‘We have witnessed a miracle’

‘We have witnessed a miracle’

Alexander Smukler talks about the week’s events in Ukraine and Russia

This was the Azovstal iron and steel factory in Mariupol in 2014. The city is in rubble now. (Wikimedia Commons)
This was the Azovstal iron and steel factory in Mariupol in 2014. The city is in rubble now. (Wikimedia Commons)

Much has changed in the war Russia started in Ukraine, Alexander Smukler of Montclair said.

Mr. Smukler is the Russian-born Jewish entrepreneur who’s been following the war closely through connections on both sides; this is another installment in the ongoing Angry Dwarf series, where he tells us what he sees. The Angry Dwarf, of course, is Vladimir Putin, whose insecurities and loose and ever-looser connection with reality is at the war’s heart.

The changes come from the ever-more-
obvious truth that Russia is losing the war that it began on February 24, secure in the apparently incorrect assumption that it could not lose.

“But now it’s more and more clear, not only for intelligence agencies but also for the people who are inside in Russia and people like me, who are trying to monitor the situation, that the Russian army is completely running out of resources and power,” Mr. Smukler said. “It is hollow. A paper tiger.

“It is obvious that they are all out of plans, and Putin is not able to reach his targets. None of it worked. And he is exhausting his military power, because he needs excessive resources, not only in heavy weaponry and ammunition but also in human resources. And they’re running out.

“According to the Ukrainian officials, by Monday Russians lost 27,000 troops.” That’s a huge number of men. Some observers say that the number includes dead, wounded, captured, or runaway soldiers; others say that it’s only of dead ones, and the real number lost to Russia is much higher. “This is approximately 25 percent of the army that crossed the border on February 24,” Mr. Smukler said. “And that means that they’re out of options.

“Putin has no other options except to minimize the operation or to draft young soldiers inside the country.

“At the same time, the Ukrainian army is growing. Recently, the Ukrainian president, Zelensky, announced that there are one million people serving in the Ukrainian army.”

That is due, in part, to strict laws on conscription in Ukraine. Every man between 18 and 60 must serve. “But they want to go and serve the cause.” That’s not the case in Russia.

“Everybody” — that’s including Mr. Smukler, at the beginning — “thought that Putin would announce the war with Ukraine on May 9.” That was Victory Day; it came and went toothlessly last week.

The expectation among observers was that Putin was likely to change the status of his Ukraine savagery from the special operation he’d called it to outright war. But he did not. That change would have allowed him to “announce martial law inside Russia, and start drafting and mobilizing new soldiers, but he did not,” Mr. Smukler said. “I think he realized that politically, he would lose support in the country if he started drafting soldiers.

“So right now, they are trying to recruit volunteers. They tripled the money for those who will sign a contract and go as a volunteer.” So how can you get paid to be a volunteer?

Alexander Smukler of Montclair

Mr. Smukler explained how it works.

Volunteer, in this case, means more or less professional. “The army in Russia has two parts,” he said. “One is the people who sign contracts as professionals, and get paid for it. The second part is drafted. Every young man at the age of 18 is drafted, and by law has to serve at least a year.

“Right now, the army that crossed the border into Ukraine, according to Putin, is only professionals. Putin swears to his people that he will not use young soldiers who were drafted during this military operation, but he is running out of professionals. So they are looking for more volunteers to sign contracts, and probably get paid two to three times more than the average salary in the region where they live.”

We’ve already heard about one group of mercenary soldiers who joined in the invasion, the fearsome-by-reputation national guards from Chechnya, where Putin brutally put down a revolution around the turn of the century. “About 600 of them ran out of Ukraine, leaving their ammunition behind, because of the incredible number of casualties,” Mr. Smukler said.

An unmistakable sign that Russia is losing the war is that “the Ukrainian army is not defending but attacking. They liberated the Kharkiv region; Kharkiv is the second largest city in Ukraine, the closest city to the Russian border, with a population of about 1.5 million. The Russians tried to occupy it in the first days of the war, with incredible bombardments and artillery attacks, but they failed to take it. That was the first signal that Putin might not succeed.”

Moreover, he continued, “Kharkiv is absolutely a Russian city. The population isn’t Ukrainian. It’s Russian. Most people there speak Russian, not Ukrainian. So it was a cold shower for Putin when he realized that it didn’t fall.” The people of Kharkiv might have been Russian by descent, but their hearts were Ukrainian, as was their resentment at being invaded.

