It’s been almost six months since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the war — which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin fondly imagined would be a quick in-and-out, with Ukraine subdued and safely back in the bosom of Mother Russia, like a rebellious but ultimately weak child — still slogs on.
That’s not good, according to our analyst, Russian Jewish American entrepreneur Alexander Smukler of Montclair, although certainly it’s better than if Putin’s vision had prevailed.
“The Russians are moving slowly,” Mr. Smukler said. “They totally occupy the Luhansk Oblast, they’re completing the battle in Lysychansk. The Ukrainian army decided to leave it, so the Russians did not use heavy artillery, and the town survived. The battle in Sievierodonetsk was extremely bloody; according to my sources” — he has many, in both Ukraine and Russia — “97 percent of the buildings were completely destroyed. It doesn’t exist anymore.
“The Russian ministry of defense reported that the area is now completely ‘liberated.’ In quotation marks, of course.
“The next target is the ‘liberation’ — the obliteration — of Donetsk Oblast.” These are old towns, Mr. Smukler said; the Russians developed them in the 18th century, during Catherine the Great’s reign. In a haunting historic irony, Mariupol, the town the Russians demolished a few months ago, was founded in 1776.
All of this is part of the Donbas, “a huge region, half the size of France,” Mr. Smukler said. It was largely agricultural, and large parts of it remain so, but much of it was developed during the Russian Revolution and then by Stalin. “During the Second World War it as one of the Soviet Union’s major industrial areas,” Mr. Smukler said, full of coal mines and steel mills. The Germans destroyed it in bloody battles, and then blew up everything that was left, in 1944; after the war, the Soviet rebuilt it. The housing they built there was cramped and poor.
In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, similar buildings were demolished and replaced with newer, more comfortable ones, “but in Ukraine, particularly in Donbas, because it was such a depressed, poor area, people still live in those buildings,” Mr. Smukler said. After the Soviet Union fell the buildings were privatized, and the tenants bought their apartments. “Those are the only things those people own,” he explained. “That is their only property. These apartments are everything for them.” So their wanton destruction is particularly painful.
“Before the war, the population was probably close to four or five million people,” he continued. “According to Ukrainian sources, almost 3.6 million of them fled. The people who were not able to go stayed; nobody knows how many thousands of them died during the bombardment.”
Putin — the angry dwarf whose unfortunately-not-impotent rage has fueled the Russians’ murderous foray — “has changed tactics,” Mr. Smukler said. “They are not sending troops ahead; instead, they are using extremely brutal artillery and very heavy bombing. They’re not using precision missiles. That’s what they did in the 1990s, in Chechnya, and in fact, they’re using the same tactics they used in the Second World War.
“Their generals learned their military science based on that war, and they’re using it now against the Ukrainians. They’re bombing indiscriminately. They’re reducing everything to rubble. And they don’t care.
“World War II isn’t over for them. After the war, parts of Russia were completely destroyed, and Germany was in ruins, and the Russians proudly rebuilt their whole country. They know what rebuilding is.
“So Putin doesn’t care if there is nothing left. He thinks — they think — that they can demolish the whole world and rebuild a new one.”
That’s what happened in Grozny, in Chechnya, Mr. Smukler said. “It was 100 percent destroyed” — that was around 2000 — “and it’s been rebuilt. Today it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. A huge amount of money was invested in rebuilding it.”
So that would be one thing if they were talking just about buildings. They can be rebuilt. Objects can be fixed or new ones can be made. “But how do you bring back those people who died in the bombing?” Mr. Smukler asked. “The Russians don’t care about that. They just don’t care.”
Now, although the timetable is nowhere near what they expected, the Russians have just about completed their goal, at least as they described it at the beginning of the war. They have the Donbas. “They sacrificed thousands and thousands of civilians’ lives, and the Ukrainians say that 37,000 Russians soldiers have died.
“And they are not going to stop.
“What will they do next? Everyone is Russia is asking this question. It’s a small complication for Putin’s propaganda. But they are going to move forward. A few days ago, Putin said that they were willing to negotiate with the Ukrainians — but they removed their negotiators.
“The Russians will move forward.”
Back at home, Russians are continuing to try to describe the Ukrainians as Nazis, and their own efforts to overthrow Ukraine’s lawfully elected government as “denazification.” The U.S. State Department has reacted to that attempt.
This is part of a statement the State Department released on July 11. It’s titled “To Vilify Ukraine, The Kremlin Resorts to Antisemitism,” and it reads, in part:
“One of the Kremlin’s most common disinformation narratives to justify its devastating war against the people of Ukraine is the lie that Russia is pursuing the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has referred to Ukraine’s democratically elected government as a ‘gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,’ while Russian state media and propagandists have repeatedly called for the ‘denazification’ of the entire population of Ukraine.
