A day late, a dollar short

A day late, a dollar short

Ukraine and Russia, Israel and Iran face off in a game of existential chess

This chess set uses traditional Russian 
matryoshka dolls in place of more conventional warriors.
This chess set uses traditional Russian matryoshka dolls in place of more conventional warriors.

There are both similarities and differences between chess as a game with ivory pieces on a checkered board — the ultimate abstract Game of Thrones — and what’s going on right now as aspiring empires around the world, led by bloody-handed dictators, reposition themselves as the tectonic plates shift beneath them — the all-too-real Game of Thrones.

Our Ukrainian war analyst, Alexander Smukler of Montclair, knows a lot about chess. As a child in the Soviet Union, he learned to play the game. “I’ve been playing chess all my life,” he said. “Chess education was very high-level as a matter of state policy, so I started to go to chess school when I was 8,” he said. “They were very sophisticated, semi-professional level, I usually went two or three times a week, after school or on weekends.” The training is open to all small children, but once you hit high school, you had to be selected to play. He was. “I was the chairman of my high school and college chess clubs,” Mr. Smukler said.

“When I graduated from the university, I couldn’t get a job, because I was a refusenik and a member of Mashka” — an underground Jewish movement — “so I taught chess. It gave me free time in the morning.

“Chess is my passion,” he added. “Jewish intellectuals and politicians are very good at chess. But I’m not nearly as high level as Natan Sharansky.”

This is relevant because Mr. Smukler sees the world in terms of chess — and he’s not alone. He’s sure that Vladimir Putin sees it in the same way — “I don’t know if he plays chess, but I’m sure that he must, and I know that the KGB academy had chess as part of its education” he said — and so do the leaders of China and Iran.

So what’s going on now in the wars in Ukraine and Gaza — which he sees as deeply connected, and has been saying are connected for the last year — is the game’s mittleshpiel.

“Last May, I said that Putin is cornered, and he will be looking for a way out,” Mr. Smukler said. “One of the ways he could get out would be a conflict on another part of the planet.

“The game has three phases — debut, mittleshpiel, and endshpiel,” Mr. Smukler said. “The debut was extremely bad for Putin. He made a major mistake when he invaded Ukraine. His blitzkrieg did not work. That was his debut. That continued until October 7.

“But then there was the incredibly bloody October 7, and then, according to my theory, Putin moved the global game of thrones to mittleshpiel.

“According to chess theory, you analyze many different options, and choose one of them. You have to break the situation into many small pieces. You have to predict your opponent’s moves, and as long as you predict correctly, you win.

“In chess, there is no such thing as morality. You simply have to destroy your opponent.

Alexander Smukler

“In real life, there should be morality, but in reality there isn’t. There are different rules up on the level that those leaders play on, the people who lead the world, and there is no morality. Their minds are built differently.”

In general, Western leaders operate under different constraints than Putin and his peers do.

“Western leaders wouldn’t do what Putin did because they respect international law,” Mr. Smukler said. They operate in a framework that values such ideals, at least to some extent. “Putin destroyed the pillars of peaceful cooperation because he crossed the border into another country. From the point of view of international law — not of morality — that’s a crime. But of course Putin finds thousands of reasons to explain why he did what he did — to denazify Ukraine, to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians. He lies to his people.

“The fundamental difference between democratic and authoritarian leaders — dictators — is that in the democratic world, leaders know that their terms are short, and then they will step down and be replaced. In the authoritarian world, the leader can stay for years. Their priority is to protect their power.
Their throne.

“That’s what happened with Putin. He became a czar. He concentrated such power that for him it became more important to get a page in a history textbook than to live in the modern, morality-based world.”

Mr. Smukler feels that Putin accomplished this goal by working with partners in this shifting global order, citing China and Iran as chief among those partners. They were able to trigger Hamas to set off the explosion that is rocking the Middle East now.

“And now we see the next face of this explosion,” Mr. Smukler said. “We saw it on Saturday night, when Iran, for the first time, started its missile attack on Israel not through any proxies, but from its own territory.

