On the one hand, Alexander Smukler of Montclair said, nothing much has happened in the last two weeks.
That’s been the interval since he last talked about Russia’s war on Ukraine for our ongoing Angry Dwarf series. (The Angry Dwarf is the series’ name for Vladimir Putin, the moral midget whose inadequacies, with him since childhood and being played out on the world stage, are symbolized by his small physical stature.)
Mr. Smukler, who was born in what then was the Soviet Union, grew up in a communal apartment across the river from the Kremlin, grew closer and closer to the Jewish identity that had been buried in his childhood, got out of Russia 32 years and just under half his life ago, and developed a successful career as an entrepreneur in the United States. He has been working his sources in Russia and Ukraine and applying his knowledge of Russia to the information he’s gotten.
What he reports now is that on the other hand, all sorts of unprecedented (or at least unprecedented in this stage of the world’s evolution) actions are pushing toward a terrifying but unclear resolution.
And now the perhaps inevitable frisson of horror has been added — antisemitism. Straight from Russia
So now Mr. Smukler is scared.
This is the situation so far, as he reports it.
“Nothing major has happened,” he said. “There has been no major success for the Russian army. It’s not moving forward. It’s not taking any territory. It seems to me that it’s seriously stuck.”
Although Russians have not been given an accurate status report, its army has lost about 25,000 troops so far; as he told us two weeks ago, when the losses were at about 20,000, that’s more than Russia lost in the nine years it spent embroiled in Afghanistan, and that number does not include the Russian soldiers who were injured, captured, or deserted. “The Ukrainians are losing a very substantial number of their soldiers too,” Mr. Smukler said. “And that’s not even talking about civilians. We keep hearing gigantic numbers; the Ukrainians are saying there were more than 20,000 civilian deaths in Mariupol.” It’s a staggering number of deaths and causes of grief.
What’s going on in Mariupol now, though, is something that hasn’t happened before in this century, Mr. Smukler said, and in its horror goes back ages. Although most of the city has been flattened, there still are civilians, a battalion of soldiers, and marines “holding on in the major, giant, giant steel plant there,” he said.
“Right now, the Russian army is trying to completely occupy the city of Mariupol, and the small group of soldiers and marines are holding on in the giant steel plant, called Azovstal.
“Nobody knows exactly how many gunmen there are in that plant — it’s in an industrial area, with an underground complex, many tunnels. That’s where they are hiding and fighting. According to different sources, the Ukrainians have approximately 1,500 active gunmen, about 500 of them are inured, and there are several hundred civilians still there.
“That’s the only point of Ukrainian resistance still in Mariupol.”
And that’s where the ancient horror comes in.
The Russians are laying siege to the plant.
“On Putin’s direct order, they have stopped attacking it,” Mr. Smukler said. “But they’ve completely blocked the area, so the Ukrainians in the plant are completely surrounded. The Russians are demanding their surrender, and they are not letting civilians leave the plant.
“The Russians are claiming that the Ukrainians are holding the civilians as shields. They are blaming the Ukrainians.”
The Russians are saying that Ukrainian civilians will be given safe passage to leave, but only if they go to Russia. In fact, on Sunday 126 women and children did leave, but “they had to accept the condition that they will stay in Russian-occupied territories. The others decided not to leave until the Russians offer them safe passage to territory under Ukrainian control,” Mr. Smukler said.
“It is important to understand that this is absolutely unique in the 21st century. A group of ‘Spartans’ are fighting against the Persian army, and they will die. All of them will die, because they decided not to surrender.”
It’s like the popular version of Masada. It’s even more like the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto.
When he orders a siege, Mr. Smukler said, Putin is not risking his own soldiers — he’s quickly running out of them and will have to replenish his supply — but slowly, methodically killing the Ukrainians in the complex. “They are being blocked completely,” Mr. Smukler said. “They have no food, no water, no medications, no supplies. So we are witness to this. No one can help. No one can save them. Basically, the Ukrainians inside the steel plant have already sacrificed their lives.”
Another historical echo he hears is from the World War II battle at the Fortress of Brest, Mr. Smukler said. There, a small group of Soviet soldiers and their wives and children “were surrounded by the German army in June of 1941. They fought, using underground tunnels, for the next six months. The last defender died in December 1941. It’s very similar to now — the German army decided not to have their own casualties, so they besieged it and bombed it. People inside had no food, not water, and they died.
“So now, 80 years later, history basically repeats itself — except now the Russians are on the other side. They are acting like the Nazi army in 1941.”
Pope Francis is not immune from the horror. “The pope has appealed to Putin three times, and sent secret messages, requesting — begging — that he let people leave. To let the soldiers and the civilians leave the steel plant. And Putin refused.
“Putin said that they have only one choice. They can surrender. Or they will die there.”
Francis is the head of the Roman Catholic church; most Ukrainians are Eastern Orthodox Christians. “Despite that fact, the Russian patriarch did not say a word about this,” Mr. Smukler said.
“This is making me sick to my stomach. This is something new. The Russian church basically is killing its own children. To not let any humanitarian aid in, including to women and children. And to the soldiers. How can this be?”
