The eastern front is boiling, and the western front is freezing
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GLOBAL GAME OF THRONES

The eastern front is boiling, and the western front is freezing

Alexander Smukler looks at Israel, Ukraine, and his Soviet childhood

Hamas hands over 11 Israeli hostages in Gaza on November 27, 2023. (Stringer/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Hamas hands over 11 Israeli hostages in Gaza on November 27, 2023. (Stringer/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Alexander Smukler of Montclair has a visceral understanding of the new reality in the United States that most of us here are lucky not to share with him.

Mr. Smukler, an entrepreneur who analyses the war in Ukraine for us, was born in Moscow and came to this country with his wife and their young sons in 1991, just months before the Soviet Union dissolved.

“When I read about what’s going on in the universities here, I remember when I was a student in the Moscow Automobile and Road Construction State Technical University in 1977,” he said.

Wait, Mr. Smukler. What? You’re an engineer? Who knew? “I majored in mechanical engineering, and my minor was civil engineering.” In fact, he wanted to go to medical school and become a physician. “That was my dream,” he said.

But Alexander Smukler was a Jew in the Soviet Union. “Only a few schools in Moscow were allowed to accept Jewish students then,” he said. “In April of 1977, the Moscow Communist Party Committee made a secret decision to eliminate so-called Zionist activities in the major Soviet universities.

“We were not afraid to apply to many universities, but we were told up front that we would not pass their exams. We wouldn’t get in.”

Back then, each university gave applicants either three or four tests, in math, Russian literature, and physics, chemistry, or both, he said. “Most of the Jewish kids who applied to the universities that did not allow Jews, who tried to break through that wall, got C minuses on the tests, or maybe Fs.” That means that the most desirable schools could reject Jews but blame it on the applicants. It wasn’t the schools’ fault if these poorly prepared students bombed on their tests, was it?

So Mr. Smukler applied to a school that he knew accepted Jews

“In September 1977, we went to class” — that was his freshman year — “and to a huge gathering that was organized by the administration of our university. There were about 6,000 to 7,000 students in this large conference hall in downtown Moscow.

“Of course, they didn’t separate us, so that Jews and non-Jews sat together, but that first meeting was dedicated to how we had to fight to support the Palestinian students in our school. There were lots of foreign students, especially students from Palestine.

“I remember that one of our professors, Saul Notkin, a famous professor of math, who was Jewish, stood up in front of the meeting and called on all the Jewish students to support the Palestinians and the PLO, and to condemn Zionism.

“We were asked to condemn Israel and Zionism and apartheid and aggressive colonialism. He used exactly the same terms that we now hear from the campuses. There is the saying that history repeats itself. For me, I heard nothing new when I heard about what is going on campuses here now. I grew up with it.

Mr. Smukler is past president of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry.

“So we were in that huge room, with more than 6,000 students, and our professor was demanding united support of Palestinians in their struggle against apartheid and Israel, and a little girl raised her hand.

“Before that, Notkin had asked that everyone who is of Jewish descent and supports Israel should raise their hands. He said, ‘We want to see you. Maybe some of you will want to come to the microphone to condemn Israel.’

“It was silent. Nobody raised a hand. We were all scared.

“And then one little girl, Marina Belkin — I remember her like it was yesterday — she raised her hand, and asked — and can you imagine, she was one person in that huge hall — ‘Professor Notkin, can you explain to us the difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.’

“That is the question that basically is the major issue on college campuses here right now,” Mr. Smukler said.

So Ms. Belkin asked her simple but unacceptable question of Dr. Notkin. “And of course he didn’t explain anything to her. He said, ‘That’s very interesting,’ and he said, ‘you will attend the class about scientific communism, and you will learn a lot.’ Everyone had to go to the class about scientific communism. He said, ‘In that class, you will learn about Zionism.

“‘Zionism is a front for the West. It is the avant-garde of the imperialist politics conducted by the United States and its allies.’

“These terms and ideas sound familiar, but I am talking about something that took place in the Soviet Union, behind the Iron Curtain, almost 50 years ago.”

So what happened to Marina?

