It’s time to be realistic, Alexander Smukler of Montclair said.
Mr. Smukler, who analyzes Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine for us, grew up in Moscow and left the Soviet Union just before it fell, a few years less than half his life ago. His contacts in Russia, Ukraine, and the Jewish world have provided him with a great deal of insight into conditions on the ground there, as well as the thinking that’s undergirding the fighting.
Until Saturday morning, when Hamas began its pogrom against Israel, he asked for realism in two areas — in the prospects as the war’s bloody, macerating stalemate continues, and in our understanding, as Jews, of Ukrainian history.
Now there’s a third area: Putin and his allies’ understanding of Israel as a weapon for global destabilization.
Hamas has invaded Israel, slaughtering victims, from small children to aged Holocaust survivors, with medieval, truly unimaginable brutality, the kaleidoscope has been shaken and a new pattern emerges.
The world will shift its attention — and its money and weapons — from Ukraine to the Middle East.
As Mr. Smukler had predicted in these pages in “To Be Or Not To Be” on April 20 this year:
“Putin’s massive miscalculation has boxed him in, the Ukrainians have outfoxed him, the Finns have outsmarted him, the West has outlawed him, China has neutered him. What can he do?
“‘If I were Putin, what would I do to save myself?’— because surely he’d recognize how wrong he’d been in his initial assumptions, and what deep trouble he’s in now. He needs at least a year and a half to get his army to the point where winning the war would be possible even theoretically, and how could he buy all that time? ‘What would I do to save face — and basically save my life?’ Mr. Smukler asked rhetorically.
“‘And I found the answer. There is only one answer. I would pull all the strings in my puppet theater to destabilize the situation in a different part of the world.
“‘The first place I would try to destabilize is the Middle East. I would of course use all my power and all my capacity to create problems for the so-called organized West, and especially the United States, in a different part of the world.’”
Mr. Smukler repeated that point on May 4, in “Building dragon’s teeth — the action has begun.”
“Unfortunately, Israeli intelligence doesn’t read us,” Mr. Smukler said. “This attack was planned for six or seven months. Not seeing it is the most terrible mistake Israeli intelligence has ever made.
“It is because we stand for Israel unconditionally that we will seek answers for that failure.”
Now, the war in Ukraine, which is continuing even as the world’s attention shifts to its southeast.
Friday, October 6 is the 592nd day of the brutal war, which is moving into its second winter, Mr. Smukler said. “Unfortunately, during the summer we didn’t see the substantive or even tactical successes that we’d hoped for. The Ukrainian army has been fighting heroically, and they tried every possible way to break through Russian defensive lines during the summer.” But last winter, the Russians were able to entrench themselves inside three rows of nearly impenetrable barriers, ending in the dragons’ teeth and the minefields that have stopped the Ukrainians.
“They successfully broke through one line in some places, and in a few places they even broke through the second line, but they weren’t able to break through the third line,” Mr. Smukler said. “And the Russian defense lines include massive, gigantic minefields.
“Today, Ukraine is the most mined country in the world. It will take decades to demine the country, and it will cost a giant amount of money to do it.” It’s also likely to kill and maim large numbers of civilians, particularly children, over those decades. But for now, “it’s costing many Ukrainian soldiers their lives. In order to make a channel in the minefields, the Ukrainians can work only at night, with very small groups of people, because if they use machinery to demine the fields and let their soldiers through, they immediately will become a target.
“After these 592 days, this has become a new kind of war, which has opened a new page in the textbooks about military theory, because it is a true 21st century war. It uses satellites, air drones, sea drones, even underwater drones, missiles, and very sophisticated intelligence.”
On the other hand, it’s also using World War I tactics, with its trenches and underground bunkers, but even those theoretically primitive structures have been brought up to this century’s deadly standards.
Now, as we move into the fall, we are seeing that the “so-called summer campaign, that everyone expected” — or at least hoped — “would be a massive counteroffensive operation by the Ukrainian army and would see the Ukrainians liberate a large amount of territory,” didn’t happen.
The Ukrainians couldn’t do what they and their supporters had hoped they could do because it is becoming increasingly clear that they “have a shortage of artillery shells, missiles, tanks, demining equipment, and most importantly, human resources. In people.”
