It’s no fun being Cassandra.
That unfortunate woman, readers will remember, was not cursed to see only doom. No, her curse was that she saw clearly, and reported what she saw. But the future was grim, and to report it clearly was to deliver very bad tidings. Not surprisingly, no one believed her. Not to be believed was part of her curse.
But there didn’t have to be a curse. It’s human nature to refuse to believe terrible things, at least until those things are looming so hugely in front of you that you can no longer look away. It fills your peripheral vision too.
Which brings us to Alexander Smukler of Montclair, and his terrifying news that Russian state media already has said that Russia’s war on Ukraine is not a piddling little local contretemps — a special military operation, Vladimir Putin called it, before it was renamed and recast — but instead the start of World War III.
Mr. Smukler is a Russian Jewish immigrant who has spent half of his life in America, and found much success as an entrepreneur. He’s also an advocate for Russian Jews, a past president and board member of the NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia, and a close and frequently horrified observer of Russia’s war on Ukraine. He’s talked to us about what he’s heard from his network in Russia and Ukraine and about how the “angry dwarf,” as he calls the physically small and morally much smaller president of Russia, has caused the death of thousands of people and the demolition of millions of lives as he pursues his own warped dream of greater Russia.
Last week, Mr. Smukler told us that the war has passed the point of no return. This week, he continues to lay out his bleak vision of the future.
The situation has been irrevocably altered by the Ukrainians’ success, he said; the moral complexity of the war is caused by the truth that the better the Ukrainians are at fighting off the unprovoked, illegitimate, ruthless attack on their country and the murder of its innocent citizens, the angrier Putin gets, and the more dangerous the devastation he wreaks and threatens becomes.
The point of no return was reached last week, Mr. Smukler said, but it was exacerbated by the sinking of the Russians’ flagship, the Moskva, which was “the largest and most well-equipped naval vessel on the Black Sea,” or now, presumably, below it. “The vessel was built in 1980, during the peak of the Cold War, and it was completely refurbished and modernized in 2019.
“It’s an incredibly huge vessel, just one step down from an aircraft carrier,” he continued. “It has 580 people as the crew. So it is an absolutely mystery how the Ukrainians managed to destroy that ship.
“According to different sources, including U.S. intelligence, which was published in open sources, the Ukrainians used two anti-vessel missiles, called Neptune. These two missiles were designed and assembled in Ukraine. They hit the vessel, and basically the vessel sank about six hours later, when the ammunition inside the ship exploded.”
So that’s fine. But wait. What? What?
“You have to understand that the missiles are not very large,” Mr. Smukler said. “In fact, they are considered small anti-vessel missiles. The chance that two of them could hit that ship and it would sink is approximately one in two thousand.
“It is a pure miracle that it sank. An absolute miracle. And how that happened is totally unclear.”
It’s a huge ship. It went down as people watched. There are videos. Why is it still unclear?
Because it’s war.
“The Ukrainians, for their own reasons, do not relay any information,” Mr. Smukler said. “As usual, at the beginning of this, the Russian military lied. They said that it was a simple fire, and that they would move it to the port of Sevastopol, in Crimea, to be repaired.” The fire set off some explosions, the Russians said.
“Of course, they tried to move the ship to port for repairs, but they did not succeed. They said that there was an incredible storm on the sea.” That was untrue. There was no storm that day.
Now, however, that culture of lies seems to be changing. Not the fact of lying, but the lies themselves.
“Lately, several Russian sources have been saying that the ship was destroyed, and an unknown number of sailors died, including the ship’s commander,” Mr. Smukler said. “The Russians are not releasing information about what happened, and they are not talking publicly about the kind of ammunition necessary to fell such a huge ship.
“The last time the Russians lost a flagship was 1904,” he continued. That was during the Russian-Japanese War, which the Russians lost.
“I think that this is one of the most important events of the war so far,” Mr. Smukler said. It’s a humiliation, something that Vladimir Putin, the angry dwarf himself, hates. “Losing the flagship is losing pride. It is a symbol of their good fortune walking away from them. It is a symbol that fortune now is against them.”
He stressed again how unlikely it is that such a huge and well-resourced ship could be sunk by two little missiles. “This vessel carried very sophisticated anti-missile equipment,” he said. “So how that equipment could have missed the Ukrainian missiles is entirely unclear.” It is yet another sign of fortune abandoning them.
