Building dragon’s teeth — the action has begun
Alexander Smukler looks at China, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, and Evan Gershkovich
Over the last few weeks, Alexander Smukler of Montclair, who has been analyzing the war that began on February 24, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, has told us that he sees the global balance of power that has been in place since World War II ended in 1945 beginning to shift.
The visible sign of that shift is China’s President Xi Jinping’s call to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky last Wednesday, April 26.
Mr. Smukler is well-positioned to know what’s going on in Eastern Europe; he and his family left Moscow just a little under half his life ago, in 1991, just before the Soviet Union imploded. He’s maintained close ties there through business connections, family, and lifelong friendships ever since.
He’s described the trajectory of the man he calls the Angry Dwarf — Vladimir Putin, born soon after the end of World War II into bitterness and despair, the son of parents who survived the war but had little left to give him. He grew up on the streets — he lived in a communal apartment house that provided little incentive to stay inside — and had to make up for his small size and lack of physical strength through cunning. When you put more than 20 years of near-absolute power on top of that, you end up with Putin.
After World War II ended, the Soviet Union was one of the world’s reigning powers; even after it devolved into the Former Soviet Union, the FSU’s biggest component, Russia, held onto its position atop the world. But since Putin made the huge mistake of invading Ukraine, thinking that he’d be able to take over his neighbor as if by birthright, that’s started to change. More and more, Russia has come to be seen as a gas station with nukes; a backward country that has little to supply the world except its minerals and fossil fuels but bristling with weapons and willing to use them.
Now, however, Russia increasingly has shown itself to be impotent: Its armies aren’t nearly as formidable as they’d been assumed to be; its grasp of strategy is not at genius level; and its great leader, Putin, is more like the Great and Powerful Oz than Vlad the Impaler.
“Putin now is so cornered that he’s trying to destabilize the world,” Mr. Smukler said, picking up on a theme he’d begun to discuss two weeks ago. “Particularly the Middle East.
“When Xi visited Putin in Moscow in late March, he presented a so-called peace plan. That plan was a formality, and absolutely not realistic.
“Although the Chinese offered to recognize Ukrainian independence in this plan, it said that the Ukrainians should accept a ceasefire and start negotiating while the Russians continue to occupy the Donbas region. The ceasefire would freeze the armies on the front lines where they are now. That’s not acceptable to the Ukrainians, because they are demanding that the Russians withdraw their army. Then they can start to talk.
“So the plan was very unrealistic.”
But the phone call a month later? “Xi initiated that call,” Mr. Smukler said. “That changed the whole situation, because Xi was declaring China’s involvement in the conflict, and his own personal involvement.”
It’s a bold move in the global game of thrones that’s being played out around the world, he continued.
“Starting on February 24, 2022, China declared a neutral position. It never condemned Russia and abstained from voting against Russia in the United Nations, but it declared that it was not going to help either side militarily.
“The only country that can effectively stop the war is China. China is the only channel through which Putin’s regime receives money, through selling its mineral resources, that allows them to subsidize and finance their military operations in Ukraine.”
China already has shown its power on the world stage by the relationship it negotiated between Iran and Saudi Arabia, countries that had been bitter enemies, divided not only by geopolitics but also very deeply by religion. “This is another step up for China,” Mr. Smukler said. “China will receive enormous political benefit if it can successfully broker a peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia.”
Moreover, “that is compared to the position of the organized West, which according to China is only adding fuel to the fire.”
Xi called Zelensky now, Mr. Smukler said, because after his trip to Moscow “Xi Jinping fully understands that Russia is completely dependent on China.” It has become a vassal state; Xi is Putin’s liege lord. “The Chinese will continue to enjoy Russian mineral resources, and to control Russia’s oil and gas production.” China is buying those resources at huge discounts, Mr. Smukler said.
“The Chinese won’t gain anything economically from Ukraine, but if they are successful, they will receive enormous political benefits in the international area, and that will be another step up to leadership in the world — and it will diminish the U.S. influence in the world.”
Mainly, though, as bad as Mr. Smukler thinks this emerging power dynamic is for the United States, the immediate pressure is on Russia. “The Chinese fully understand that they have every possible instrument they need to put pressure on Russia. China can shut down Russia’s oxygen if it has to.”
China is able to humiliate Putin in this way because Putin’s made so many mistakes, Mr. Smukler said. “I’m sure that he asked Xi to step in and broker a peace agreement, but Putin is so cornered that he has no other options. No one else in the world will talk with him. Nobody can help him get out of the corner he’s in.” A corner, moreover, into which he manipulated himself.
“Every other broker in the world would require Putin to be sentenced by the International Criminal Court,” which issued an order for the Russian’s arrest in March, for the crime of relocating Ukrainian children illegally, stealing them and giving them to Russians to adopt.
