Back to the future

Back to the future

Next stop USSR or North Korea?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the U.K. House of Commons from Kyiv on March 8, 2022. (Office of the President of Ukraine/ UKRINFORM/
Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the U.K. House of Commons from Kyiv on March 8, 2022. (Office of the President of Ukraine/ UKRINFORM/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

It’s been a few weeks since we last addressed the war that Russia started when it invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

In those last few weeks, very little has happened to ease the stalemate, our analyst, Alexander Smukler of Montclair, said.

Very little has happened, that is, other than the complete annihilation of Bakhmut, the pile of rubble that once was a city. (True, it was a city with a horrifying history —it buried its Jews alive in a cave during the Holocaust rather than going to the expense of deporting them to death camps, and then buried the story. We retold it a few weeks ago.)

Mr. Smukler and his family came to the United States in 1991, a little more than half his life ago; until then he lived in Moscow, and he has retained many personal and professional contacts throughout the former Soviet Union. He speaks to his sources frequently and knows a great deal of what’s going on there now.

The Russians now claim the devastation as a victory, but Bakhmut, “which used to be a small city, with a population of about 73,000 — about the size of Livingston and Montclair combined — now probably will be an important chapter in every military textbook for the next 20 years,” Mr. Smukler said. “Today, according to Russian propaganda,” which would have no reason to exaggerate the waste, “it looks like the surface of the moon,” empty and pitted.

That’s because the Ukrainians were able to tempt the Russians to feeding men into the bloody maw of the battle for a place with no significance other than its bloodiness. “It was taken by the Russian mercenaries, the Wagner Group; right after that enormous battle they withdrew and gave the territory to the control of the Russian Ministry of Defense,” Mr. Smukler said. “According to the Wagner Group, they lost almost 35,000 soldiers. They were either killed or injured.” The majority of them were former prisoners, who were recruited with the promise that if they could survive for six months, they’d get a full pardon. “The Wagner Group’s six-month survival rate in the Bakhmut area was 2 to 5 percent,” he added.

“According to the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigoshin, the Ukrainians lost about the same number of soldiers, but that’s impossible to check, because the Ukrainians never release those numbers,” he continued. “But if he’s right, 70,000 lives were sacrificed from both sides, just for a small provincial city in eastern Ukraine.” That’s just combatants, not civilians, and the prize is bare rutted ground.

“Now Wagner withdrew. They have moved behind the front lines for so-called rest, but it’s because they’ve lost so many lives that they need to recruit new people and reconstitute itself. So Wagner is not in the picture; we will see when and where they return.”

Meanwhile, the stalemate has continued, although that might end at any time. The Ukrainians will start their counteroffensive very soon, Mr. Smukler said. He is not surprised that it has not started yet — as he has predicted for months, it could not start until the rainy season ended. Sometimes war comes down to basic physics. Tanks cannot move forward on mud. “Probably they also were waiting for supplies from their allies, but during the last few weeks the weather was enormously rainy,” he said. “But I expect that any day we will hear about a very serious escalation of military activity on the front line — which is almost 1,200 miles today.”

Zelensky is in Kyiv on March 3, 2022.(Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

That counteroffensive is extremely important, Mr. Smukler said. “The Ukrainians have a very narrow window of opportunity. They really need to make an enormous effort to push the Russians out of the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine, because by early fall, Putin will be able to mobilize many more people, and his military industry will be able to reach the level where they can supply military munitions, shells, and missiles in such numbers that the Western countries will not be able to match it.”

(Vladimir Putin is the titular angry dwarf, the street kid born to embittered World War II veterans and survivors whose only perceived way out of his narrow life was through lies, manipulations, and ultimately violence.)

“So in my opinion, the Ukrainians have only this summer to push the Russians out of the occupied territories, or the conflict will be frozen,” Mr. Smukler continued. It will be similar to the Korean War in 1953, when the demarcation line was created.”

And once the situation is frozen, it can remain that way for years.”

One change that’s affecting the situation is that Ukrainians now have begun crossing over the border with Russia, bringing the war to the enemy. “During the last few weeks, there’s been intensive fights on Russian territory about 20 miles away from the border.” That fight’s been propelled by the Russian Volunteer Corps, a Ukrainian-based, year-old Russian nationalist paramilitary organization that’s trying to liberate Russia from Putin and his government.