“Approximately two days after she asked that question, she was called in front of the Young Communist League Committee in our university — that’s the Komsomol — and she was excluded from it.” She was kicked out.

And that means “that she couldn’t be a Soviet student, so they kicked her out of the university. Just because she asked that one question.”

She and her family became refuseniks, and although Mr. Smukler is not in touch with her, he’s heard that she’s alive and well, somewhere in Ohio.

Moscow School #518 celebrates its opening in 1974; Sasha Smukler was a student there.

Moreover, Dr. Notkin, “that Jewish professor who stood in front of us demanding that we condemn Zionism and the state of Israel at the beginning of our educational process on the campus, immigrated to Israel with his family in the early ’90s. He retired to Israel, and he died there.”

Mr. Smukler’s wife, Alla Straks, had a very different experience as a student, he added. “She was a musician; she started her musical career when she was 5 years old, and it went through school, college, and conservatory,” he said. “In that part of the education system, in music, in show business, there was no antisemitic pressure from the government. Not until you reached the level where you became very famous, and then they’d push you to sign all kinds of anti-Israel statements and participate in anti-Zionist committees.

“The Soviets didn’t really pay attention to the musicians otherwise. If the Jews were musicians, that’s fine. That’s where they should be. They can entertain us.

“That’s why so many Soviet Jews have been musicians, or involved in different kinds of art or music. Because they weren’t suppressed there, as they were in every other field. You need talent — but if you don’t have the talent to become a famous musician, at least you’ll always have bread and butter for breakfast.”

Mr. Smukler thought about the meeting during his first semester, the one where Marina asked her question — “when I was a student, we had many meetings like that, but this was the first one, and it’s something I’ll remember all my life — when I saw the hearings about antisemitism in Congress,” he said. That was last week’s meeting of the House Education Committee, when presidents of three of the most prestigious American universities — Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT — could not say that it would be against their school’s rules to call for the genocide of the Jews. “When somebody makes the excuse that being anti-Zionist has nothing to do with being antisemitic, I completely deny that formula. I am saying that anti-Zionism is the modern form of antisemitism. Period.”

He’s disturbed by the demonstrations on campus, Mr. Smukler said. “When we see these demonstrations, with the signs about ‘From the River to the Sea,’ that Israel is equal to genocide and apartheid, I think about how what Putin is doing in Ukraine is exactly what Israel is doing in Gaza right now.” With a vital difference, of course. Israel’s attack on Gaza was provoked by the barbaric Hamas attack in Israel; Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine was caused by Putin’s ambition.

“The United Nations has officially recognized that 19,000 civilians were killed in Ukraine during the last two years. Hundreds and hundreds of them were children; 16,000 children were displaced, separated from their parents, and nobody knows where they are. That’s why the International Criminal Court in the Hague issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March.

“But we don’t see massive demonstrations against Russia,” Mr. Smukler said. “When I saw the faces of the young people demonstrating against Israel in New York, I thought that if you are demonstrating for human rights, for good causes, against murdering children, against collateral damage, why are you demonstrating against Israel but not against Russia?

“What is the difference? The difference is that they are standing against Jews. That is a perfect example of the double standard.”

Back in the Soviet Union, antisemitism was government-supported, Mr. Smukler said. “We called it state antisemitism, because it was the government’s policy to be against Israel, against Zionism, and they injected that idea into the minds of each young generation.

“They raised people with strong anti-Israel and anti-Jewish feelings. It’s the same thing in modern Iran, and in Arab countries. Children get textbooks in school telling them how bad the Jews are, how terrible Israel, that fascist, apartheid state, is. The children are poisoned by antisemitism and anti-Israel feelings, and it would take years to change it.”

The strong antisemitism current in Russian culture “is spread and supported by the Russian Orthodox church,” Mr. Smukler said. “It’s always been very antisemitic. It never asked for forgiveness for blaming Jews for killing Jesus, as the Catholic church did. There’s no Russian Orthodox equivalent of Vatican II.

Vladimir Putin, left, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Antony Blinken

“The Russian Orthodox church still blames Jews for crucifying Jesus. The roots of Russian antisemitism go back that far.

“That’s why now, in our time, you see Putin completely turn his back on Israel and accept Hamas’s side right now. It’s easy for him.

