding Russia’s position.

“China is enjoying the situation. It’s quietly taking over the Russian economy, taking over Russian’s mineral resources. It’s been doing it silently, but Pelosi’s visit changed the whole ball game. China today will open its gates to Russia at a full capacity.”

And now, finally, to Israel.

“Although not much was happening on the front lines in the last two weeks, much was happening globally,” Mr. Smukler said. “Russian diplomats, and particularly the Russian minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov, was traveling to many countries to gain support for Russia and establish an alliance against the United States and the European Union. Because everything in the modern world is connected — that’s why a few weeks ago we talked about Putin’s visit to Iran, I said that Russia’s cooperation with the regime in Iran is growing very fast, and now the first shipment of Iranian military drones has arrived in Russia — the recent escalation of fighting in Gaza is all connected in the global struggle. In the game of thrones between Russia, China, and the United States.

“Russia always maintains a very strong relationship with Hamas and with the PA.” The Palestinian Authority governs the West Bank and Hamas rules Gaza. “A Hamas delegation regularly visited Moscow.”

Then he gets to the underlying point.

“Today, for Russia, it is so important to destabilize the world. It’s connected with Russia kicking out the Jewish Agency” — that began to happen a few weeks ago, as many of the activities of the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel were suspended — “and today I think that it is a reflection of the relationship between Russia and Israel.

“Israel did not stand against Russia openly” when the war began, he continued. “Quietly, it was helping Ukraine. Putin, remember, is a street fighter” — that’s where the Angry Dwarf comes in; he’s physically small and has had to make up for that perceived deficit in other ways, many of them underhanded — “so when the prime minister now, Yair Lapid, openly and loudly called him a war criminal, and called for Israel to support Ukraine publicly, Putin will never forget that.

“That is what happened in Gaza. That was the sudden escalation. That was 100 percent the hand of Russia.

“That’s because Putin has to take attention away from Ukraine to other parts of the world. That’s what happened in Gaza. That’s what we saw in Taiwan. He has to destabilize different parts of the world. He enjoys it. We will see that now, and we will see it until Ukraine falls. That is his global tactic.”

Yes, it makes sense that Israel irritates him, but it’s a small country. Why does it matter so much?

Part of it, we’ve already established, is the brain drain that sends highly educated professionals, particularly but not only in IT, from Russia to Israel. But that’s not all of it.

““Israel is probably one of the most important players in the Middle East and beyond,” he said. “And don’t forget that it is a nuclear country. Members of the nuclear club matter. That’s why I believe that the recent escalation was completely orchestrated.

“Very soon the northern front in Israel will become a problem, because Hezbollah will wake up.” Hezbollah famously is a Russian client. “Let’s remember that Iran is working very hard to get its nuclear warheads. And while Israel will fight on different fronts, trying to defend itself against Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Syria, then Iran will speed up its production of nuclear warheads.”

And then, Mr. Alexander Cassandra Smukler continued, there’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey. It’s because of Erdoğan that Russia allowed Ukrainian grain through Odesa to market. “Putin did Erdoğan a favor,” Mr. Smukler said. “Putin understands that Erdoğan is like him. He is seeking a third term soon, and this agreement, as I understand it, will help him.”

How are the two men alike? “They are both dictators. Just like other dictators — Modi, al-Sisi, Maduro. They all have a similar psychology.

“Erdoğan is very important for Putin, because he controls the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. Putin depends on him, and supports him as much as he can, because God forbid for him if someone replaces Erdoğan who is closer to the United States. That would be a disaster to Russia.

“It is all game of thrones.

“Everything is connected, and much more strongly than it used to be. The world is in an unstable situation today. The war in Ukraine is a war between democracy and dictatorship. It’s not between two countries but between two ways that the world can exist in the future. It’s about which ideology will win, the dictators or democracy.”

“Yes, we are living in a very dangerous world.”

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