As the crisis in Ukraine continues — as Russia continues to bomb its cities and target its civilians, and its president, Vladimir Putin, continues to lie about what he’s ordering his military to do — we continue to present our readers with the insights of Alexander Smukler of Montclair. Mr. Smukler, a Moscow born and bred Jewish entrepreneur, has spent roughly half of his life as a Russian and half as an American; as a businessman with interests both here and in the former Soviet Union, he’s got connections there, and so he can learn things that are harder for outsiders to glean. Although conditions on the ground and in negotiations may change daily, Mr.Smukler’s insights and analysis are aimed at giving our readers the most comprehensive overview of the situation possible.
Here’s the fourth in our series of talks with Mr. Smukler.
As we know, so far almost four million refugees, almost all of them women and their children, or men who are too old, too young, or too disabled for military service, have fled Ukraine.
“The U. S. has confirmed that they are willing to accept about 100,000 refugees from Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said; last week, before that decision had been announced, he’d been worried about the United States’ reluctance to open the golden door that he’d walked through as an immigrant, more than 30 years ago.
One hundred thousand people might be a small percentage of the four million refugees — some of whom would like to go back home if that would prove to be possible — but “it seems to me that it’s just a first step, and that is very promising,” Mr. Smukler said. The logistics involved in bringing the refugees over are formidable, so 100,000 is a realistic number to start with, he added. “I applaud it.
“I hope that HIAS will open their hotline and start accepting applications from refugees from Ukraine with Jewish backgrounds and direct relatives already in the United States,” he said. Mr. Smukler has been unhappy with HIAS’s reluctance to do so until now. (HIAS is the U.S.-based organization once clearly called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.)
As for the battlefield that is Ukraine, “We already realized that the situation is kind of frozen now,” he said “Putin’s army is losing territory that it recently occupied. They recently occupied Irpin, a very important town, a strategic point in front of Kiev. The Ukrainians took it back. That is extremely important.
“It seems to me that the Russians have not moved at all, but at the same time they are trying to improve and solve their logistical problems, trying to get supplies to their armies.
“I think that right now they are replacing the soldiers and officers who already have spent a month in the fight. They’re replacing them with fresh soldiers. That’s particularly true of the national guard. Their morale is on such a very low level that they really need to bring in new soldiers.”
And no, he added, the supply of new soldiers has not run out yet. Russia has not yet started a military draft. Instead, “they’re sending more and more troops from the regular army, from the national guard, and from Chechnya. There are already more than 40,000 troops from Chechnya fighting in Ukraine.”
The sanctions that the United States, NATO, and other Western powers have imposed on Russia have started to bite, Mr. Smukler said. “The economic situation is rapidly going down. More and more people realize that the sanctions basically took all their wealth, because their bank accounts, particularly hot currency, are totally frozen.
“The sanctions really targeted the Russian middle and upper middle classes. Middle-class Russians are very much hurt.
“During the last month, according to unofficial information, more than 800,000 Russians lost their jobs because most of the foreign companies there are shutting down their operations, and they’re laying people off.” So are Russian companies. “Several of the largest Russian auto plants and machinery plants completely shut down their conveyors,” Mr. Smukler said.
Perhaps the most frightening development this week was the seemingly inexorable spread of Putin’s propaganda. One of the advantages a dictator holds is the ability to control the information his people are fed. “Amazingly, during the last week, Putin’s rating” — his favorability rating, that is, and of course who knows how truthful respondents feel they can be as they answer these questions – “went up from 71 to 79 percent in support and popularity,” Mr. Smukler said.
“I got these numbers from independent sources that are not controlled by the government. Some say they went from 71 to 74, some say to 78, and several independent sources say it reached 79. To me, personally, based on my knowledge and understanding and contacts, I think that’s a true number.
“This is the scariest of all to me.”
Oddly, ironically, it’s because of the sanctions, Mr. Smukler continued. “Instead of making Putin’s regime weaker, at least until today it’s making it stronger,” he said. “That’s because people unite around him.
“It’s extremely important to understand the Russian mentality, and how it is different from the U.S. mentality,” he said.
For one thing, there’s Russia’s history up until the 1917 revolution. Life for most Russians was hard then. It was hard after the revolution, and nightmarish during World War II and its aftermath. But, Mr. Smukler stressed, the country’s hard times did not end with the Cold War.
“It’s totally different for Russians than for Americans,” he said. “During the last 35 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians have suffered so much.
“There were very difficult years at the beginning of the 90s,” when it was good to be a friend of Vladimir Putin’s but not so good to be an ordinary, not particularly connected plebian as the economy cratered; “the default in 1998,” based on the government’s decisions about the ruble; “the world financial crisis in 2008, and then the sanctions that were imposed in 2014, after the invasion of Crimea.
“So Russians are used to sanctions, and they are used to how much they hurt them personally,” Mr. Smukler said. “Instead of going to the streets to start demonstrating and demanding Putin’s impeachment, we see the opposite reaction.