And now we’re into the fall, and winter is coming, Mr. Smukler said. In a few weeks it will begin to rain heavily. The highways have been bombed into oblivion and the smaller roads that the armies are forced to use will turn to mud and become impassable. “And then the leaves will fall, and the Ukrainians and their equipment, their tanks, will become very visible targets.”
Still, the coming winter is likely to produce a stalemate because it will make both sides’ movements and armaments visible to their enemies.
The lack of foliage in which to hide equipment and personnel was a problem last fall and winter, but it will be far worse this year, because of the new ever-presence of drones.
“The Ukrainian sky is full of drones,” Mr. Smukler said. “The Russians are using tens of thousands of drones, and they are able to see every square foot of the frontlines. At the beginning of the war, the Russian minister of defense didn’t pay attention to drones, and they didn’t have enough of them, but during these almost 600 days of war, the Russians were able to produce very sophisticated drones.”
The Russian army now uses Lancet drones. They’re kamikaze weapons, “probably the most effective and most dangerous weapons that use artificial intelligence,” Mr. Smukler said. “They choose the target by themselves, hit the target, and explode. The smaller ones carry one or two kilos of explosives, and the bigger ones can carry up to 100 kilos.
“It is almost impossible to stop them using antimissile systems, because they fly very slow and very low, and they are made from composite materials that are not visible to radars most of the times.
“The Russians also have thousands of attack drones — Shahed drones — from Iran, and they also have Chinese drones that are mostly monitoring in the sky. They are very small and do not carry explosives. Instead, they have cameras that allow operators to choose the target and send that information to artillery spotters. So the drones are a huge part of this war.”
The Russians have been able to increase production of artillery shells, Mr. Smukler said; that information has been in the New York Times. Production is growing so fast that the Russians are closes to the point where they will have no deficit in artillery shells and other equipment.
“This is an example of how sanctions are not working,” he said grimly.
The Ukrainians do have some drones, Mr. Smukler said. “At the beginning of the war, they received drones from Turkey. They bought them. But several military experts are saying that there are almost no more on the front lines. It does seem to me that they are starting to receive drones from their Western allies, but still there is a huge shortage.
“And the Ukrainians are starting their own drone production. A friend of mine, Pavel Feldblum, a businessman from Moscow who went to Ukraine to fight in the Ukrainian army, is now in charge of producing and operating its so-called drone unit. He told me that the Ukrainians now are able to produce and assemble drones by themselves, mainly small drones for monitoring battlefields and helping small units operate. It is very effective.
“Pavel also told me that they are printing parts for the drones on 3D printers, and they produce them very effectively. It is an example of how the Ukrainians are trying to start to produce their own equipment instead of depending fully on outsiders.” It shows their resilience and brainpower.
“Ukrainians also shocked the world when they successfully produced sea drones, and then very effectively operated them, and used them against the Russian fleet on the Black Sea just a few weeks ago,” Mr. Smukler continued. “The Ukrainians were able to hit and destroy one of the submarines and a big military vessel using their own drones. Both of them were in the Russian naval base in Sevastopol.”
But now winter is coming.
“It seems to me that the Ukrainian counteroffensive operations will have to shut down completely in two or three weeks, at least until the roads are frozen.
“The war is mostly an artillery duel,” Mr. Smukler said; it’s become very sophisticated because of the information drones provide. “Both armies are using artillery intensively.
“In August, between the two sides, they used more than 200,000 shells. That is way above the intensity of the Second World War.”
That intensity will be tamped down during the winter, he said. Because of the sophistication of the tracking devices, “an artillery unit has just a few minutes to take two or three shots before they have to change their location, because they are being targeted.” That’s much harder during the winter, when movements are more visible. “That is why I think that we are going to see a stalemate again this winter. Both sides will be able to increase their stockpiles, improve their supply chains, allow their military units to have some rest, and to draft more people to replace the ones who are dead or disabled.”
So far, Mr. Smukler said, according to many sources, particularly British intelligence, “The Russians have lost about 320,000 people, who are either wounded or dead, and the Ukrainians have lost about 270,000.” More troops die during offensive operations than defensive ones, he said — generally the assumption is that the losses are three to one — and the Ukrainians were on the offensive this summer, so their losses were staggering.
“One of the major problems for the Ukrainians in the future is the shortage of human resources,” Mr. Smukler said. They’re running out of young men. “The loss of 300,000 or even more — that is a gigantic number.” And when soldiers are drafted, they have to be trained. The army is getting sophisticated equipment from about 40 countries; each of those countries has its own programs, standards, and assumptions. The equipment is not interchangeable. That demands a lot of training.
