As a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine more than 13 months ago, and the bloody war that has continued since then, the world order is shifting, our analyst, Alexander Smukler of Montclair, says.
The tectonic plates that have not moved since the end of World War II are in motion once again, he believes; his life experience — a little less than half in then-Soviet Russia, a little more than half here — and his connections in Russia and Ukraine, and his resulting access to sources give him authority as he details this belief.
First, let’s fill in some backstory.
Earlier this month, Xi Jinping was elected to his third term as ruler of China. That’s unprecedented, “and it changed the whole ball game,” Mr. Smukler said. “China is choosing the path of authoritarianism.
“He’s like an emperor. If he’s elected to a third term, he can be elected to a fourth or a fifth if he wants it. That changes the whole global ball game.”
After Xi was elected, he replaced China’s foreign and defense ministers. “The new minister of defense, General Li Shan Gfu, for many years was in charge of modernizing the Chinese army. He’s an aerospace engineer. He’s not from the military — he’s a technocrat. And he has a close relationship with the Russian military, industry, and government. In 2016, the United States sanctioned him for approving a massive purchase of Russian weaponry.
“This symbolizes the military union between China and Russia, and it is extremely important to our understanding of what’s going on in this global game of thrones.”
China’s new foreign affairs minister, Qin Gang, “is one of the most well-known critics of U.S. policy toward China,” Mr. Smukler continued; in his first speech in his new job, he announced that ‘conflict and confrontation’ are inevitable if Washington does not change its course toward China.”
Another ominous development “is the agreement that the Saudis and Iran signed to reestablish diplomatic relations,” Mr. Smukler said. “It apparently was a surprise to the White House. And it was brokered by China. My sources are telling me that the State Department missed the fact of these negotiations, and when the agreement was announced, it was a huge surprise for many politicians in Washington.
“Nobody will publicly admit that it’s true, and I could be right or wrong about it, but it’s what I hear.
“This is a huge failure, because not only will China be able to have an influence in the Middle East, but it was able to establish a relationship between two major Muslim enemies, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Sunni and Shia. I understand that the Saudis will have diplomatic relations with Iran, but that is not as important as China playing a key role in this, and the U.S. was completely excluded from the process.
“This is the Chinese dragon announcing that these two countries are under its wing. And in order to broker such a deal, it seems to me that China must have promised something to them. I assume that the Saudis got promises about security and safety. Iran is moving quickly toward possessing a nuclear weapon — probably they’re just a couple of months away from that — and the Saudis aren’t getting one.” For years, the Saudis have been talking about receiving powerful anti-missile systems from the United States, Mr. Smukler said, but “they got tired of waiting, and chose China instead of the United States and the Abraham Accords. So both countries now are satellites of China in the Middle East.
“Iran soon will become a very, very hot point on the world map.” That of course is a major threat to Israel, “especially in light of the current political situation there,” Mr. Smukler said.
“So China is a major player in the global diplomatic arena, and it is playing an active role in supporting Iran,” he continued. “We are witnessing the creation of two different camps.
“On the one side, there are China, Iran, Russia, North Korea, and whatever other countries China and Russia control. And on the other side, there are the United States, NATO, and the other European countries.
Okay. Now we’re up to the last two weeks.
On March 17, the International Criminal Court in the Hague “issued an order to arrest Putin for the illegal relocation of Ukrainian children from the war zone,” Mr. Smukler said; “16,326 children, to be exact.
“I don’t know how many of them are orphans, how many were lost or separated from their parents, how many were taken by force, how many were willing to be evacuated from war zones. No one knows these details.”
What he does know is “why this arrest order was issued. That’s because it’s very easy to prove that Putin gave a direct order to commit the crime.
“Approximately five weeks before the court order was issued, the main Russian governmental propaganda TV channel showed an episode with Putin meeting with a person in charge of protecting children’s rights.” That’s Maria Lvova-Belova, officially Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights. “During that meeting, on TV, she reported to Putin that they removed thousands of children. And she said the key words, ‘Based on your instructions, we are saving and moving children from the war zones and placing them in special orphanages and foster families. Many of them are already adopted or we are in the process of finalizing the paperwork.’
“Those key words, ‘in accordance with your instructions,’ were the basis for the arrest order. Usually, it is almost impossible to prove that the president of a country is giving direct orders to violate international laws, but that meeting between Putin and Lvova-Belova, who also received an arrest order, gave the court the opportunity to react quickly.
“The children range from babies to 15 or 16 years old. Mostly they were taken from Mariupol during the intense military operations there, but others were captured when the Russians took cities or towns or villages. They found children in shelters and took them.
“One of the famous stories that circulated is about two children whose mother died in a bombing and whose father is an officer in the Ukrainian army, fighting for their country. They were both adopted by Russian families. There are many stories like this.”
That arrest warrant came just three days before Xi’s visit to Moscow, and a few days after China’s brokering the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
And then there was that three-day state visit.
“I have seen hours of footage of it, and I was shocked when I saw how Putin behaved during his meetings with Xi,” Mr. Smukler said. “In my mind, it was one of the most shameful pages in Russian history.
