‘I have a question’

‘I have a question’

Alexander Smukler looks at good news from Ukraine and unsettling news from the United Nations

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is in the retaken city of Bucha in April.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is in the retaken city of Bucha in April.

There appears to be good news coming out of Ukraine as it fights off the Russians who invaded it in February, our analyst, Alexander Smukler of Montclair, said.

Mr. Smukler was born in Moscow in 1960; he, his wife, and the oldest two of their three sons left in 1991, just before the Soviet Union fell. His connections in Russia, Ukraine, Israel, and across the Jewish world lend great depth and insight to his views.

That good news is Russia’s flight from Kherson, the southern Ukrainian city that is the capital of Kherson Oblast.

You don’t have to have Mr. Smukler’s background, though, to know how intensely humiliating the rout is. Kherson was the first city the Russians invaded when Vladimir Putin, the Russian autocrat whose decision to grab another sovereign country, Ukraine, unleashed the war that began on February 24. It was the only regional capital the Russians held.

To understand the depth of the embarrassment for Putin, Mr. Smukler said, it is useful to learn a few facts about Kherson.

It began as a small Greek settlement — “it was an ancient place,” Mr. Smukler said. Next, it was an Ottoman settlement, and then “Catherine the Great took it from the Ottomans during the Russian-Turkish war. She ordered it to be built up as a Russian naval base on the Black Sea in 1778, and she even visited the city when she was the czarina.”

And although the Russians later built another naval base in Sevastopol, in Crimea, Kherson retained its importance, both during the Russian empire and during the Soviet time. Both then and now, it’s both a port and an industrial city where ships are built.

“It wasn’t until 1918 that the region officially became part of Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said; Lenin did that, he continued. “He created the Soviet Union, and he drew the borders between different administrative districts.”

Alexander Smukler

Lenin didn’t put Kherson in Ukraine by accident or oversight. “The Soviets added Russian-speaking cities and areas into Ukraine because they wanted to mix Ukrainians and Russians,” Mr. Smukler said. “It’s because the Ukrainians lived mostly in western Ukraine,” and Kherson is in the county’s east. “My personal theory is that Lenin wanted to assimilate people. He wanted to mix Russians with other nationalities so Russians could dominate. He did the same thing in other areas — in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. They wanted to create a Soviet nation.”

That means that “from the Russian point of view, it wasn’t unreasonable to say that it was part of Russia,” Mr. Smukler said; it wasn’t until 1991, when the Soviet Union formally dissolved, that it became part of Ukraine. “So from a Russian point of view, Kherson is a Russian city, but according to the international legal system it became an untouchable, unbreakable part of Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said.

Therefore, it makes a certain illogical sense that Putin decided to hold fake referenda in four Ukrainian regions, including Kherson. Unsurprisingly, the results of these not free, not fair elections was that those regions became part of Russia, which had to update its constitution to allow them in.

But how mortifying for him to withdraw so soon after the referendum.

And what devastation remains.

“Almost 30,000 Russian soldiers left Kherson, and the Russians are saying that abut 120,000 civilians left with them. They were evacuated to Russian territory. Ukrainians are saying that most of them were pushed to leave; they didn’t want to. That’s hard to check.”

The reason they withdrew, Mr. Smukler said, is that they had to. “They had no ammunition. No food. No water. They had nothing. The bridges were not functioning, and Ukrainian intelligence made sure that the supply lines were constantly bombed and disrupted. The soldiers were surrounded in the city by Ukrainians, so they would all die in the city if the Ukrainians started heavy bombardment.

“So the Russians understood that they had to leave.

Ukrainian-born Israelis return to Ukraine to fight for it. They speak to a Ukrainian woman who realizes they’re Jewish from their language; she’s Jewish too, they think.

“It’s such a weird situation,” Mr. Smukler continued. “They left the capital of their newly annexed region.” They crossed the Dnieper River, “and they exploded all the bridges, all seven of them, according to my sources.

“We know the history. When the Soviet army had to cross the Dnieper, particularly for the battle of Kiev, during the Second World War, the Russians lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers. It was the most difficult, bloodiest operation.” Then, as now, there were no bridges. “Now military sources and experts are asking how the Russians can take it back? It’s on the other bank of the river. How can they take it back without losing tens of thousands of lives?

