Playing with fire
A look at why no one has tried to stop the war Putin started last year
It’s been almost exactly a year since Vladimir Putin, the angry dwarf himself, the runt-like street kid who grew up deeply scarred by World War II, although he was born after it ended, invaded Ukraine, calling for its denazification.
There already are dead 250,000 soldiers from both sides, our analyst, the Russian-American-Jewish entrepreneur Alexander Smukler of Montclair said, and tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed.
Russia has destroyed much of Ukraine’s industry and infrastructure. About 9.5 million people have been displaced, and about 3.5 million are trying to get refugee status, which will allow them to work and help them gain access to social services in other countries.
So now, at the end of the first year of the war that Putin started when he began what he thought would be a waltz but instead has become a debacle, Mr. Smukler wants to define some of the backstory.
Why, he asks, has what could have been just a regional conflict turned into a situation that’s involved 70 countries? Why does he call it World War III?
To explain, Mr. Smukler goes back to the Napoleonic Wars, which raged across Europe from 1803 to 1815. When they ended, “they had completely reshaped Europe, and the world’s geopolitics were completely changed. The rules were completely rewritten.
“The next earthquake was in 1914. It was World War I; it completely changed and reshaped Europe and the world. Several of the world’s biggest empires were destroyed, 20 million people lost their lives, and many millions were displaced. As a result, in 1918, the world changed. New rules were written, and the League of Nations was created for the fulfillment of those rules.
“And then, we saw the bloodiest conflict in world history, when the new rules from 1918 were not acceptable to two systems — the communists and the fascists. So they started World War II, and that also completely reshaped the world. After the war ended, the Allies — the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union — wrote the new rules that created the new postwar world. They created the United Nations and wrote the rules that became the U.N.’s charter.
“So now, nearly 80 years after Yalta, we are seeing the conflict that future historians might call World War III. It’s become clear that a big part of the world does not want to follow the rules that have been the basis of peaceful coexistence.
“There is a group of countries that is trying to reshape the world map and rewrite the rules.”
Okay. So a combination of historical and technological and psychological and generational changes seem to have led to a need to rebalance the world order, and the Russians, led by Putin, who’s clearly angry with the status quo, invaded Ukraine to try to start that change.
Given all this, Mr. Smukler’s next question is why no one has tried seriously to stop the war. He’s not talking about grandstanding, but about serious efforts in the international arena. “Why have we seen only escalation of the conflict?” he asked.
“Putin and his army are the aggressors, and the West is helping Ukraine defend itself — but it’s not giving Ukraine real instruments it can use to defeat Putin,” he said. “Every time the Ukrainians ask for something that they need on the battlefield, it takes weeks — even months — for the European bureaucrats to discuss that request before they agree to supply it, and then it takes months to train personnel to use it, before eventually it gets there.
“We remember how successful the HIMARs were, when the Ukrainians finally got them,” Mr. Smukler continued. (HIMARS — High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems — are missile launchers. The Ukrainians started receiving them in late June and have gotten about 20 so far.) “It’s not enough,” Mr. Smukler said.
“The Ukrainians are asking for fighter jets and tanks and artillery. What they’re getting is coming in slowly, and they’re getting a minimum amount of what they need to seriously defend the country and begin a counteroffensive against the Russians.
“So I’ve been asking myself why nobody is trying to stop the most bloody conflict in Europe since the Second World War. Nobody has offered a road map to stop it. Nobody calls for an international peace conference to discuss ways to stop it. Nothing is coming from the United Nations except toothless resolutions condemning Russia.
“We see that sanctions that were imposed against Russia were enormous; we were told by European and British and U.S. leaders that the sanctions will push Putin and destroy his economy. But a year has passed, and the Russian economy is not only not destroyed, but according to some sources it’s growing. The sanctions are not working.
“Yes, it’s only been one year. Maybe in two, or three, or five years they will start to work. But now it’s obvious that the sanctions did nothing to stop Putin’s aggression, and it did not destroy the Russian economy. Experts from around the world agree about that.
“When you read those experts, you see that everyone is surprised that such brutal sanctions did not work. Russia easily bypassed them.
“China, India, Iran, Turkey — they’re all helping Russia bypass the sanctions, and they’re all making enormous profit from it.” Those are not the only countries, Mr. Smukler added; so, for example, Brazil, South Africa, and Argentina also are working with Russia.
The devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, which is known to have killed nearly 40,000 people so far, will have effects, but it is not yet clear what they will be, or if they will affect the war.
“It seems that everyone in the modern world wants this war to continue,” he said — everyone, that is, except for Ukraine and some of the Baltic states.
The European Union is gaining power and coherence from the war, and, it hopes, more members, including Ukraine and Moldova. (Ukraine, remember, is almost as big as Texas. It’s the second biggest country in Europe, second only, and ironically, to Russia.) NATO is working to accept countries that traditionally have been neutral even during the Cold War — Sweden and Finland — and NATO as an organization is undergoing a renaissance as a result of the war.