This certainly should belie Putin’s assertion that he was fighting this war with white gloves on, Mr. Smukler said.
“The situation in Mariupol is a reflection of the Russian army’s general problems,” Mr. Smukler said. “They obviously don’t have enough troops to move ahead. The Russians will need more and more soldiers and weaponry. It probably will take months and months before they are able to claim any success or move ahead to reach their targets. And the Ukrainian army is defending their country incredibly.”
As the situation on the ground has not changed in any major way, the landscape is altering. “There were so many delegations and high-level officials who came to visit Ukraine and Kyiv,” Mr. Smukler said. That included U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, as well as the United Nations’ secretary general, António Guterres. “Congress adopted a law that will restore the so-called lend-lease program,” similar to the one that allowed the United States to provide needed supplies to Allied countries before it entered World War II. The United States will send Ukraine $33 billion in aid; $20 billion of that sum will go to heavy weaponry. “Basically, NATO, the EU, and the United States and Canada and other allies decided unanimously to start sending very sophisticated modern weaponry to the Ukrainian army.
“This is a new development.”
It means that in more structural ways, the situation has changed.
“Today we all have to understand and admit that it no longer is a war between Russia and Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said; in fact, the Russians had been saying that for some time now. “Today we really can say that this is a world war. Today all these countries, the Western allies, are participating in a world war against Russia in Ukraine. Basically, the Ukrainian army is the front line, but behind this front line is a massive supply of weaponry from the West, including specialists and experts who are training Ukrainians about how to use it.
“So we have to admit that we are very involved in this war, and that we basically are one step away from sending troops on the ground there. Let’s speak truthfully. The United States is going to spend $33 billion to arm the Ukrainian army and provide financial aid to Ukraine. It is now organizing a lend-lease supply, which was a major source of equipment to Great Britain before the Second World War. And then it extended lend-lease to the Soviet Union, and then after that the United States entered the war.
“Right now, if we are speaking about parallels to World War II, we have basically reached the point in early 1940, when the U.S. is supplying heavy military support to Great Britain.” (The United States entered the war on December 8, 1941, a day after Pearl Harbor was attacked.)
The situation has evolved quickly, despite the stasis on the ground, Mr. Smukler said. The Russians invaded Ukraine on February 24, calling it a special military operation. “Two months later, we already see how the Western world has become much more deeply involved. Despite the Biden administration saying that we are not going to be sending troops, still we’re much more deeply involved in this conflict than we could have imagined just two months ago.
“It’s obvious that neither side is looking for peace. There were no peace negotiations in the last two weeks. The Russian economy is falling apart, the sanctions are hurting more and more and on the other hand, Putin’s government is doing everything possible to minimize the impact of these sanctions.
“So far, Putin’s popularity and internal support is growing. This is a most miraculous, most amazing thing. His support still is growing.” (Of, course, it’s hard to measure genuine support in a totalitarian state, but that might not be relevant.)
Meanwhile, the ever-changing propaganda aimed at Russians is becoming more intense. Russians who watch official television news channels — and in Russia all television channels are official, in that they’re state-owned and state-run — are hearing reporters “openly and freely talking about using nuclear weaponry. But on Saturday, I was really in shock,” Mr. Smukler said.
The prominent television news anchor Dmitry Kiselyov — known as “Putin’s mouthpiece” — told the audience of his weekly news roundup, on a state-owned and run station, that “because of the involvement of Great Britain in sending heavy weaponry to Ukraine — and Great Britain is leading the European countries in helping the Ukrainian army — “Kiselyov appealed directly to Boris Johnson. He said, ‘Listen, Mr. prime minister, one Sarmat missile will be enough to erase the British islands forever from the earth.’”
Sarmat missiles are the brand new, most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile, Mr. Smukler explained. “And yes, Kiselyov really said that. He said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I really want you to think twice about sending weaponry to Ukraine, and taking the side of Ukraine, and being involved in Ukraine, because we have, aside from the Sarmat, another surprise for you.
“And he showed, during his program, an underwater missile, a torpedo. Kiselyov said, ‘You probably aren’t aware yet that we have a nuclear torpedo, and one of them will be enough to completely erase a city like London.’
“This was the first time in my entire life that I have heard someone on an official government-controlled TV station openly talking about using a ballistic nuclear missile that can completely erase the British islands completely.
“So now Russians keep raising the stakes. Russia is threatening Great Britain, and the whole world.
“At the same time, most experts understand — it is painfully obvious — that Putin made a major political and military mistake in invading Ukraine with an army that is not capable even of protecting Dombas, the region he already occupied, much less reaching his target. So today he has only three options.
“Option 1. To fight in Ukraine using regular weapons against the Ukrainian army, which today is completely different than it was before because now it has experience fighting the Russians, and because in a few weeks it will be much better equipped. In a few weeks it will be a completely different war. Putin knows that he got involved in a long-term military conflict that will require incredible resources, not only financial resources but also, and much more, soldiers on the ground f they are to fight the Ukrainian army until it is defeated.
