Truth can be stranger than fiction

Truth can be stranger than fiction

Ukraine’s counteroffensive stalls as confrontation looms on the Black Sea; meanwhile, what about Israel?

Earlier this year, the port in Odesa was empty as Ukraine waited for Russia to renew the grain deal. It was renewed then but ended on July 17.  (Wikimedia Commons)
Earlier this year, the port in Odesa was empty as Ukraine waited for Russia to renew the grain deal. It was renewed then but ended on July 17. (Wikimedia Commons)

The news from Ukraine isn’t great, Alexander Smukler of Montclair said.

Mr. Smukler, whose 30 years of life in Russia and 30-plus years in the United States, along with deep connections in Russia and Ukraine, has given him an insider’s understanding of both cultures, does not have encouraging news to offer, and it gives him no pleasure to discuss it.

As he said months ago, and has continued to say, the Ukrainians’ window for the counteroffensive the world knew was coming is short, and it will close soon.

“By now, it’s become clear that it’s not successful,” he said. “Ukraine still has some time to break through the Russians’ defensive lines, but my hope that it could do it this summer and early fall is diminishing now.”

That’s because “during the time that Ukraine was preparing for its counteroffensive, and getting munitions from its Western allies, Russia was building enormous defense lines.”

Those defense lines, across the extraordinarily long front line — it’s almost 1,200 miles long — actually are three lines, he said.

“The first is trenches, very well equipped with underground facilities, where the infantry can hide.

“The second line is very heavy anti-tank defenses.

“The third line includes even heavier engineering facilities, including thousands of dragon’s teeth and all kinds of very sophisticated modern facilities.”

In other words, the Russian defenses are like a modern version of World War I trench warfare, including the medieval-sounding dragon’s teeth — at base, a primitive defense tool composed of huge boulders of concrete, like Jersey dividers on highways, that make it very difficult for tanks to advance. The trenches below those dragon’s teeth harbor nests of machine guns that can shoot up and destroy tanks and other military equipment, and the vulnerable flesh-and-blood bodies of the soldiers who are inside them.

By now, “according to Ukrainian sources, more than 200,000 square kilometers of Ukraine are completely covered by antitank mines and land mines,” Mr. Smukler said. “In the history of mankind, we never have had the experience of such large territories being covered by mines. Eventually they will have to be deactivated; that will take years and years, hundreds of millions of dollars, and hundreds, maybe thousands of lives.”

As a result, “Ukraine is experiencing a serious lack of ammunition and human resources,” he said.

Alexander Smukler

The point of all of this — Russia’s building these lines that its leaders know the Ukrainians will try to break through and salting the ground with mines that will maim or kill children who step on them decades after this war finally ends — is that “Russia is preparing for a stalemate,” Mr. Smukler said. “Russia has not excluded the possibility that it will have to be in a stalemate for years.

“We — particularly the military leadership — are witnessing incredibly intensive war operations, from every point of view,” he said. “From the logistic point of view. From the engineering point of view. From the military point of view. This is something new, that the world has never experienced before, not even during the Second World War.

“In order for the Ukrainians to start offensive operations, they have to create corridors in the minefields where infantry and tanks can move. But the Ukrainians are suffering incredible shortages of the special equipment that would allow them to create those corridors.”

The Ukrainians are trying to do that, but the loss of life is horrific, Mr. Smukler said.

To look at just one problem, “the Ukrainians cannot disarm minefields during the day, because Russian drones see them and they immediately attack.” The Ukrainians also present easy targets for snipers as they attempt the extremely dangerous work of disarming mines. “So they can work only during the night

“The rate of loss and injuries of the personnel disarming mines at night is incredible,” he continued. As dangerous as that work is during the day, “it is even more difficult and dangerous at night.”

The Ukrainians do not have as much equipment and weaponry as they need, Mr. Smukler said. “And it’s becoming clear now that the Ukrainian tank drivers are not trained well, and they cannot use the equipment with 100 percent efficiency because of that.” Moreover, the equipment they’ve received has come from many countries; each system is incompatible with the others, and each requires specific training.

Mr. Smukler, like other analysts, had predicted this problem; now he, and they, are seeing it play out.