“Nobody really understands what the Russians are thinking. Technically, Kherson is the capital of their region. It is now flying a Ukrainian flag, and Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, just visited it. It’s bringing back all kinds of civil administration, and it is rebuilding.

“And on the other side of the river, they’re stuck. If they ever want to take back Kherson, they’ll have to cross the Dnieper.”

And there’s another surprising part of the story. “My understanding is that the Russians withdrew their army very quietly and without any casualties,” Mr. Smukler said. “It’s weird.

“The Ukrainians did not bomb them. They did not use any artillery. I think there was an agreement, and the Ukrainians allowed the Russians to withdraw their military personnel.

“Some of my friends keep asking themselves what the Ukrainians got back for that.

“As far as I understand, the Russians said — and the Ukrainians agreed — that if you let us leave, we will not explode the dam.”

The dam, the Nova Kakhovka dam, is huge. “If it were exploded, there would be a huge flood that would wash out a gigantic amount of territory. So as far as I understand it, the Russians said that they would not explode the dam if the Ukrainians would let them leave Kherson without any casualties. And that is what happened.”

(Later, some of the dam was destroyed anyway.)

“Today, the Russians are at a dead end,” Mr. Smukler said. “Putin is at a dead end. Just months ago, he announced that he annexed Kherson. He had to abandon it, and he has sacrificed thousands and thousands and thousands of lives.

“That means to me that Putin now is choosing a completely different tactic. The tactic is destroying the infrastructure — power stations and railways and bridges and roads. He will try to create an extremely difficult winter for the Ukrainians. His goal is to get them to push Zelensky to the negotiating table.”

Which is a far cry from his goal at the beginning of the war, before the self-humiliations — at the cost of still-uncounted human lives -– began. Then he wanted to absorb Ukraine into Russia, where, he said, it belonged. The Ukrainians, who disagreed with that assessment, seem to be winning.

But despite his desire for Ukraine to win its freedom from Russia, and for the Russians to stop torturing and killing Ukrainians, Mr. Smukler is becoming increasingly unhappy with Ukraine’s actions in the United Nations.

“Ukraine voted against Israel again,” he said. “This has become ridiculous.

“I am personally so angry.”

This is a Shahed drone; the Iranians developed it from captured Israeli weapons. This picture is at a defense exhibition in Tehran in 2019.

He’s talking about a series of votes in which Ukraine has joined much of the rest of the world in condemning Israel for a wide range of perceived evils. The most recent vote, that the U.N.’s Special Political and Decolonization Committee passed on Friday, asks the International Court of Justice in the Hague to get involved in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinian territories. “It’s the second time in a row that Ukraine supported this resolution, which opens the gate for the General Assembly to discuss whether Israel could be sued by the international court,” Mr. Smukler said.

“Ukraine was among 98 countries to vote in favor of this resolution, which is harmful and painful for Israel,” he continued; “52 countries abstained, and 17, including the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, Italy, Germany, and Australia, were among the countries that voted against it.

“It raises the question of what is going on in Ukraine’s government. As a Jew, I am personally extremely hurt. It’s a pattern. Ukraine constantly supports resolutions that are against Israel.

“On Saturday, Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid strongly condemned the U.N. General Assembly and the vote on Friday.

“Why is Ukraine doing this? Does Ukraine not understand what it is doing on the U.N. stage? Or are they doing it on purpose?”

The relationship between Israel and Ukraine is tangled and hard to resolve, he said. “Ukraine is seeking a much deeper cooperation and military relationship with Israel, including technical and military support.

“Ukraine badly needs systems like the Iron Dome and antimissile and antiaircraft systems. Ukraine badly needs Israeli intelligence information, and it is seeking military training and help from military experts.”

Mr. Lapid, the outgoing prime minister, is openly pro-Ukraine and anti-Russia, but his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, tried to negotiate, and the man most likely to be the next prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been more open to Putin and the Russians than to the Ukrainians in the past.

This bridge, one of the seven over the Dnieper in Kherson, was destroyed. The Russians blew it up on their way out of town.