“So the Russians stayed, and surrounded the city, at about 25 to 30 miles around it. All this time, they didn’t attack, because they didn’t have enough capacity, but everyone was expecting Kharkiv to be the next target.

“What happened instead is that the Ukrainian army completely liberated the region and threw the Russian troops out. On Monday, the Ukrainian army reached the border between Ukraine and Russia.

“That is a very big thing.”

Mr. Smukler took a breath.

“It is obvious that the Russians have no more capacity to invade Ukraine,” he said. “They cannot take Kyiv. The Russian army was not what all the experts in the whole world thought it was three months ago.

“We have witnessed a miracle.”

McDonald’s in Pushkin Square is where Mr. Smukler got his first taste of ketchup. (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, he said, the Ukrainians are trying to take back Kherson, a city the Russians did manage to take. “If they succeed, that will mean that the Russians will not be able to pop Ukraine off the Black Sea,” Mr. Smukler said.

“So it was an unusual and optimistic week The Russians are defending the territories they’ve taken, strengthening their lines around the two major regions that they’d taken, Donetsk and Luhansk.

“The war is such a failure. A total failure. And now, inside Russia, the population understands that something is going wrong. They are already getting the message. And they are scared, because they think that in order to get some kind of success, to move forward, to take some territory, Putin will need more of an army, so he will have to announce mobilization.

“But if he does that, his popularity will go down very quickly.” In other words, he’s stuck. Self-inflicted rock, meet self-created hard place.

Mr. Smukler went back to the story of Mariupol, “the only city that the Russians have captured fully. But it is leveled. It does not exist anymore. It is a dead city.”

The only place in Mariupol that has not yet been destroyed, that still shelters people, is the Azovstal steel plant; evacuations of the wounded had begun as of this writing.

Mr. Smukler explained how that’s possible.

“This is an absolutely unique situation, which obviously will be written in the history of military operations and military battles, like the Greeks and the Spartans, or David and Goliath, or Masada.

“These warriors are defending that military plant.”

It’s besieged; the Russians are letting nothing in. “There are about 1,200 to 1,500 people there now. About 600 of them are injured warriors; hundreds of them are heavily injured. They’re dying. There are several doctors there, but they are completely out of medications. The doctors are still doing amputations and operations. They’re working in terrible conditions, which no one in the world can imagine. No one can imagine what these warriors are going through. And that’s despite the fact that European leaders, including the pope, including Erdoğan, are offering different options to help evacuate them.” (That’s Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.)

The warriors are able to hide in the plant because it’s been hardened particularly for that reason, long before this Russian war. “A few days ago, I saw an interview with the former general manager of the steel plant,” he said. “He said that the factory was built right after the Second World War.” According to the rules at the time, “It was also a bomb shelter for the workers there because that was the beginning of the Cold War, and at that time it was a rule for major strategic plants and factories to be bomb shelters that were supposed to be strong enough so that they could allow for survival even against a nuclear bomb.

“So the plant manager said that there are underground facilities eight floors down. They were built in the 1950s, so that the workers in the plant — there were 10,000 of them then — could survive a nuclear attack on the plant.

Ukrainian activist Konstantyn Batozsky, right, who is Jewish, stands with members of the Azov Battalion in Mariupol at the start of the war. (JTA/Konstantyn Batozsky)

“That’s why it’s an underground fortress, including reservoirs for water and food.

“And the manager also said that after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, in 2014, he got an order from the Ukrainian government to refill all the supplies, food and water and medical supplies. That’s where all these people are hiding now.” Because local civilians knew that about the shelter, they went there when Russia invaded. “They were evacuated after mutual agreements between Russians and Ukrainians, but their military personnel still are there.”

Mr. Smukler hesitated. “Because we write for a Jewish audience,” he said, there’s a part of the story that he feels compelled to add, although he’s torn, both intellectually and emotionally.

“I have a dual feeling,” he said. “You know that my heart is fully with those who are fighting there and dying in conditions that it is impossible to imagine in the 21st century. The Russians are using every possible bomb, artillery, mine, every possible way of killing them.”

Before he discussed his misgivings, he explained who is in the plant. “There are soldiers who are part of the Ukrainian army. There are a couple of hundred Ukrainian marines, and there is a large group of military police. So it’s basically many defenders of Mariupol, who moved to the steel plant thinking that the Ukrainian government and the military would evacuate them.

“But the steel plant is surrounded by the Azov Sea on three sides; only the fourth side is land. They’d have to be evacuated by sea, but the Russians have blockaded it. So the Ukrainians have not been able to send any ships, and that’s why they’re still there.”