“The masks are off now.

“Russia is fully supporting Hamas. It never condemned the October 7 terrorist attacks. And during the last few weeks, Putin was extremely active on the diplomatic field. He visited Saudi Arabia and met with the crown prince. The next day he was back in Moscow meeting with the president of Iran.”

Then Mr. Smukler turned to the future, which he sees as bleak.

“As everyone knows, right now Israel is fighting and basically succeeding in diminishing Hamas in Gaza,” he said. “But unfortunately, we still have more than 130 hostages, and there is no indication yet that Israel has found them or that they will be liberated soon. The intensity of the fighting is increasing.

“But the real fight today is underground. Not in the tunnels — not that kind of underground — and not on the table. Under the table.

“In the global game of thrones today, we are witnessing the battles taking place in both Ukraine and the Middle East. But the real fight is on a different front.

“We know that Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels back and forth from the Middle East, meeting with Arab leaders and the prime minister of Israel. We know that President Biden recently had a conversation with Xi Jinping, who visited him the U.S. They met for several hours. At the same time, we know that the Russian leadership and the minister of foreign affairs also are traveling; they’re visiting Middle Eastern countries, and also South American countries. We see that Putin just flew to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, meeting the leaders of both countries, and after that he met with the Iranian president, who visited Moscow. That was the second meeting in six months.

“All this activity shows me that the real game is taking place on the diplomatic front.

“We understand that the public is tired of war, and especially tired of the war in Ukraine. The politicians are actively looking for ways out of military action.”

And now we come to Vladimir Putin, a man who recently seemed cornered by his own violent miscalculation. It seemed that he had so misplayed his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that he was left with no way out.

President Joe Biden addresses the nation from the Oval Office on Oct. 19, 2023. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

And then Hamas invaded Israel, and all of sudden Putin had a path to redemption.

“The whole world’s attention was concentrated on the Middle East. That gave Putin the opportunity not only to improve his situation with the war in Ukraine but also to return to the diplomatic surface, and to participate personally in the diplomatic war.

“Who could have imagined a year ago that he would be so active in the international arena? He was losing the war in Ukraine. October 7 changed everything for him.”

Putin is working toward March 17, the day when he will be reelected president of Russia.

It’s hard for Americans to understand why Putin would care about the election, which he is guaranteed to win. He’s a dictator. But “it is important for him to get a majority of supporters, even if it’s not a free or fair election,” Mr. Smukler said. “It’s important for him to know that a majority of his people will vote for him. Even though he’s the emperor, the dictator, the czar, he still needs legitimacy.

“Let’s go back to his roots as the leader of a street gang in St. Petersburg. If you are going to lead, you absolutely must have the support of your gang. There are only two ways to do that. One way is fear. The members of your gang are afraid of you. That’s dangerous, though, because if they are afraid of you, they can always betray you.

“It’s better if they fear you but they also respect you, love you, believe in you. So Putin cannot be a leader who thinks that everyone only fears him. They will always be looking for a way out, a way to get rid of that terrible feeling inside them. So for Putin, it is important that people demonstrate that they support him. That will give him legitimacy and energy for the next six years. That will give him an injection of political strength.”

If he lasts for the six years of that next term, Putin will have had the longest reign of any ruler in Russian history. “Longer than Peter the Great,” Mr. Smukler said. “Longer than Catherine the Great. Longer than Stalin.

“So March 17 will be his personal triumph day.”

Until then, Putin will have to be careful. “Until that day, we will do everything possible not to diminish his support. He will travel around the country, meeting people, explaining his war with the United States and the organized West. He cannot throw more cannon fodder into the front in Ukraine. He cannot mobilize or draft more people. But during the next three or four months, the Russian military industry will continue to increase its production.” Early this week, “Putin was in the Russian north, raising the flag on newly built nuclear submarines.”

And once he’s reelected, “he will announce the new mobilization. Russia badly needs at least 400,000 to 500,000 soldiers. Without them, Russia cannot have serious offensive operations.

“But Putin knows that now, time is now longer his enemy. It’s his ally.”

Mr. Smukler took this photo of a mobile billboard he saw as he drove through midtown Manhattan.