“By evoking Nazism and the horrors associated with World War II and the Holocaust, the Kremlin hopes to delegitimize and demonize Ukraine in the eyes of the Russian public and the world. The Kremlin attempts to manipulate international public opinion by drawing false parallels between Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine and the Soviet fight against Nazi Germany, a source of pride and unity for many people of the former Soviet republics who made enormous sacrifices during World War II, including both Ukrainians and Russians.”
Mr. Smukler thinks that Russia’s next move will be to target Odessa and Nikolaev; if they take over those port cities, they will control access to the Black Sea.
But now, “it is very quiet on the front lines,” he said. “Putin had an interview with Russian state television and said that the army needs a rest. He ordered the defense secretary to replace the military battalions that participated in the fights in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. That will take time. They are regrouping.”
The Russians are actively recruiting new fighters now, Mr. Smukler said. “They are not drafting anyone, but they’re opening recruiting stations in the country’s most underdeveloped areas. They’re inviting people to sign a contract to fight in in Ukraine, and they’re paying 200,000 rubles a month. “The average salary in the areas where they’re recruiting is about 15,000 to 20,000 rubles a month, so it’s basically 10 times that much.
“My sources are saying that people are standing in line to sign up for the army There is no shortage of people. Putin can buy a whole new army.”
Where is the money coming from? Ha, and ha, and ha again.
“We are speaking about an economic system that is completely controlled by the state and its leader,” Mr. Smukler said. “So it’s not a problem for Putin to get money. He controls it. The ruble is not convertible. So he just prints more. When inflation reaches 20 percent, he just prints more and more rubles.” So paying for the soldiers isn’t a problem, at least for now.
“There are so many people who want to enlist that recruiters are choosing men with military experience in Georgia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, or other conflicts.”
It’s not so easy in Ukraine.
“I know from my Ukrainian friends that Ukraine is building incredibly strong defense lines, which will help them defend Odessa,” Mr. Smukler said.
It’s increasingly difficult for them to find fighters, though. There’s been a draft since the beginning of the war, but they’re running out of new recruits.
Then there’s the question of weapons. The Ukrainians increasingly rely on western artillery. More of it is getting to Ukraine every day. But it’s not exactly user-friendly, and it doesn’t always come with instructions, much less instructors.
“I have a friend on the front lines, who said that they received very sophisticated drones from one of the European countries. But the manual was in Dutch. They tried to translate it with Google, but it was so poor that they weren’t able to use the drones effectively at all.
“They just got boxes, and they unpacked the boxes, but they cannot call the 800 line for customer service.
“More and more Ukrainian experts are talking about how they are getting equipment that requires special training, and there is a huge deficit of people who can use it.”
NATO is trying to help. “As far as I know, NATO will train almost 10,000 Ukrainian officers,” Mr. Smukler said. “But it will take two to three months.”
On the other hand — there are so very many hands! — “My sources report that the HIMARS” — the United States so far has sent four High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, and plans to send another four — “were used very effectively. The Ukrainians used them to explode the largest Russian missile systems, because they shot from 40 to 70 kilometers away.”
Still, despite this good news, Putin is waiting, and that’s not a good thing,” Mr. Smukler said.
“Putin is not in a hurry. He understands that he doesn’t have to send thousands of troops to die right now, because now time is working for him.”
That’s because it’s high summer, and that means that winter is coming. “There will be a deep crisis in Europe because of the huge deficit of gas and oil,” Mr. Smukler said. “It is an extremely strong weapon that he has — he can stop providing the European Union with gas.
“The biggest economy to suffer seriously is Germany, and German politicians are raising their voices. They’re saying that the sanctions were a mistake, and that they are hurting them, the Germans, more than they’re hurting Putin’s economy. Those voices get louder every hour.
“People have to understand that Putin has created much turmoil in the energy sector around the world, and that it has affected so many people in so many countries. He just got an enormous gift in Boris Johnson’s resignation.” Yes, the leader of Britain’s Conservative party, who agreed to step down in the face of scandal after scandal and a tsunami of resignations, is at the center of a huge mess in Britain, but “he was the leader among other European politicians in the campaign against Putin, and in support for Ukraine. It’s a disaster for Ukraine that Boris Johnson resigned.”
Overall, Mr. Smukler said, “Between now and wintertime, when he can really explode the economies of the major European countries, he will be slowly taking over Ukraine. But remember that he is not in a hurry.
“At the beginning of the war, he was in shock. He was paralyzed. He was in shock. But now, it seems to me, the shock is over.
“He can see that the sanctions are not really hitting the Russian economy. Russia is getting more money than it did before the war for exporting gas and oil. Its major customers are China and India. Putin realizes that his support inside the country is growing. So he is back on his feet again.
“You have to understand that to support Ukraine, we have to supply it with $6 billion every month. So he’s in no hurry. He’s planning his next move in this chess game.”