None of this means that the Russians will prevail, at least not in the short term, he said. In fact, “yes, the Ukrainians are pushing the Russians from the front line. But it is moving so slowly! They’re going forward just a few hundred meters a day, and they’re losing hundreds and hundreds of lives. So the country is becoming extremely bloody, and it became clear, at least to me, that I don’t think that we’ll see the Ukrainians break through the Russian defense lines.”

Meanwhile, he said, Vladimir Putin, the angry dwarf whose decades in power have produced a man whose actions illustrate the moral rot that results from that power, “is extremely reluctant to announce a new wave of mobilization in Russia. And the Russians have a serious deficit of artillery shells and equipment. But Russian industry is working at full capacity, 24/7, and eventually will increase its production of artillery shells and missiles. But it needs at least five or six months to do that.”

So, for now, “we will see a stalemate.”

That’s the situation on the ground, and on the front lines. Meanwhile, there’s the political level of the global game of thrones to consider; it was on display from July 11 to July 12 at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The Black Sea and the connected Sea of Azov are Ukraine’s only major bodies of water.

“We can see that Ukraine is really pushing the leadership of NATO countries to make the clear decision to accept Ukraine, and to let it become a NATO country very soon,” Mr. Smukler said.

“Let’s imagine that Ukraine becomes a member of NATO in the nearest future,” he continued. “Lots of NATO members, especially the Baltic states and Poland, are lobbying for it.

“But that would mean that we would be involved immediately in the Third World War, because all 31 members of NATO will be obligated to send their troops to the Ukrainian front and defend it with all their capacity. I personally have no doubt that if this happens, it not only will be the beginning of a full-scale world war but also one step away from nuclear conflict.

“As we know, several major players in NATO — the U.S. president, the German chancellor, the French president — are trying to avoid NATO’s involvement in a direct fight with Russia, but it became totally clear that Ukraine is pushing as hard as they can to suck NATO into the conflict.

“I do not blame President Zelensky, in his attempt to bring NATO boots onto Ukrainian soil,” Mr. Smukler continued. “Zelensky is David fighting Goliath. Ukraine does not have the capacity. It is exhausted. It very soon will be two years of military conflict. Zelensky understands that Ukraine has no power and no strength to push Russia out of its occupied territory without help from NATO countries and their allies.

“Zelensky is doing everything possible diplomatically to convince NATO to adopt Ukraine. As we saw during the summit, NATO countries turned down the possibility to accept Ukraine as a member in the nearest future — even though Ukraine’s army today probably is one of the best-trained and most experienced armies among all the allies. After two years of brutal conflict, the Ukrainian army adopted all the NATO standards and now is much more experienced operating NATO equipment than any other army in Europe right now.”

Although NATO did “turn down the possibility of full involvement of its soldiers into the conflict, it also confirmed that it will increase its effort to supply Ukraine with more and more military munitions,” Mr. Smukler said.

If the stalemate does continue — if other developments don’t dislodge the sludge — “what happens really depends on the elections in the United States in 2024,” Mr. Smukler said. “More and more Republicans in Congress want to minimize our support to Ukraine.” Putin’s supporters feel they’ll benefit from a Republican win; Ukrainians hope that if the Democrats win, they’ll be able to count on U.S. support.

Next, Mr. Smukler turned to the grain deal that’s much in the Western news these last few weeks.

He came to a discussion of the deal through the second explosion on the Kerch Strait Bridge that connects Crimea — the peninsula that Russia invaded and occupied in 2014 — that happened on July 17. “The Ukrainians again demonstrated the incredible effectiveness of their secret operations,” Mr. Smukler said. “Using two sea drones, they were able to evade Russian defense equipment and explode that most important strategic bridge. Auto traffic on it will be paralyzed for the next two months. That made Putin so angry. That’s the second time that the Ukrainians exploded that bridge and cut off the military and civil supply lines between the mainland and Crimea.”

After the explosion, Russia announced that it was pulling out of the grain deal with Ukraine that was set to expire on July 27, “but experts around the world said that the announcement wasn’t connected to the explosion,” Mr. Smukler said. Putin was planning on doing it anyway; this just gave him some cover.

