The Man in the Iron Mask is dead — what’s next?

The Man in the Iron Mask is dead — what’s next?

This image is from the 1939 film called “The Man in the Iron Mask.”
This image is from the 1939 film called “The Man in the Iron Mask.”

It’s been a little more than two years since Russia invaded Ukraine; more than 740 days since Vladimir Putin “began a war against a neighboring country, violating U.N. borders and starting to bomb at 4 in the morning,” Alexander Smukler of Montclair said.

Mr. Smukler, who spent almost half his life in the Soviet Union, leaving there with his wife and children just months before it fell, has been using his sources in Russia and Ukraine and his understanding of that world to analyze it for us.

Putin expected a cakewalk and has landed in a bloody quagmire.

“After two years of that brutal war, I would like to talk about how that invasion changed the world,” he said.

The recent murder of the charismatic Russian dissident Alexei Navalny has become part of the story.

Navalny, a dissident politician whom Putin feared, was the subject of assassination attempts; he was poisoned with the KGB-designed  substance called novichok, nearly died, returned to Russia from where he’d been treated in Germany, and was arrested, tried, convinced, and imprisoned on made-up charges. “He was sentenced to 19 years and sent to the prison called the Polar Vault, 60 kilometers into the Artic Circle,” Mr. Smukler said. “It’s one of the northernmost prisons in the world, and the conditions there are brutal.

“Navalny was moved there a few months ago. His mother visited him on February 12, and she said that he was absolutely healthy. But on February 19, at least according to official Russian propaganda, he was found dead, of what they called sudden death syndrome.” Which of course means absolutely nothing.

“In executing Navalny, Putin obviously killed the most prominent, strongest opponent of his regime,” Mr. Smukler said. “And he sacrificed his life by going back there.

“He is the Man in the Iron Mask of Russian history.”

Mr. Smukler calls Navalny after a character in the Alexandre Dumas novel of that name. In the densely plotted book, the man behind the mask is the king’s twin brother, hidden in prison, with his face covered even there, because of the threat his face and body, and therefore his existence, pose to the king.

“We know a few people who were called men in the iron mask, not because their faces were covered but because they were very significant threats to the rulers of Russia, who kept them in prison for years,” Mr. Smukler said. One of them, Prince Ivan VI, born in 1740, was kept in prison from the time he was 1 year old until he was murdered there 22 years later, as the country moved from bloody coup to bloody coup.

“During the czars’ time, people were kept in secret prison cells because they were threats to the ruler. And Navalny was a real threat to Putin.”

Vladimir Putin could not live in a world that included Alexei Navalny. (Wikimedia Commons)

Far from being a twin, “Navalny was his polar opposite,” Mr. Smukler said. “And he was amazing.

“I cannot find another figure in history who went back by himself,” he continued. “Who sacrificed his life for his ideas. Navalny went back to the dictatorship. He spent three years in conditions in which survival was almost impossible, and he died for freedom, for democracy, and for the new Russia. He died encouraging people to fight against the existing dictatorship and regime.

“It is unbelievable.”

Although so much as has been written about Navalny already, Mr. Smukler feels it necessary to “acknowledge that he played a significant part in the global game of thrones.”

Meanwhile, back in Ukraine, in the middle of February, as the war entered its third year, “we have to acknowledge that Russia has finally broken the stalemate with a successful offensive operation in Avdiivka and neighboring communities.”

Avdiivka was a small city that played an important role in Ukraine’s defensive line; it was a platform for the Ukrainian artillery as it bombarded Donetsk. Avdiivka is important because “it’s only 10 miles away from Donetsk, the capital of the Donetsk region,” which is in Ukraine but the Russians now hold, Mr. Smukler said. “Donetsk was a large city — it used to have a population of 2.5 million — and since 2014 it was a key fortress in the Ukrainian defense line. It was the point from where Ukraine was able to use midrange artillery to bombard the Russian military infrastructure in Donetsk. That’s why the Russians were trying to push them out.

“It was a key point in the Ukrainian defense line, and now the Russians occupy it. It wasn’t a severe strategic success for the Russian army, but it is a very significant example of how the Ukrainians are suffering on the front lines. They can’t even defend themselves. They have an enormous deficit of shells, military equipment, and most importantly of manpower.