The problem is that “among them there is the so-called Azov Battalion, part of the Ukrainian National Guard. It’s the battalion that has been fighting in the Donetsk region since 2014,” when the Russians took Crimea. “It’s the battalion that includes right-wing pro-Nazi ultra-nationalists. These are the people with tattoos of swastikas. These are the people who are the main target of Putin’s military.

“That’s because he needs to capture them to present to the world the enemy he is fighting.

“He needs to capture them in order to show the world that these really are fascists. These are Nazis. We came for them. That is why we crossed the border. This is why the war started.

“And this is why the people inside cannot surrender, because they fully understand that if they are captured alive there will be an open criminal trial for them, Nuremberg style, and then they will be hanged or shot.

“For them, there is no way out.

“At the same time, Putin needs them badly. They have to surrender. That is the only proof he can have that he was right to start the war.”

Back to the future — the former Renault plant in Moscow will produce cars like this Moskvich. (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s very complicated, Mr. Smukler said. “On the one hand, I admire the warriors who can survive in such conditions. The whole world should stand for them. And they have no option. They must die. Otherwise, Putin will get the proof that he had a reason for his war.”

And it’s important to remember that most of the fighters trapped inside the Azovstal steel plant are not neo-Nazi ultra-nationalists. They’re Ukrainians, pure and simple.

“This is all extremely touchy,” Mr. Smukler said. “Among these 1,500, among the others, there is the Azov Battalion.” They’re easily recognizable, with their tattoos — which are not exactly swastikas, but two Ss that look like thunderbolts and have a definitely Nazi look.

“It is so important for the Russians to present them, either dead or alive,” Mr. Smukler said.

Negotiations to let some of the wounded fighters go to Russia are underway; some were released from the plant on Tuesday. Their fate is unclear, as is the outcome of the siege.

Mr. Smukler explained why he decided to talk about these neo-Nazis, despite not wanting to provide any fodder for the reflexively anti-Ukrainians who find the country irretrievable at fault because of the Nazi collaborators it produced during the war. That is not at all his feeling.

“It’s what happened in Buffalo over the weekend,” he said. “There are people who believe in white supremacy even in the United States, just as there are in Ukraine.

“We have to talk about it. We have to admit it.

“And if we stand against white supremacy and racism in our country, we have to be able to stand freely and strongly against it anywhere, in any form, around the world,” he said.

Something else important happened this week. McDonald’s and Renault both left Russia.

Those are enormously important symbolic losses, unmistakable signs of regression, Mr. Smukler said.

“McDonald’s was the first foreign company to come to the Soviet Union, in September 1990, and for every Soviet, including me, it was the symbol of the ending of the Cold War,” he continued. “I remember that my wife, my oldest son, and I waited in line for eight hours just to try a burger. A real burger.

This swastika-like symbol is the logo of the Azov Battalion. (Wikimedia Commons)

“That burger changed all of life for us. It was so amazing! We tried the burger. And we tried the ketchup. We’d never seen ketchup before.

“McDonald’s was in Pushkin Square, in the center of Moscow. During its first year, there were always lines. They were enormous. We were Muscovites, so we could come very early in the morning. People from all over the country traveled to Moscow to try it.

“It was a window to the West. It was a symbol of freedom, the end of the Cold War, and of the new Russia. It was so welcoming.”

It’ll cost McDonald’s a lot of money to leave Russia, but it was costing the company a lot to stay, given its lack of supplies and of customers.

“It is like the Soviet Union came back again,” Mr. Smukler said. “It is like an explosion in our mind. All our friends are calling each other to talk about it. It is a symbol that Russia is returning to the darkest times of the Soviet Union.”

On the same day that McDonald’s announced its departure, Renault, the French automaker, which had bought a Soviet car manufacturer 23 years ago, sold the business to Moscow. “Then the mayor of Moscow announced that the city bought the factory for one ruble, and now it will produce the old Soviet car called Moskvich.”

The normally restrained Mr. Smukler started talking faster, with more and more disbelief that shaded into anger.

“The old Soviet car! It is like a time machine, bringing us back. What the hell are these people thinking? They are going to produce old Soviet cars in the 21st century? It is insane. It is crazy.

“It took only three months for Putin, the insane angry dwarf, to take a prosperous country, kick out all the investors, all the foreign countries, and bring it back to the Soviet Union ruled by the KGB.

“That is what happened today.”

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