That’s not true in Ukraine. “The Ukrainians are exhausted,” Mr. Smukler said. “It’s wintertime, and it’s become very cold in the trenches, where the army is sitting right now. It’s like World War I, a stalemate. There is a very active artillery duel, and it’s killing people on both sides; otherwise, nothing is happening.

“The world’s military experts understand that the foreign help that the Ukrainians got — especially the hundreds of tanks from Germany, Great Britain, and the United States — didn’t really help during the summer counteroffensive. They lost hundreds and hundreds of tanks and military vehicles during the summer.

“It’s also clear that Ukraine is suffering an enormous deficit of manpower. Every Ukrainian man who can be on the front lines already has been there, or is involved in the effort in some way. The country cannot draft more people to send to the front lines — which, remember, is more than 1,000 miles long.”

Which brings us back to the Middle East. “Gaza is 100 percent connected to Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said. “We see that Israel is winning Gaza, and I think that the Hamas will be finished in four to six weeks.

“But I am seriously afraid that we are going to see another explosion in the Middle East. I think that Hezbollah will be involved in military action in northern Israel, and the Middle East will continue boiling for a long time.” There’s also the threat form the Houthis, in Yemen. He’s afraid that Iran, which supports both Hamas and Hezbollah, might become more visibly involved, “and that might even lead to the United States’ involvement in order to protect Israel from Iran.

“And that’s why Putin is traveling. He met with the president of Iran for five hours. Obviously, they were discussing military cooperation.

“The intense diplomatic efforts from both sides shows me that we are going to see another wave of violence in the Middle East, because every player today in the global game of thrones is interested in continuing the conflict in the Middle East.”

It’s in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s interest to continue the war, Mr. Smukler said, “because Israel already is suffering from enormous international pressure, and for Bibi it is probably the only time he could finish off Hamas and Hezbollah.

“He’s finished as a political leader,” Mr. Smukler acknowledged, but if he can manage to get rid of both Hamas and Hezbollah — an unlikely but not entirely impossible feat — he might be able to regain his reputation and possibly even retain his position. “That’s the only possible way out from the massive blame he’ll face for what he has done.

“And Putin needs this badly. It will give him months to regroup his own army, to supply it with fresh cannon fodder, and to completely finish the militarization of his own industry.

“He fully understands that the United States has major problems with supplying and supporting both the western and eastern fronts, both Ukraine and Israel — and also Taiwan — both financially and militarily.

“Even if in the end Congress passes the aid package for $106 billion, that is not nearly enough. That will last for maybe three or four or maybe five months, and then the Biden administration will have to come back to Congress for another package.

“Putin understands that the United States cannot supply and support its allies on all these fronts.

“And as these diplomatic efforts are being conducted under the table, Ukraine is suffering terribly. It’s frozen. The Russians continue to destroy the Ukrainian energy system, creating enormous problems for Ukrainians during the winter.

“They are trying everything possible to show the Ukrainians that Zelensky and his allies are not able to help them. The Russians want to make sure that the Ukrainians are frozen, so they will stand up against Zelensky.

“Putin is back on his feet now, and it strikes me that he is even stronger than he was a year ago,” Mr. Smukler said. “There’s no opposition to him. Everybody who opposed him is in jail.” Or for that matter not in jail; his most prominent opponent, Alexei Navalny, who had been jailed on trumped-up charges in harsh conditions and given an ever-expanded sentence, seems to have vanished from prison. Russian authorities are not saying where he is; Western leaders fear for his life.

“Economically, Putin survived perfectly,” Mr. Smukler continued. “His economy is growing. Sanctions are not working. He is selling enormous amounts of mineral resources, oil, and gas to India and China; he’s selling much more than he did before the war.

“The European and U.S. military industries are not prepared for the wars going on now; the intensity with which Ukraine is using artillery shells and missiles is so enormous that no one in the organized West can supply enough of them.

“So this timing is working for Putin, and that’s why I think that we’ll see another explosion in the Middle East in the next four to six weeks, and I think that will be the most dangerous from the global point of view because it could be one step away from the United States’ involvement in military action against Iran.”

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