The human losses have been staggering. “Sources say that the Russians have lost about 16,000 soldiers” in the fight for Avdiivka, Mr. Smukler said. “Many sources say that more than 500,000 soldiers from both sides have either been killed or were so severely wounded that they cannot return to the front lines since the war began.

“The Ukrainians aren’t releasing their casualty numbers. In an interview with Fox News, Zelensky” — that’s Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky — “said that during the two years of war, Ukraine lost 31,000. I don’t believe this. I understand why Zelensky can’t release the true number, which is a huge secret. It would create enormous problems for him inside Ukraine and also give the Russians an understanding of how much potential the Ukrainians still have.

“But my feeling is that the number 500,000 is not accurate. The Russians lost 380,000 — they were either killed or severely injured — and I assume that although the Ukrainians lost less than the Russians, it’s definitely more than 130,000. So I think that both sides lost more than 500,000.

“That’s an enormous loss of soldiers, the biggest in Europe since the Second World War. This conflict is one of the most brutal and intense in the world since then. During nine years of war in Afghanistan, by comparison, the Russians lost 42,000 soldiers.

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

“But the Russians have an endless source of cannon fodder. They will recruit and mobilize at least 500,000 to 600,000 troops during 2024. That’s the number they need to conduct a strategic offensive operation that will let them advance and occupy the biggest cities in Ukraine, including Zaporizhia, Kherson, and Dnipro.

“And right now I’m afraid that Nikolaev and Odesa are under enormous risk this year.

“Ukraine is suffering from an enormous shortage of manpower. Ukraine has major difficulties drafting more people, because during the last two years it has lost 19 million people, who were displaced or left the country. Most of them are outside Ukraine’s borders.

“And today it is suffering from an enormous shortage of munitions. That’s because three months ago the United States stopped supplying them, and Europe did not fulfill its promise to supply one million military shells before March 1 of this year.

“So Ukraine is suffering not only because of the lack of supplies, but because of a lack of finances. They simply don’t have the money to buy what they need.

“The Russians, slowly, slowly, very slowly, are developing their tactical success and moving forward, breaking through Ukrainian defense lines. It is still not a strategic offensive operation, because while the Russians are not short of drones, artillery shells, or missiles, they are suffering a severe shortage of cannon fodder.” That’s the soldiers whom the Russians shove in front of Ukrainian forces, not caring whether they live or die but hoping that great piles of the dead will advance the army.

And the situation will get much worse very quickly, Mr. Smukler said. The election that will retain Putin in the presidency will go from March 15 to March 17. Needless to say, Putin will win, but although the election is, to borrow a phrase from American politics, rigged, still the Russian strongman cares about how big his win will be. After that, “he’ll recruit or draft hundreds of thousands of people, which he needs to start a massive offensive operation.”

Then they’ll have to wait for spring. Now, it’s still winter. Trees are bare of leaves, and “because of the massive use of drones, every square mile is visible,” Mr. Smukler said. And soon it will be mud season; tanks get stuck in mud.

Once the election is over and Ukraine is green and shaded again, though, all hell will be free to break loose.

“This year will be the most difficult for the Ukrainians,” Mr. Smukler said. All the supply chains inside Russia that had been broken are fixed now, and the Russian war materiel manufacturers have ramped up their production. But “Ukraine is running out of ammunition, and particularly 155-millimeter artillery shells, so quickly that sources tell me that the Ukrainians can make only one shot to the Russians’ 20 shots.” So even though, according to British intelligence, Russians have sacrificed more than 16,000 soldiers and lost hundreds of tanks during the last five months as they attacked Avdiivka, the Ukrainians can’t keep up with them.

“The organized West is exhausting its financial resources. So the huge question is whether Ukraine can survive the summer,” Mr. Smukler continued. “That’s why it is absolutely critical that the United States supply the military equipment, especially midrange missiles and antimissile and antiaircraft systems.

“Now no one is talking about Ukraine’s ability to liberate occupied territories or conduct offensive operations, as they did at the beginning of 2023, with talk about Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.” Those operations, widely expected to have begun in the summer of 2023, are widely conceded to have failed.

“Ukraine did not receive what it needed, and its brave soldiers could do so much more if they had sophisticated weaponry.”

During the course of the war, “Putin succeeded in building up a diplomatic front with allies,” Mr. Smukler said. “There are countries that not only are his allies in the global conflict with the organized West, but also are benefiting in the conflict in Europe.