The grain deal, like everything else in that part of the world, is complicated and far from straightforward. It was signed by the United Nations, Turkey, and Ukraine. “The deal allowed Russian participation, but Russia never was a direct signatory,” Mr. Smukler said. “There is a different agreement signed by Russia, Turkey, and the U.N.” That triangular deal allowed Russia and Ukraine to agree on grain imports; it kept the port of Odesa open until Putin decided that it didn’t serve his purposes.

In easier times, navy ships docked in the port of Odesa.

Russia and Ukraine are the world’s biggest grain exporters. “Ukraine has a reserve of 92 million metric tons of grain, which is supposed to be supplied to the world grain market, and eventually, through the United Nation, a large part of that grain is to be supplied to Africa’s poorest countries, as part of food programs financed and supported by the U.N.,” Mr. Smukler said.

“In the global economy in a peaceful world, Russia and Ukraine divided the grain market, and both supplied it. When the war started, grain became a tool — and a weapon.”

Putin’s demands in return for allowing grain to move freely is that the sanctions the West imposed on Russia be lifted, including, importantly, the ones levied against banks. “Putin demands that Russian banks be returned to the SWIFT system,” Mr. Smukler said. “That would mean that Putin’s inner circle will have a channel they can use to transfer money back and forth.” That includes the Rosselkhozbank, Russia’s state-owned agriculture bank, and it would be a huge relief for Russia’s failing finances. “So far, most of the European countries and the United States have not agreed to this demand,” Mr. Smukler said. “That’s why Putin walked away from the grain deal.” He’s using food as a weapon.

Once the grain deal died on July 17, the Russians said they were free to attack any Ukrainian ship, as well as any ship headed into or out from a Ukrainian port. “They’d all be considered potential military targets,” Mr. Smukler said.

“The next day, President Zelensky published a statement that mirrored the Russian statement, saying that every Russian ship, and every ship going to or from a Russian port, would be a target for the Ukrainians.

“That means that the new Pandora’s box is open now. The level of escalation is going from only land to the sea as well.

“Remember, the Black Sea is an international body, controlled on the western side by NATO countries, like Bulgaria and Romania. On the southern side, the major player controlling it is Turkey. The northern and eastern sides are controlled by the Ukrainians and the Russians.”

Remember, too, that Ukraine has no access to any ocean. “It’s the only sea that the Ukrainians have,” Mr. Smukler said; the Sea of Azov, which we’ve mentioned before, is an extension of the Black Sea, separated from it by the Strait of Kerch. “The Black Sea is the major logistical channel for import and export, and for supplying every ship from the ports of Odesa, Nikolaev, and others.

“And Russia has announced a blockade of the Black Sea.”

Although some of the war’s effects have been predictable — the effectiveness of trench warfare, the importance of foreign munitions, the difficulties posed by foreign equipment, the Ukrainian army’s passion, the Russian army’s dispassion — some of it isn’t.

“This will bring an absolutely new development of the Russian/Ukrainian military conflict,” Mr. Smukler said. “I do believe that Turkey is not going to tolerate the blockade, because Turkey is trying to play a key role in the Black Sea area. It’s a major player there.

“I think that in the next few weeks, we will see that Turkey will start sending naval convoys to protect the Ukrainian ships and Ukrainian grain going through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. That will be an enormous escalation. We don’t know what Putin’s reaction will be.”

Ukraine has vast grain fields, like the one here.

Until now, Turkey has worked with both sides in the war. “It’s been very pragmatic,” Mr. Smukler said. “It receives benefits from both sides.” Turkey bought Russian natural gas, and it was Ukraine’s largest supplier of drones. “It never took a side in the military conflict, but officially it condemned the occupation of Ukraine, and it does not accept the occupation of Crimea.

“Remember, Turkey is a member of NATO. If Russia attacks Turkey, NATO will have to respond. I do not exclude the possibility that NATO will send its military fleet to the Black Sea to protect Ukrainian vessels.”

Meanwhile, there are Jewish issues resulting from the war.