The problem is that “Israel cannot supply Ukraine with military munitions and especially with systems like the Iron Dome, because there always is a risk that the Russians could capture such munitions, which are highly effective and very secret.” They could then reverse engineer it.

“There is a risk that this equipment, or Israeli military secrets, could be delivered to Iran,” its archenemy, the country that poses an existential threat to Israeli’s existence, by Russia. “So it is totally understandable why last month Israel was reluctant to send highly effective missile systems to Ukraine. There always is the risk that Russians will capture it on the battlefield.”

That’s what happened with Israeli drones.

Months ago, Mr. Smukler said that Iran had captured and reverse engineered Israeli drones, and that it would manufacture them and supply them to Russia.

That has happened.

“Russia and Iran signed an agreement,” and now Iran’s Shahed drones “are playing an effective role against the Ukrainians.

“The drones carry two missiles and itself serves as a missile. It flies very low; antiaircraft systems usually miss it because it is so low and so slow.

“Russia is using them aggressively, bombing the Ukrainian infrastructure. It is a huge problem for Ukrainians.

Petro Poroshenko was the president of Ukraine before Volodymyr Zelensky.

“The most effective way to destroy them is a military munition built during the Second World War,” big slow cannon aimed at these big slow low-flying death machines.

Iran delivers the drones to Russia by boat, using the Caspian Sea, an internal waterway that allows much information about the deliveries to be secret. But Mr. Smukler’s sources know that many drone parts have been delivered, many are being assembled, and many of them already have been used. “Russia very quickly will have thousands of these kamikaze drones to use against the Ukrainians,” he said.

Ukrainians, for their part, are buying drones from Turkey.

But that does not stop Mr. Smukler from being hurt by the Ukrainians’ actions at the U.N. “I can’t explain why there are constantly voting against Israel, especially because it depends on military help and expertise from Western countries, including Israel.

“As a Jew, this really hurts me. For nine months, I have been sharing my knowledge and expertise about the war, and I always share it from a position of sympathy to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” he said. “We are trying to describe what is really happening, and how Ukraine is defending itself against Russian invasion, but the vote in the U.N. opens a Pandora’s box in my genetic memory.

“Not only is it upsetting, it brings me back to history, to Ukrainians participating actively in the mass murder of Jews during the Second World War, and never publicly regretting it.

“We know that in 1941, in major Ukrainian cities, pogroms and murders of Jews were organized and done by the Ukrainian collaborators with the Nazis, even in cities where the Wehrmacht wasn’t particularly close. That’s especially true of what happened in Lvov in July 1941, the mass murder of Jews.

An elderly Jewish man in Ukraine stands in front of a pile of firewood from the JDC. (Courtesy of the JDC)

“That was of course many years past, but we remember it. And this kind of voting in the U.N. somehow refreshes our memory.”

So why are the Ukrainians — why is their Jewish president — doing it? “That is exactly the question I have,” Mr. Smukler said. “Why? We need to know.

“When I was president of the National Coalition supporting Eurasian Jewry, formerly known as the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, I raised that question, together with other leaders of the organized American Jewish community,” he said. “We raised that issue many many times. We raised it whenever we met with the Ukrainian government, and its president. I remember raising that issue several times with President Poroshenko.” (That was Petro Poroshenko, president from 2014 to 2019.)

“But I personally never received a straightforward answer to the question of why the Ukrainian government keeps voting against Israel in the United Nations.

“This time I have a question for the Jewish president of Ukraine. Can someone please explain to the Jewish community in the United States why Ukraine voted twice in the last two months to support anti-Israel resolutions in the U.N.?

“This time I hope that we also hear from American Jewish leaders. I know that American Jewish leadership always tries to raise the issue very quietly. But now, I think that it’s time, particularly with Israel accepting so many refugees from Ukraine, and helping Ukraine in so many ways, including with medical help for the wounded, sending humanitarian help, and raising money for displaced Ukrainians. We know that Israel is actively helping Ukraine in humanitarian areas. That’s why I think it’s time for loud and public explanations of why Ukraine is still voting against Israel in the United Nations.”

Alexander Smukler and his wife, Alla Straks, are in Kyiv in 2016. The sign marks the building as the office of the president of Ukraine; that was Poroshenko, with whom they’d just met.
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