“Russia recognized Xi as its sovereign. It looks like the sovereign” — remember that a sovereign is not a mere ruler, but the ruler with supreme power. The one who rules over all the others — “was visiting his northern territories.
“I watched how Putin behaved when he met Xi. I was trying not to listen to what they were saying, because they weren’t really saying anything, but I watched the body language.
“It reminded me of how the representative of the Mongol Empire came to ancient Russia. For 800 years, parts of Russia were part of that empire. Representatives of the emperor would go to Russian cities and gave the Russian ruler a document called a yarlyk — which means agreement — that allowed them to rule on behalf of the sovereign.
“It looked like the sovereign, Xi, was giving the vassal, Putin, the yarlyk to continue to rule the northern territories for the great Chinese empire.
“Xi doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to. He is silent. Russia is completely laying down and paying tribute to the Great China.”
It’s reminiscent of Putin’s meeting with then President Donald Trump in Helsinki in 2018, when onlookers were struck by how deferentially Trump behaved toward Putin. (That was the meeting where Trump said that he believed Putin instead of U.S. intelligence on the question of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.)
But in this case, the roles were reversed. There, Putin appeared to be the sovereign and Trump the vassal; in Moscow, Putin was the vassal and Xi the supreme ruler.
By visiting Moscow, Xi made clear that he did not care that Putin was wanted by the International Criminal Court, Mr. Smukler said. In fact, he strongly endorsed the Russian strongman ““I know that the Russia presidential election is next year. Russia’s development has significantly improved under your firm leadership. I believe that the Russian people will continue to strongly support you,” he was reported as saying.
“So Xi Jinping gave Putin the blessing to rule Russia as a nuclear country. China is a member of the security council, and Xi gave a green light to a war criminal.
“Now the masks are off.
“The conflict that started as a regional conflict now has become a global conflict, China now is 100 percent on Russia’s side, and our administration missed the opportunity to convince China not to support Russia in that conflict.””
As to the war itself, “the situation on the front line is exactly as it was two weeks ago,” Mr. Smukler said. “The Russians are not capable of moving forward, and they are not capable of achieving any success in the enormously intense fight against the Ukrainians. They are not able to take Bakhmut, and according to Ukrainian sources, the Russians are losing around 1,000 soldiers every day there.
“That battle obviously will be written about in every military textbook. The Russians have been in Bakhmut for more than eight months with no success. The city basically doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been completely leveled.”
That might be just as well — on some ghastly level it might be poetic justice — when you consider the terrible Jewish history of Bakhmut.
“Bakhmut used to be a well-known Jewish shtetl before the war,” Mr. Smukler said. (That of course is World War II.) A census taken in 1939 showed that the town had 3,636 Jews. “When the Wehrmacht invaded in August of 1941, they created a ghetto. On November 16, 1942, they removed 3,000 people from the ghetto. It was announced that they would be moved to a different location. They all had to go there.”
Bakhmut — then called Artemovsk — had both salt and alabaster mines. About 3,000 of the town’s Jews did as they were told and reported to an alabaster mine. “It was a huge cave, and they were sealed in alive,” Mr. Smukler said. “By concrete.”
They all died.
“In 1943, the Red Army liberated Bakhmut. Of course, local people knew that all the Jews had been sealed into the mine. The Russian soldiers exploded it, and they found thousands of skeletons.” About 3,200, to be exact; “we don’t know if they were all Jews. Some sources say a few hundred local resistance members were there too.”
Later, the cave was made into a wine cellar. “It was only in 2016 that the Ukrainian government gave permission to put a plaque on the wall, saying that this is where 3,000 Jews had been killed in a most brutal way.”
They were sealed in the cave, he added, “because nobody wanted to bother to transport them to the gas chambers.”
There were a few survivors, Jews who managed to hide so they were not in the cave. (No one escaped from it.) “There is an article about it written by a witness, Mark Goldberg, who was hidden by a Ukrainian family,” Mr. Smukler said. “His father, mother, grandparents, and sisters were killed there. He stayed in Ukraine and emigrated to the United States in the 1970s. He wrote a memoir, and he left it to Yad Vashem. That’s how we know the story.
“Goldberg wrote that his father told him just before the Wehrmacht took the city, ‘We have no reason to worry about Germans.’ He said they’d occupied Ukraine before, in 1918, “and they were very nice to the Jews. So we had no business to worry or to move or to run away.’
“The Goldbergs were a wealthy family,” Mr. Smukler said. “And Mark’s father thought that because the Germans were people of culture they’d never be bad to Jews.”
And another turn of the screw. “According to Mark Goldberg, there were almost no Germans in the city when they sealed the Jews in the cave. It was all done by Ukrainians.”
Eastern Europe is an extraordinarily complicated place. But it’s where the world is being reshaped, and according to Mr. Smukler, “It will be a really different world.” A world that will be dangerous no matter what happens, but much more dangerous unless the Ukrainians win this war.