Mr. Smukler talked about an opinion piece that his old friend and mentor Robert Singer, who was the executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, published in the Jerusalem Post last week. “I have known Robert since 1987, when he arrived in Moscow as the head of the small group of Israeli diplomats working in the Dutch embassy, holding Dutch diplomatic passports,” Mr. Smukler said; the Soviet Union did not have diplomatic relations with Israel at the time. “He was a high-ranking officer in Nativ,” the Israeli agency that maintained relationships with Eastern Bloc Jews. “He was sent to Russia to prepare for a big aliyah.”

In his Jerusalem Post essay — and in similar comments, also published in the Jerusalem Post, by former aliyah and integration minister Sofa Landver — Mr. Singer wrote about how vitally important it is for Israel to support Russian and Ukrainian Jews’ desire to move to Israel. “Robert Singer is probably one of the best experts in this area, and he says that we should expect the arrival of somewhere between 300,000 and 350,000 Jews in the near future,” Mr. Smukler said.

“Robert is saying that this will be the last massive wave of immigration from eastern Europe, and that Israel has to do everything possible to open its gates and speed immigration. Because the Jews in eastern Europe are starting to feel that Israel is not welcoming them.

“According to Robert, the waiting time for a visa to Israel is almost a year, but based on my knowledge, that is wrong,” Mr. Smukler said. “I know people who have been waiting for 18 months and have been sent to gather more documentation proving that they are Jews. More and more people are complaining that the waiting period is too long, and that the bureaucracy is slowing down the process.

“Instead of the slowdown,” he said, paraphrasing his old friend, “we would charter flights to airlift people, like we did with the Ethiopians.”

Mr. Smukler is worried about the push to revise the Law of Return that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters said would follow the dramatic changes to the Supreme Court that the government pushed through the Knesset on Tuesday. The law had allowed people with one Jewish grandparent to gain citizenship in Israel, working on the theory that although in order to be halachically Jewish you have to have been born to a Jewish mother or convert either through the state-mandated rabbinical court in Israel or in an approved way abroad, in order to be an Israeli citizen you merely must be as Jewish as Hitler and the Nazis would have considered you to have been. One Jewish grandparent would suffice.

Many of the Russians and Ukrainians looking to enter Israel are not halachically Jewish, but they have one Jewish grandparent.

“That 25 percent Jewish blood could be a seed for future Jewish generations,” Mr. Smukler said. “It could be the seed of a real Jewish garden in the Holy Land, because these children will be much more Jewish than their parents.”

There are so many half- and quarter-Jews in the former Soviet Union because most of them descended from Holocaust survivors or victims, he continued. Many of those survivors could not marry Jews because there were so few Jews left; others were too embittered by the Holocaust to want to. So the effects of the Holocaust lingered for generations.

Mr. Smukler updated the story of his childhood friend, the high-level academic, who discovered — to his absolute astonishment — that his grandmother had been Jewish. This friend’s father’s parents had been arrested in the middle of the night and taken off to the gulag, where his father died and his mother subsisted in frozen misery for 20 years. The friend’s father had been abandoned at three months, rescued because neighbors heard him howling through the thin walls of the Soviet-bloc apartment building.

The friend’s grandmother was released from the gulag and found her son; the two reconnected and had 20 years as mother and son before the mother died. Years later, her by-then-elderly son discovered that his mother had been Jewish. She worked hard to hide the evidence of her own Orthodox shtetl childhood.

Now, Mr. Smukler’s old friend wanted to go to Israel. He qualified under the Law of Return. But Israel’s officials have sent him back for document after document, proof after proof. None ever is good enough. Although he hasn’t given up on Israel, he’s also applied to Germany, and that visa is likely to come through sooner.

That, Mr. Smukler makes clear, will be a loss for his friend — and also for Israel.

It makes sense that Israel wants to slow down the flow of immigration, he said. Aside from everything else, a large influx of secular Ashkenazi Jews, even if they’re only partially Jewish, will affect the politics in Israel today, where the new power of the charedim and the Sephardim is being felt so strongly. “This immigration could change the whole political map there,” he said. “350,000 people is a lot of people.”

So the main lesson — who knows? Much is predictable, but much is not. After all, truth can be stranger than fiction.

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