The EU also benefits because the war has ended its dependence on Russian oil and gas; instead, it will develop new sources of energy, which will be far more in consonance with the green parties and philosophy that are so important to many of its member countries. “The EU is planning to spend billions of dollars on green energy,” Mr. Smukler said. “So everybody in the EU who wanted to replace Russian oil and gas is in good shape right now.”
Great Britain — still part of NATO but Brexited from the EU since 2016 — benefits, Mr. Smukler said, because “the British government, which was very unstable” — an understatement about a country that has had five prime ministers since Brexit, and whose queen, Elizabeth II, the paradigm of stability, died last year after 70 years on the throne — “and its new king, Charles III, are dreaming of finding its place in global politics again.
“That is why it is trying to play independently and doing everything possible to show the world that Britain is back, and that it’s still an important player. That’s why Zelensky” — that’s Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who coincidentally is Jewish — “was there, speaking to the British Parliament last week. That explains why the British government is trying to lead the campaign to help Ukraine defeat Russia.”
Israel also has benefitted from the war, a benefit that is likely to continue.
“It is on the very sharp edge between two stones” — it wants to help Ukraine, but cannot afford angering Russia too much, both because Russia aids Hezbollah in Lebanon and because it wants to keep open the channels that allow Russian immigrants into the country — “but it has received an enormous number of newcomers, of olim chadashim, this past year.
“Most of them came to Israel from Russia permanently. They have left Putin’s regime, and they are coming with money, education, and training.
To begin with, “most of the Russian oligarchs have moved to Israel, and they have brought their wealth with them, billions and billions of dollars.”
Beyond that, “Israel also has received the most sophisticated, educated group of young people, who after a while will make Israel the beneficiary of that education.”
Those young people are eligible for Israeli citizenship through the Law of Return, and they are taking advantage of that opportunity. “Those Jews who stayed in Russia for the last 30 years, developing private enterprises there, now have to run from Russia. It’s been a huge wave of immigration — but this time it’s a wave of successful, educated young people, who brought their wealth and experience with them.
“And it’s also true of Ukrainian Jews. In the last year, Israel has received an enormous number of new immigrants who are extremely well educated and have great potential for Israel’s economy and society.”
There also are historic forces at work, and historic memories and grudges that date back to World War II and far beyond. Eastern and Central Europe have been carved up many times; this war, no matter how it ends, could see similar reconfiguring of borders, Mr. Smukler said. If Russia wins, Poland might get back some of the territories in western Ukraine that used to be part of Poland, and Hungary might regain some of Transcarpathia. The Czech Republic might win back some of its old territory too. This might not happen — but hope springs eternal, especially when it’s connected to war.
On the other hand, if Russia loses, “Germany can claim its interest in Kaliningrad,” which used to be Konigsberg, in what was East Prussia.
“The whole world will be restructured after this war, no matter who wins it,” Mr. Smukler said.
And no matter who wins, China wins too, he added. “China gains enormous benefits from a weakening Russia, because today China is not only buying Russian oil at huge discounts, but also penetrating the Russian economy in every pore. China needs Russia to be weak, buying everything at a discount and becoming its major trading partner and supplier.
“Much of this is true of India and of Turkey. There’s no doubt that Turkey is a beneficiary of this war. It’s selling drones to Ukraine and is a major player in helping Russia bypass sanctions. It’s become a hub in Russian gas supplies. And geopolitically, Turkey completely controls the Black Sea and its position is very important for both Russia and Ukraine.
“So that’s why other countries are benefitting from the escalation of this conflict.
“They’re playing with fire.”
And then there’s the United States.
“We’ve spent tens of billions of dollars helping Ukraine this year,” Mr. Smukler said. “At the same time, the U.S. military industry is on the verge of a complete rebirth, after the enormous disarmament of the last 30 years. Look at what’s going on with the stocks of our military industries, like Lockheed Martin, Boing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman. Every dollar that we spend in Ukraine is coming back to our military industries many times over.
“This enormous arms race, which began right after the attack on Ukraine, is beneficial to the most powerful industry in the world.
“If I am right, this is the explanation for why U.S. diplomacy to stop the war is useless. The United States has done nothing to stop the war. They’ve escalated the conflict, but never found ways to deescalate it.”
So, Mr. Smukler concluded, “everyone is benefitting from what’s going on Ukraine now except the Ukrainians, who are fighting and losing their lives every day.”
No, the Russians are not benefitting from the war right now, but their plan is to conquer a huge part of Ukraine, reshape the political map, and rewrite the rules of global co-existence.
“The whole world is complicit in this,” Mr. Smukler said. “Everybody is busy putting more fuel on the fire and getting benefits from it. We haven’t had an arms race like this since the Second World War. The amount of money involved is gigantic.
“But nobody really cares about Ukraine.”