“Most of the Russians are united with the regime.”
Here is a good place to remind our readers that Mr. Smukler calls Vladimir Putin the angry dwarf and describes him as a man fueled by hatred, much of it left over from the world war that had ended just a few years before his birth, and much of it based in his own relationship to power.
In this, he is very Russian.
One reason for the Russians’ response to the privations they’re facing is their history and their ingrained pessimism, but that’s far from the only reason.
“Putin’s regime has completely shut down almost all sources of information for the Russian population, so today they can see only Russian propaganda on Russian state TV stations,” Mr. Smukler said.
“On Monday, the last independent newspaper shut down.” That’s the Novaya Gazeta —in English, the New Gazette — whose editor, Dmitry Muratov, won the Nobel Peace Prize just last year. He and the other winner, Filipina-American journalist Maria Ressa, were cited for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
“The Novaya Gazeta was the last independent paper not controlled by the government,” Mr. Smukler said. “It was the only one that published true information. So on Monday, they distributed a statement saying that they cannot operate under such strong pressure from the government.
“So today the Russian population has absolutely no way to get independent information from the West, except maybe from short wave stations, like the Voice of America and Liberty Radio from Germany, and the BBC, in Russian. It’s Cold War style, old-school style, and because it’s on short wave the younger generation doesn’t know how to listen to it.”
What about phone calls? “So far they’re still getting through, but the Russians never talk openly on the phone because they believe that all calls are tapped.
“WhatsApp,” which had been working last week, “Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok have been shut down,” Mr. Smukler continued.
He has been able to talk to his contacts on the one platform that’s still available. “We are using a special communications channel through Telegram, which we established on a VPN. It’s still working.”
Given that Putin has near-complete control over the information Russians get, he is working hard to shape that information.
“Today, Russian propaganda has such an important card to play,” Mr. Smukler said. That card, he believes, is Joe Biden’s concluding statement, the nine words with which he ended his well-received 27-minute speech in Warsaw on Saturday. Those words, which seem to have been ad-libbed and heartfelt, which the White House since has walked back, although the president has refused to do so, and which have galvanized public opinion here in the United States, were “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
For Vladimir Putin, those words were pure gold, Mr. Smukler said.
“He can say, ‘You see, they’” — the United States in particular and the West in general — “are trying to change the regime. Biden has been doing that from the time that he got to the White House.
“So — exactly as we said when we first talked a month ago — Putin is trying to present his ‘special operation’ in Ukraine as just the first stage of the global war against the West, the United States, and NATO.
Until then, Putin is saying, his adversaries have denied their real goals, but “now, he’s saying, they have taken the masks off and they’re saying openly that they want regime change.
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of Russians believe that.
“My connections in Russia — very high level and knowledgeable people — said to me that the statement that Biden made in Poland is the whole ballgame. It changes everything. It has completely changed the rhetoric of the Russian propaganda.
“The propaganda now is ‘See? We told you! We told you the truth and nothing but the truth.
“‘And the truth is that it has nothing to do with Ukraine. Ukraine is just a battlefield in the global war. We are defending ourselves in this global war.
“‘Just listen to what their president said!’
“This is making me really nervous,” Mr. Smukler said, as he stopped channeling Russian propaganda and spoke once again in his own voice. “This is a real escalation of the global conflict. I don’t understand how our president is making such statements. It is basically closing the door for his negotiations or for any negotiations between Russia and NATO or the United States.
“So I am even more scared today than I was three weeks ago, because as of today we are not moving toward peace. The conflict is escalating to a new level. It’s becoming more like a global conflict between Russia and the United States.”
And if this weren’t enough, there’s more.
“Sanctions are giving an enormous benefit to China,” Mr. Smukler said. “Sanctions were implemented at the beginning of March, and the Chinese are everywhere, buying every asset. The Chinese already are in every possible niche in the economy. They’re already there.
“They’re buying strategic Russian companies, especially oil and gas and mineral resources. Russia is moving with unbelievably rapid speed to becoming a Chinese colony.
“The situation in Ukraine and global conflict is benefitting China.”
There is one more historic irony that Mr. Smukler pointed out.
“The brutal sanctions that were implemented on the Russian economy are turning the Russian economy toward so-called national socialism,” he said. If that sounds familiar to readers, it’s because Nazis called themselves national socialists.
“It took just one month,” he said. “This is a real revolution, like the revolution in 1917 when the monarchy was overthrown.
“Right now, almost all of the foreign companies and foreign investors are gone, and most of the Russian companies are controlled by the government. It reminds me of Germany at the beginning of the 1930s.
“This is very similar to that,” Mr. Smukler said. “The country is moving toward national socialism.”
But at least this time, Europe and now the United States are taking in refugees. It’s a small ray of hope, but it’s not nothing.