But “the Chinese do not recognize the International Criminal Court, so it is the only superpower that can guarantee Putin’s existence in the future.
“Xi needs Putin, because only Putin can guarantee China all the economic benefits. If there is a new leader in Russia, the Chinese won’t know how that person will deal with them, so it’s important to Xi to retain Putin.”
On the other hand, “Zelensky does not depend on the Chinese.”
So if there were a hierarchy of power, Xi and Zelensky are on top, and Putin — well, Putin’s not. “Now it is up to the Chinese to decide what conditions Putin will accept.”
Mr. Smukler thinks that with Xi’s phone call to Zelensky, he also is throwing down a gauntlet to President Biden. The call came right after Biden’s announcement that he’s running again. “President Xi and President Biden represent two poles,” Mr. Smukler said. The Chinese are stepping into the conflict. What will the West do now?
Of course, Mr. Smukler added, all of this depends on the “Ukrainian counteroffensive that everyone keeps talking about. Every news channel says that it will start very soon.
“My personal prediction is that they will not start soon, not for the next two, three, maybe four weeks.”
We have to remember that we do not live in the same climate as the Ukrainians do, and that weather matters. “They’re waiting for the mud season to be over.” Tanks get bogged down in mud; they’re far more effective on dry land.
“Spring hasn’t come there yet,” Mr. Smukler continued. “They want to wait until green leaves cover the trees.” Here, the world has erupted in baby green. There, not so much. Leaves hide much that is visible through bare boughs.
There also is evidence that the Russians fear the Ukrainian counteroffensive. That’s where the dragon’s teeth come in.
“Dragon’s teeth are part of the military infrastructure, built to protect against tanks,” Mr. Smukler said. “They’re giant concrete structures, massive hunks of concrete”; they look almost like Jersey dividers on highways. But unlike Jersey dividers, the dragon’s teeth are the visible part of a massive infrastructure that also includes trenches and underground facilities for machine guns,” he continued.
This gigantic defensive structure “requires a huge amount of labor and money, and in a modern war nobody builds up such a defense line,” Mr. Smukler continued. “It’s like building a medieval fortress. It’s an old idea, and it’s hugely expensive.”
Some visible pieces of the structure — the dragon’s teeth — are as long as 150 miles, he added. And it means that the Russians are planning to defend their front line, rather than to try to advance and take any more Ukrainian territory.
Now, “the Russians have built a gigantic defense line, which probably cost billions of dollars, or at least many millions of dollars, behind the front lines,” Mr. Smukler said.
“That means that they’re scared to death of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. And it’s clear that they are thinking that they have to defend what they have, not to advance. Otherwise, there’s no reason to build such a massive infrastructure behind the front lines.”
It’s not that they care about the soldiers whose bodies they are throwing into the meat grinder of the war Putin started, Mr. Smukler added. The protection is for territory, not people.
So the window of opportunity that exists for the Ukrainians extends from the time good weather arrives and the new stocks of weapons that the West has promised are delivered until the end of the summer, when Russia also obtains new weapons. “After that, the window will close,” and the situation may change, Mr. Smukler said.
Meanwhile, Russia has been showing the world how it plans to unsettle the Middle East. “As we know, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, was in New York for two days, and caused a scandal during the meeting of the U.N. Security Council when he initiated a discussion of the Palestinian question during Yom HaZi-karon,” Israel’s memorial day. “Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Gilad Erdan, left the meeting, condemning the Russians for doing that.”
“Today is one of the most sacred days of the year for the State of Israel,” Mr. Erdan said afterward. “We made numerous requests to reschedule today’s debate, describing the deep importance of the day, yet tragically, this council refused to budge.
“Today’s debate has crossed all lines. While Israelis mourn, this council, as usual, will hear more blatant lies condemning the State of Israel and falsely painting it as the root of all the region’s problems.”
And then Mr. Erdan aimed a question at Lavrov. “What would you do if this council was convening to single out and condemn the Russian Federation and your soldiers on the 9th of May, on Victory Day over the Nazis?” he asked, rhetorically but powerfully.
“This makes me sick to my stomach,” Mr. Smukler said. The Israelis had asked the Russians not to hold the discussions on Yom HaZikaron; “the Russians were fully aware of what they were doing,” he said.
“Not only is it disgusting, it reminds me of the Soviet times,” when the Soviet Union played similar games. “This is to me another proof that Russia is preparing to destabilize the Middle East. The purpose is to diminish attention to the conflict in Ukraine and redirect it to the Middle East.”
Mr. Smukler also talked about Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter whom Russia has imprisoned as he awaits trial for espionage.