Baby Czar Ivan VI and his cat (Wikimedia Commons)

“Those countries are the so-called BRICS countries, Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and more. In 2023, India bought 13 times more Russian crude oil than it had in previous years, and it paid Russia more than $36 billion for that crude oil,” which of course it bought at bargain-basement prices.

“Turkey is definitely enjoying benefits from the conflict. It’s not supplying anything to Russia but it’s ready to sell artillery shells from its stockpiles to both countries. It’s also buying and selling Russian gas and the goods Russia needs to bypass the sanctions, especially all kinds of electronics and semiconductors going to Russia from China, Turkey, Arab countries, and India. Turkey is not a Russian ally, but it is openly enjoying the benefits of bordering Ukraine and Russia and controlling the Black Sea, and also being the biggest buyer of Russian gas since Russia lost the European market.”

Russia, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to be harmed by Western sanctions. “The Russian economy is growing rapidly,” Mr. Smukler said. “Russia is pouring money into its military industry. It’s down to practically zero percent unemployment. Russian workers are actively supporting Putin, because he increased working class salaries, especially for people who are working in military plants. There are huge military/industrial centers behind the Ural Mountains, and salaries there were increased to five times what they were before the war. People who work in Russian military plants used to make 42,000 to 45,000 rubles a month. Now they make approximately 240,000 to 300,000 rubles a month. That’s used to be about $500; now it’s about $2,500.

“So despite inflation and the devaluation of the ruble, that’s still huge.

“That’s why Russian workers completely support Putin.” And although a huge number of men have been killed — or in the best cases maimed for life — most of them came from depressed or heavily rural areas. “That’s why Putin didn’t draft from the industrialized areas, and that’s why they don’t yet feel the loss of manpower,” Mr. Smukler said. But that will change in April, he added.

So what does this mean for the rest of the world?

“During the last two years, the world — and particularly those who monitor the global game of thrones — realized that the rules that used to keep the world stable since World War II weren’t actually demolished, but they did become much less important. Institutions like the United Nations demonstrated their complete impotence, especially with the conflict Putin started, and with the conflict in the Middle East, which in my opinion was started by Putin and Russia.”

As Mr. Smukler has made clear, he believes that Putin helped engineer the war in Gaza to relieve the nearly unbearable pressure on himself. He’d played himself into a corner, and then used the only route open to him to escape that corner.

“The United Nations has demonstrated that it is useless,” Mr. Smukler said. “It was created to prevent the growth of conflicts, and to stop wars. Everyone realizes now that the way it was created, it is useless. If the members causing the conflict are members of the Security Council” — like, say, Russia and China — “they can block every resolution that would stop the conflict. The last two years showed us that the world is defenseless. Russia succeeded in diplomatic efforts not only to create support inside the United Nations, but also to create a front of anti-Western allies.”

It gets scarier.

Russia is getting a great deal of war materiel from North Korea and Iran, Mr. Smukler said — it’s gotten 2.5 million shells in four months. And Iran is giving Russia the technology to make drones; Russia has built 76 (!) new drone-making plants in the last two years. “Every military expert in the world is surprised,” he said.

“So I have a question for myself,” he continued. “How is Russia paying for this? What is it giving back? Russia has no money.

“So the only thing that Russia can give back to its allies North Korea and Iran is nuclear technology and uranium,” he said. “That is such a danger to the world. It can make these two countries, with their barbaric regimes, much stronger.

“And Iran in particular is creating a real threat for Israel. The situation is deteriorating because we don’t see a solution in the Middle East. The war is not going to be wrapped up soon. I think that Netanyahu will start a military operation against Hezbollah, and maybe against Iran.

“Then there’s the phenomenon in Michigan, where 13 percent of the Democratic voters do not support Biden.” Mr. Smukler is talking about the recent primary there, where 13 percent of the votes went to “uncommitted” instead of to the sitting president of the United States. That vote was in protest of Biden’s support for Israel; Michigan has the country’s largest concentration of Arab-Americans, and that community largely propelled the uncommitted vote.

“It’s such a strange world,” Mr. Smukler said. “So many of those voters who do not support Biden now because of his position on Israel were brought to the United States by HIAS,” the organization formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “By Jews. It’s a crazy situation. We Jews are using our money, our organization — one of the biggest and wealthiest in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — to get them to the United States, and now they are not endorsing the Democratic president because of his position on Israel.

“The world is crazy,” he concluded grimly.

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