“They’re Russian, and it’s mixed,” Mr. Smukler said. “On the one hand, they are ultra-right Russian nationalists, and a lot of them are close to being Nazi. But by now, according to different sources, there are between 1,000 and 1,800 members of this group, and about 30 percent of them are Russian prisoners of war who decided to join them instead of being returned to Russia. The leaders of the group are recruiting those prisoners of war, and not trying to convert them.

“It’s growing in numbers because a lot of people now join them not because they are Russian ultranationalists but because they want to fight with the weapons at hand. It’s like a platform to unite people who are fighting the Russians.

“They receive military munitions from the Ukrainian army. They are highly equipped with Western weaponry. But they’re paramilitary; they’re not part of the army.”

There is a problem with the group, beyond its worrying origin story. “Many Western governments today, including the United States, are raising questions about why their weaponry has ended up there, fighting on Russian territory,” Mr. Smukler said. “That’s a violation of the condition of supplying the military equipment.” But at least now, it seems to be more of a background concern than a pressing one.

Li Hui (, left, Xi Jinping (, and Yevgeny Prigozhin (AP)

“But I think that it has an enormous impact, the Volunteer Corps crossing into Russian territory,” he continued. “They have captured several territorial defense soldiers, but they are very cautious. They’re trying not to kill civilians, even though there have been four or five Russian civilians who died. Their purpose is to destroy Russian military objects that are close to the border; they destroyed artillery and missile stations that can shoot 20 to 40 miles behind the front line. They also exploded several oil and gas reserves.

“They come and fight, and destroy things, and then they disappear.”

Almost 12,000 people were evacuated from a small Russian town, Shebekino, and moved further into Russia. “This is the first time during 14 months of war that the Russians have had to evacuate their own population from their own territory, because the war spread into Russian territory,” he said.

You’d think that’s good for the Ukrainians, but there’s a twist, he continued. “Russian propaganda now is telling people ‘See? We’re defending our own territory. They came to your house!

“‘This is not a war to take Ukraine. No! We are defending ourselves from NATO. We are trying to protect our borders and fight against the Ukrainian Nazis. We’re fighting against the organized West.’”

The “organized West” is the term of art the Russians apply to their adversaries, he added.

So ironically, the Russians who had come together in Ukraine to fight Russians inside Russia may have the paradoxical effect of helping both Ukraine and Russia.

On Tuesday, the Kakhovka dam, one of six that span the Dniper River, was blown up; the explosion, in the Russian-occupied Kherson region, will cause disastrous flooding and force the evacuation of many thousands of people.

As of this writing, it’s not clear who did it, or why.

Alexander Smukler, right, is with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in New York in 2019. (Alexander Smukler)

“You can’t just bomb a hydropower station that size,” Mr. Smukler said. “You need thousands and thousands of metric tons of explosives to do it.” But beyond that, right now, “who knows?”

But, he said, “I think it makes much more sense that the Russians did it. My personal feeling is that the Russians got some information that the Ukrainians were planning a counteroffensive move in that direction. To prevent that, they decided to explode the dam.”

There’s a secondary reason too, he added. “Russian propaganda already is saying that the Ukrainians did it, and it’s blaming the Ukrainians for the relocations.” People’s lives will become even more miserable than they had been, and it’s all the Ukrainians’ fault, they’ll be told — even though Russia started the war, and even though it’s likely that the Russians blew up the dam.

The only explanation Mr. Smukler can come up with for the Ukrainians to have done it — “and it’s very unconvincing,” he said — “is that all the territories that are now under the water are occupied by Russians. It creates enormous logistic problems for the Russians. As guerilla war, they potentially could have done it — but I can’t believe it.”

It is becoming clear to Russians that the country needs more soldiers. More cannon fodder. But as Mr. Smukler has explained, Putin does not want to draft too many men before his next election, which is scheduled for March. Yes, of course he’ll win, because the elections are neither free nor fair, but for his own reasons — remember, this is the Angry Dwarf, the emotionally crippled man who has to win, no matter what — he wants the results to be genuinely respectable. He wants to win, because he wants to be loved. This is not the time or place to analyze him, but according to Mr. Smukler, at least this much
seems clear.

There are also the drone attacks on Moscow, which haven’t done damage but are potent messages nonetheless. “I agree with the sources that say that the Ukrainians have successfully created a network of people on Russian territory,” he said. “The Ukrainians are smuggling parts of drones into Russia, and they’re assembled on Russian territory. Some of them even reached the Kremlin, despite extremely strong antimissile and antiaircraft systems.