Meanwhile, “the Russians are expanding their capacity in missiles and bombs. They’re bombing a lot of cities. Last week, they bombed Odesa and Kherson. They didn’t use missiles. They used aircraft and bombs. Ukraine’s antiaircraft system is working enormously well, but it is becoming clear that the Ukrainians do not have enough capacity to stop Russian drones and missiles. They are fighting in the sky against military aircraft and jets and helicopters. Ukraine doesn’t have enough equipment and antiaircraft missiles to protect its sky.”
And then there’s the money.
“This is the most expensive part of the war,” Mr. Smukler said. “The Lancet, carrying a few kilos of explosives and hitting a target, costs no more than $25,000 to $30,000. The missiles that are supposed to stop that drone, to hit it, to protect the Ukrainian sky, easily can cost $1 million or more. And if each missile costs a million dollars, it becomes prohibitively expensive to protect targets — civilians and military stockpiles.”
Over the summer, the Ukrainians were able to build up their stockpiles; at the beginning of the war, “experts said, Russians had 20 times more artillery shells, missiles, and other equipment than the Ukrainians had, so they used 20 artillery shells and received only one back. Before the summer, because of the massive supplies they got from their allies, the Ukrainian army reached the point where the Russians had only five to six times more than the Ukrainians. But now that is going to decline, because of the lack of financing and the exhaustion that we are starting to see from allies, particularly in the United States.”
The deal reached on Saturday that stopped the U.S. government from shutting down, for at least 45 days, cut nothing from the budget except aid to Ukraine. The amount in question was relatively small and observers expect aid to resume, but still, it’s a sign of increasing resistance from Republicans to helping Ukraine, and that is factoring into combatants’ thinking.
Another problem looming for Ukraine is that “neighboring countries do not produce enough military equipment in order to supply Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said, while Russia has upped its internal production dramatically.
Yet another problem is that it is becoming increasingly clear that the West is not sending its best, newest, most cutting-edge equipment to Ukraine. Instead, often countries seem to be clearing out their basements and storage lockers. “A lot of sources are saying that Ukraine is getting equipment from military junkyards,” Mr. Smukler said. “It’s like sending old clothes. We’re collecting boxes and boxes of clothing to send to help Ukrainian refugees — but nobody takes a fur coat and puts it in the box.”
One thing that’s helping Ukraine is Vladimir Putin’s electoral dreams. Although of course he will win the March election in which he is running for president yet again, his vainglory demands that his win be respectable. The results will show that he’s won by a landslide, but he wants to know that in reality he really did win, even if not by a lot, and even if it’s the result of propaganda and fear. “So he is not able to draft or mobilize more people until after the election,” Mr. Smukler said. (After that, it’s Katiya, bar the door.) “Until then, Putin does not have enough cannon fodder on the front lines. As soon as he can throw several hundred thousands of soldiers on the front lines — and remember, he doesn’t care about casualties — Ukraine will have major, major trouble.
“So I predict that next summer will be the most difficult time for the Ukrainians. I predict that July and August will be the hottest time on the front lines. I hope that the Ukrainians will use the winter and spring to build their defensive lines and infrastructure that will allow them to defend themselves when the Russians will be ready for their offensive operations.”
Yes, Mr. Smukler added, the Russians do know that this is coming; the government has canceled the passport of anyone who could be drafted — that’s any man under 55. That’s a response to last fall, when word of a mobilization caused 1.2 million people to run away. “So Putin and his government learned their lesson and will close the country’s borders,” Mr. Smukler said.
Mr. Smukler sees three possible outcomes.
The first is that the West would dramatically increase the weaponry it sends to Ukraine; to send it everything that it needs as quickly as possible. The second “is to send NATO soldiers to Ukraine, and that will be the beginning of the Third World War.
“And the third is to admit that Ukraine is losing, and find a way to negotiate with Putin immediately, because to delay it would mean that Putin would get more territory under his control.
“If the West is not capable of supplying Ukraine with enough very sophisticated modern equipment, including long-range missiles and antiaircraft missiles and anti-missile defenses, Ukraine will not be able to hold this off,” he concluded.
So that’s the hard truth about this enormous global game of thrones, as Mr. Smukler sees it.