“From a military point of view, the attack was enormous. Nobody in history has had the experience of protecting its own country from hundreds of drones, tens of ballistic missiles, and dozens of cruise missiles. The scale of the attack was massive.

“And Israel protected itself, with help from the U.S., the U.K., and Jordan, destroying drones and missiles. And Saudi Arabia helped too. This is incredible — absolutely unexpected signs of cooperation. I applaud it.”

So now that Putin has plunged the deadly game he’s playing with the world into mittleshpiel — a stage that generally is fairly long, Mr. Smukler said, but most likely will not be in this game — “the world’s attention was switched to the Middle East, to Gaza, and to what Bibi is doing, and to the hostages, and to the pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Europe and the United States, and Ukraine stopped being a priority for world leadership after October 7.”

The Iron Shield — and Israel’s allies — shoot down the attack from Iran.

Now, Mr. Smukler said, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to decide what to do. “He might attack Iran,” Mr. Smukler said. “He is under enormous pressure not to attack from the United States and from Europe, but still it might be in his best interest to do so.

“He understands that he lost the war against Hamas. He did not destroy Hamas. He has not gotten the hostages home. He’s lost the lives of hundreds of soldiers. They had to almost withdraw from Gaza, with zero understanding of what to do next. Who will rule it? Who will rebuild it?

“But now, according to my understanding, Bibi is completely cornered. His career will end the minute the war stops. He will be blamed for everything — not only for October 7 but also for the war against Hamas, which did not bring any results after six brutal, intense months.

“So for Bibi, as long as the war continues, he survives. I think he needs the war, and that was predicted by the people sitting in the Kremlin. Personally, I think that everything was planned and executed from there. From that one place. From the Kremlin.

“But the U.S. administration and the White House are putting every possible pressure on Bibi not to respond to Iran. If he does respond to Iran now — not to Hezbollah, not to any other proxies, but to Iran — that will start the real third world war.”

Mr. Smukler returned to the matter of Ukraine.

“For six months, the United States was paralyzed in its response.” The Republicans in the House have been blocking aid packages to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan that have passed in the Senate and that President Biden will sign immediately if they hit his desk.

“For some reason, the Freedom Caucus” — the small group of extremely rightwing Republicans that has assumed control of the House because, given the arithmetic there, it finds itself with veto power — “suddenly realized themselves to be players in the global game of thrones.

“It is shocking to me that our political system is so impotent that we cannot override them,” Mr. Smukler said; he is joined in that shock by large numbers of Americans who, like him, find themselves surprised and appalled by the sclerotic way the House is operating now.

The Freedom Caucus is voting against aid to Ukraine because the man to whom it pledges loyalty, former president Donald J. Trump, has told them to do so. “Donald Trump is one of the most important players in this, and of course he has his own agenda,” Mr. Smukler said; his agenda seems to include an alliance of sorts with Vladimir Putin.

As time goes by — it’s been more than two years since Russia invaded Ukraine — Ukraine has been getting less and less of the aid that it needs. Both the United States and the countries of the European Union have been cutting back in their help. “We should admit that there is not a majority in the world that wants Ukraine to be able to defend itself. More and more countries, including Hungary, Slovakia, Turkey, China, and the other Brics countries are becoming more and more involved in helping Russia. They think that it would be much better if Ukraine loses the war.

U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) speaks with reporters on Feb. 5, 2024. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

“Right now, Ukraine is still holding onto the front lines, but it’s slowly, slowly losing territories, and the Russians are breaking through the front lines in different places.

“They’re moving into a city called Chasiv Yar, which is only 10 miles from Bakhmut and Aavdiivka.

“Aavdiivka was an important point in the Ukrainian defense line, but recently the Russians invaded and broke through the line. They’re moving toward Chasiv Yar. They have gained just 10 miles of territory in the last month, and they’re losing almost 1,000 soldiers every day.

“But they will take over Chasiv Yar. Their goal is to do it before the beginning of May. It’s a small town, but it’s a very important integral part of the Ukrainian’s defense line.