“Option 2. To finish the war very quickly, using at least tactical nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction. That will bring him victory very quickly but will completely destroy Ukraine.
“Option 3. To stop the war and announce to the Russian population that they have reached the target, the war is over, they control the Dombas. That would mean to lie to the population, to declare victory, and to go home, or at most to withdraw and stay where he is now.
“There are no other choices for Putin. We will see which one he chooses. Each has liabilities for him. If he just withdraws the troops and declares victory, the Russian population will understand very quickly that he lying to them, and they will realize that he sacrificed the Russian economy and at least 25,000 soldiers for nothing. That is a huge risk for him, and for his popularity and support within the country. If he does that, then within a year or two he will be overthrown. It will have been such shame that they will never forgive him.
“If he continues the war, nobody knows how long the Russians will support him, but they will understand that the war is not over. Putin will have to raise the stakes in his propaganda and his war against the West and keep moving forward. That will require incredible financial resources, and he will have to mobilize hundreds of thousands of soldiers and send them to fight against Ukrainians, who will be armed with Western equipment and be much more sophisticated than they were at the beginning, when they had nothing to respond with.
And the third option, the most devastating one, the use of weapons of mass destruction — if he does it, Ukraine will surrender quickly.
“In the next few weeks, we will see which direction Putin choses.”
Part of his decision will be driven by the looming date of May 9. Next Monday. That’s Russia’s Victory Day. “There will be a huge military parade, with a massive demonstration supporting Putin,” Mr. Smukler said. “Millions of people will be out on the streets that day, in every major city We will see it on television. Every Russia expert and Putin expert expects that Putin will announce victory on May 9. That’s why I think we’ll see which choice he makes very soon.”
For now, “you can see that the people who surround Putin are in agony,” Mr. Smukler said. They know that there are no good choices, the future facing them is utterly grim, and so they apparently are resorting to their drug of choice. Antisemitism.
From the beginning, Putin has said that the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, is a Nazi, and that the country had to undergo “denazification.”
“We call Zelensky a David fighting against Goliath,” but the Russians call him a Nazi, Mr. Smukler said. “I can’t believe that the Russian leaders of today are trying to blame Jews for their losses in the war. This is very dangerous.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went on an Italian television news channel, Zona Bianca, to blame the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the Jews.
“When they say that Nazification cannot exist if there are Jews [in charge]: In my opinion even Hitler had Jewish origins so it means absolutely nothing,” Lavrov said, as reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Jewish wise people said already a long time ago that the biggest antisemites are the Jews themselves.”
So there it is — the purest, most blatant antisemitism.
“Can you imagine that in the 21st century the Russian government is using the Jewish card, blaming the Jews for what they are doing in Ukraine?” Mr. Smukler asked rhetorically. “Zelensky is not a Hitler. He is a hero around the world.
“Nobody will believe that Zelensky is Hitler, and Hitler did not have Jewish blood.
“It’s like saying that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was real. It is an antisemitic lie. When the Russians use such antisemitic lies, for me it shows that they are in agony.
“I grew up in Russia, hearing such lies. Blaming Zelensky like that is a typical Russian last resort, blaming Jews for everything. Lavrov is a guy who used to be Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations. He is a guy who used to live and work in the United States. For him to say such lies, to make such antisemitic remarks — it means that these guys are completely out of their minds.
“And that is another scary thing.”
Continuing to speak from the perspective of a Russian-born Jewish American, “as a person who grew up in the Soviet Union and has lived in the United States for 32 years, I have a question,” Mr. Smukler said.
“How come Russia still is a member of the United Nations Security Council, and nobody raises that as a question? How can Russia be a member of the Security Council, which is a body that is supposed to stop wars? I am shocked that the United States and the European Union are not raising that issue in the United Nations, about reorganizing and excluding the aggressor from the Security Council.
“And a second question — as a father and a grandfather, if we approve $33 billion to support Ukraine, how does our government guarantee security to my kids and my grandchildren, here in the United States? We are putting more and more fuel on the fire, becoming more and more involved in this kind of Third World War; can I get an assurance that the United States government is doing something to guarantee my children and future generations safety from Russian nuclear missiles?
“If a person like Putin can decide to use his Sarmats against not only Britain but also the United States, I want to hear from the Biden administration if they are putting such mammoth efforts into protecting us. I want to hear, truthfully and openly, what they are doing to protect us if a nuclear war begins.”
Mr. Smukler wasn’t in the United States then, but he’s heard what it was like here. “Everybody who is old enough probably remembers lots of bomb shelters and stupid drills at school during the Cold War, but it was kind of distanced here,” he said. “But then, the Soviet government never never never said the things that we hear now. What is coming out of the Russian government now is a direct threat.
“I want to ask our politicians — what are you doing to protect our children? If it is true that Sarmat missiles can entirely erase a city like New York or Washington, how can I live with no fear? I have a simple question — guys, if we are in a war with the biggest nuclear weaponry in the world, what should I do to protect myself?”
On that optimistic note, we will wait for the next installment of the Angry Dwarf chronicles, where we can report on the outcome of Victory Day. Stay tuned.