“They’re undetected because they fly very low and they are not large, but they can carry up to five kilos of explosives.”

The situation is basically a stalemate, with each side doing what it can to unnerve the other, with enormous amounts of death and destruction causing even more pain, grief, and hatred but doing little to change the balance.

So Mr. Smukler suggests pulling back to look at the situation more broadly. Unless the Ukrainians manage to end the war before winter, the moves on the global chessboard will matter enormously.

Shebekino, a Russian town close to the border with Ukraine, is under attack; the Ukrainians are bringing the war home to Russia.

The Chinese remain involved. “President Xi Jinping appointed Li Hui, a former ambassador to Russia, to be a special envoy for peace talks,” Mr. Smucker said. “Li speaks fluent Russian.”

In Ukraine, Li talked to President Volodymyr Zelensky, “who explained the Ukrainian position to him — that they are not ready to discuss any peace plan, unless the Russians withdraw their armies from Ukrainian territory.

“In my opinion, this is not realistic. They will not withdraw their armies unless the counteroffensive is successful.

“After Li left Ukraine, he went to meet with Macron” — that’s French president Emmanuel Macron — “the German chancellor,” Olaf Scholz, “and a few other European leaders to discuss the Chinese peace plans. After that, he went to Moscow very briefly.

“There’s been no diplomatic success yet, but the Chinese are involved, and the envoy is collecting information.

“Under the surface, the Chinese are intensively participating in diplomatic efforts to find a peace solution,” Mr. Smukler said. “My position is and always has been that the key to stopping the conflict is in the hands of President Xi. Only the Chinese have any influence over Putin today. Chinese involvement is very important on the global chessboard.”

“We see only the tip of the iceberg” when we look at Chinese involvement in the diplomacy around the war, Mr. Smukler said. “But something is going on under
the water.”

Then there’s Turkey; Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reelection to the presidency will matter. “He is one of the major players in the conflict,” Mr. Smukler said. “That’s because he supports both sides. The election was a huge lottery that Putin won.

“Most of the Ukrainian drone fleet is Turkish. Erdoğan’s selling them, and the Ukrainians pay hard dollars for them.

Henry Kissinger speaks at the Hudson Institute in 2015. (Hudson Institute)

“At the same time, he is doing lots of favors for Putin, including creating a major gas hub in Turkey and letting Putin sell gas through Turkish pipelines. That really helps Putin have money to conduct his war. So Erdoğan’s reelection was very welcome by the Russian regime. He’s another very important figure on the global chessboard.”

And then there’s Henry Kissinger, the German-American-Jewish practitioner of realpolitik who just turned 100. In a recent interview with the Economist, Mr. Kissinger talked about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

“Kissinger said that he has changed his mind completely,” Mr. Smukler said. “He met with Putin many times, for many years.” He completely agreed with Putin’s desire to keep Ukraine out of NATO. “Now he basically admits that it was a mistake.

“Now he says that Ukraine has to be able to join NATO, and NATO’s most important issue right now is how to accept Ukraine, even though it’s involved in heavy military conflict.

“Kissinger doesn’t see any way for Ukraine to survive as an independent state without being a member of NATO, which will provide a certain security guarantee for European independence.

“I mention this not only because Kissinger played an active role in global geopolitics for many many years, but also because I agree with him. I think that right now Russia is increasing its military capacity quickly.

“If Ukraine is not successful in its counteroffensive this summer — if it does not push the Russians from eastern Ukraine, and even from Crimea — probably every player on the global chessboard will approve the idea of freezing the war. Both sides will be stuck behind their lines. The West will supply as many munitions as possible, giving the Ukrainians enough to defend themselves but not enough to push out the Russians, and the Russians will not be able to destroy Ukraine.

“It will be a stalemate,” and a particularly ugly one.

“Inside Russia, the country is increasingly becoming the USSR again,” Mr. Smukler said. “It will be like the Cold War again. Nobody wants the conflict to escalate. That would be a disaster.”

There’s also the issue of the American presidential election — the future of Ukraine is likely to be very different under a Biden or a Trump presidency — “and everyone will be waiting for the outcome of that election, and the Russian election.

“But Ukraine has the summer,” Mr. Smukler concluded. “It’s a battle of David against Goliath, and maybe we will see David succeed.”

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