“After that, the Russian will have won an important strategic goal, and they will go on to take over Kramatorsk, which is one of Donetsk oblast’s biggest cities, and very highly industrial.

“Losing Kramatorsk would be a major strategic disaster for Ukraine, not only because it is a big city but also because it’s Ukraine’s supply center for that part of the defensive line. Losing it would change the w hole ball game.

“So right now, we have a very serious situation. The Ukrainians are bleeding. They are holding up the defense lines for now, but they are losing the capacity to hold on.

“If Russia breaks through the defense lines, that will mean the end of the war. The Russians will be free to move to Kharkov, and then to Odesa. They will wall Ukraine off from the Black Sea.”

From there, they’d go on to Kyiv, and it would be game over.

“So right now, we’ve reached the most important part of the mittleshpiel game — and of the war. Ukraine is suffering the deficit of every possible munition right now, and especially of the air defense systems. They can’t defend themselves. They can’t protect themselves against drones and missiles.”

And then, to add to the misery, there’s more.

Donald Trump shakes hands with former U.S. ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman, during the 2024 NRB International Christian Media Convention Presidential Forum in Nashville on Feb. 22, 2024. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

“Last month, Russia successfully destroyed Ukraine’s energy generation system,” Mr. Smukler said. “Ukraine has practically lost its capacity to generate energy. There are cities with millions and millions of people who have no electricity, no hot water, no refrigerators.

“Ukraine today is getting some electricity from Europe — there is a power bridge between Ukraine and European suppliers — but they are not able to fully satisfy Ukraine’s power needs. And the Russians now are actively destroying not only power-generation stations, but also the transmitting equipment that could transfer electricity throughout the country.”

It could have been different “if, six months ago, Ukraine had been able to successfully defend their skies from missiles and drone attacks,” Mr. Smukler said. “If only they’d had enough missiles and shells. But they didn’t, and they don’t.”

The missiles and drones the Russians fire at Ukraine are the same ones that Iran hurled at Israel.

The United States “is saving $60 billion in military support to Ukraine right now, because the Republicans aren’t allowing the financial package through, but if we want Ukraine to be our ally after the war, it will cost us four to five times as much to help it rebuild its infrastructure,” Mr. Smukler said. “It will cost us and our allies trillions of dollars then, instead of billions of dollars to support Ukraine now.”

It is also true that much of the money for arms to Ukraine would be spent not in Ukraine but in the United States, where those armaments are made.

“The only reason that Ukraine is surviving now is because Putin was waiting for his re-election” — the dictator was swept back into the office he plans never to leave by a vast if coerced majority in mid-March — “and he wasn’t able to announce mobilization. The only problem for him today is a huge deficit of cannon fodder”— remember that the Russians were sacrificing almost 1,000 men a day to inch toward a small town of no inherent value to them. “He already has announced that he will mobilize another 150,000 people, but military experts agree that Russia really will have to mobilize between 500,000 and 600,000 in the next four to five months.” And now that he does not have to worry about looking bad internally, Putin feels free to impress as many young men, particularly from the boondocks, as he needs.

“Russians understand. They are feeling the weakness of Ukraine, because our David, fighting against Goliath, is getting weaker and weaker. With Russia’s mobilization and training of new soldiers, it will increase its attacks, using drones and missiles, destroying Ukrainian infrastructure as it works to break through its defense lines.

“I predict that Russia will start its major offensive operation toward the end of June or the beginning of July, and that it will concentrate an enormous number of missiles and drones and aircraft and tanks and artillery and human resources, and it will be able to change the pattern of the war and basically destroy Ukraine.

“And Ukraine will move into a guerrilla war, with partisans fighting in the woods, as they did in World War II, using machine guns, bombs, and explosives.

“Russia has a huge window of opportunity to win the war and smash the Ukrainian army. Ukraine is suffering and bleeding because of the lack of military supplies from Western allies.”

What happens now basically is in the hands of the right-wing Republican members of Congress and their spiritual leader, Donald Trump, as they enthusiastically join in this round of the global game of thrones.

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