“President Biden met with his family — his parents and his sister — in Washington; interestingly, it was on the first day that Russia chaired the Security Council. The U.S. delegation invited Evan’s sister to participate in that meeting. That symbolizes that the United States recognizes him as a hostage taken by Putin’s regime, not as a spy.”
We don’t know much about Mr. Gershkovich, Mr. Smukler said; we do know that his parents, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich, “immigrated from the Soviet Union in 1979, through HIAS,” the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, as it was called then.
“They came to the United States right before the Iron Curtain was closed completely, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and it was closed for at least seven years. His parents were lucky; I applied for immigration for the first time in 1980, and I was refused.
“His mother is from Saint Petersburg and his father is from Odessa; I assume that they met in the United States. Evan was born in 1991. He obviously didn’t have Russian citizenship.
“He did have full accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however. That means that he should have been protected by international law.”
That made him, at least on paper, more protected than many other foreign journalists in Russia, who are there as freelancers, and therefore cannot get full accreditation. “The last time I remember a foreign journalist having a clash with Soviet or Russian security forces, the KGB or the FSB, was in 1986,” Mr. Smukler said. “Even during the Cold War, I don’t remember an American or foreign journalist being arrested or sent to jail for spying, although I do remember several cases when the Soviets expelled journalists or had them declared persona not grata. “Even during the very dark years of the Cold War, I don’t remember any journalist being sent to jail for espionage, even when they were being kicked out left and right.”
In fact, Mr. Gershkovich’s story sounds more like basketball star Britney Griner’s than it does other journalists’. He graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine and became a reporter. When he first went to Russia, he worked for Moscow Times and then Agence France Presse, and he wrote occasionally for the New York Times before he got the staff position with the Wall Street Journal.
“You can imagine that made him a highly visible foreigner,” Mr. Smukler said. “He’s very young. He grew up in an Ashkenazi Russian-speaking Jewish family. I think that he became very successful in Russia because his Russian is very fluent, and he is obviously very knowledgeable about Russia culture.”
Mr. Smukler is struck by Mr. Gershkovich having introduced himself in Russia not as Evan but as Vanya, the nickname for Ivan; it might connect to his love for Chekhov. The names are similar but very different. “Ivan is atypical for an Ashkenazi family,” he said. “It is totally 100 percent Russian.
“I called a number of friends who occasionally met with him, and they said he introduced himself as Ivan.” He might have been trying to sound ethnically Russian rather than Jewish. “But Gershkovich is an absolutely typical Jewish name,” Mr. Smukler said. Being Ivan Gershkovich is like being Christopher Cohen. It’s improbable.
Mr. Gershkovich didn’t have many connections with the Jewish community in Russia, Mr. Smukler continued. Mr. Smukler is a founder and the first president of Moscow’s small Reform community. The Reform synagogue, which opened in 1989, has grown since he left, and more recently has attracted expats. Before the war, Mr. Smukler often used to go to Russia in September, because it was a fertile month for business; he’d often spent the High Holidays there. But he never ran into Mr. Gershkovich, and neither did any of his friends. “I think that he was trying to keep distance between himself and the Jewish community, and to position himself as a Russian,” Mr. Smukler said. It’s clear to him that in his childhood, “the kid fell in love with Russia,” and that love has lasted until now.
He also was struck by Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest having been in Yekaterinburg, because of its resonance. “Yekaterinburg is the third largest city in Russia,” he said. “It’s the largest Russian military, industrial, and scientific center. During World War II, the Russians concentrated all their military industry there. The major Russian plants are in that area — for example, the largest tank plant in the world is right in that area, in a city called Nizhny Tagil. That’s where the Russians are producing the tanks for the front in Ukraine. I don’t know what Gershkovich was doing there.”
It’s also where Czar Nicholas and his family — his wife and five children, the last of the Romanovs — were assassinated in 1918. It’s a city bathed in blood.
One thing that is absolutely clear is that Mr. Gershkovich is not a spy, Mr. Smukler continued. “Everybody who is connected to any intelligence agency in the world knows that if you are going to go to Yekaterinburg and then another 60 miles to Nizhny Tagil, the FSB will be after you. According to the internet, he was writing an article about the Wagner Group, investigating the shortage of weaponry and manpower that it’s experiencing, and trying to understand why. That’s why he went there, to meet a source.
“It seems very adventurous to me for a Wall Street Journal writer to take such risk, but it seems that the Russians took advantage of his inability to understand the risks he was taking.
“I feel terrible for him. He can receive a sentence of 20 years for being a spy, and obviously he is not one. They will keep him as a hostage, and who knows how many years he will spend in jail until the Russians decide to exchange him.
“I feel terrible for this kid and his family.”