In fact, Mr. Smukler said, it’s a David and Goliath story. “It’s like David shooting a stone with his slingshot, and hitting Goliath in the eye, and killing him,” he said. “It’s as if Zelensky, who is David, who used his slingshot to knock the Russian Goliath right in the eye.”
But as marvelous as that victory is for the Ukrainians and the West, as it is for everyone who believes that Putin’s attempt to take Ukraine by force is misguided and bad, still it forced Putin and his supporters to take the obvious next step, a step they’d been inching toward anyway.
“The Russians are not calling the war a special operation anymore,” Mr. Smukler said. “Next it was a military operation, and then last week state representatives talked to every media outlet saying that Ukraine is just a battlefield.” It’s just a series of cities to be taken and plundered, full of people to be brutalized and slaughtered, because now we are in the Third World War.
“On Saturday, for the first time on a major news program” — remember, all the major television news stations and programs are government controlled — “they are saying that we are in World War III. The anchor, Olga Skabeyeva, said that.
“That means that they are preparing the public. They are saying that now the gloves are off.” Yes, Mr. Smukler acknowledged, to Western onlookers it might seem as if those bloody gloves had been taken off and tossed aside some time ago, but now things will get worse. “Before, they said that they were being gentle.” That, as we saw images of what they’d done in Bucha, and of how they bombed civilian targets. But now, “they are completely changing their propaganda.
“They are saying that the economic sanctions are an act of war. They are saying that we will have a war in space, and that they have to eliminate the American satellites that supply intelligence to the Ukrainians.” The Russians are alleging that the Ukrainians’ missiles were able to hit the Moskva accurately because of information they got from this American satellite,” Mr. Smukler continued. Yes, that is inconsistent with the Russians’ insistence that the ship was struck by a fire and downed by a storm, but so what?
“I have heard from my sources in Russia that Putin is going to sign a new decree this week,” Mr. Smukler said. “They will be able to rearrange their military based on the assumption that it is no longer just a military operation for the ‘liberation’ of eastern Ukraine, for the ‘denazification’ and ‘demilitarization’ of Ukraine, but it is a war with Ukraine and the other countries that are supplying it with military support and intelligence information.
“This is very important because from the Russian legal point of view, when it was just a special operation, they did not need the Parliament’s approval, and they were not able to send regular army troops in Ukraine.”
But now, if Mr. Smukler’s sources are correct, it will be all-out war as Vladimir Putin defines it.
“The rumor I heard has not been confirmed yet, but I heard it from very trustworthy sources,” he said. “That is that he will sign the decree, and it will change the whole nature of the conflict. He’ll be able to use the regular army, and he’ll be able to use any kind of weapon, including chemical, nuclear, and space weaponry.”
On its face, this is similar to laws in other countries governing the rules of military engagement, he explained. “In the United States, if a president wants to launch a military operation, like the one that got bin Laden, he can do it using special forces without asking Congress for permission. Every country has its own rules about the level of military engagement the executive branch can get to without asking for permission.
“Russia is an authoritarian country, so Putin can do whatever he wants to do,” Mr. Smukler said, but using his power to change the names he applies to his actions give them a veneer of legitimacy, and he wants that. “He has many more tools that he can use if he calls it war than if he calls it a military operation.
“During a war, Russia can rearrange its economy. It can draft people to the army. It can draft medical personnel and civil pilots to the army. It can use any kinds of weapons against the enemy.
“And that will change the whole ball game.
“On the one hand, NATO and the United States and the president have been very careful, saying ‘We don’t want to be involved. We don’t want to give Putin a chance to blame us.’ But during the last 55 days, as we know, Biden called Putin a war criminal and a butcher. When the president of a superpower country calls the president of another country a butcher or a war criminal, that is basically closing the door on negotiations.
“So we are saying that ‘We are staying away. We don’t want to be involved,’ but on the other hand we keep sending more weapons. Now we are shipping heavy weaponry — helicopters, tanks, heavy missiles. Now the Ukrainians are equipped with Western weaponry.
“Shipping such heavy weaponry is putting more fuel on the fire. It does not really lead this conflict to an end, but it has widened it. It will go in different directions, including the war in space against satellites, cyberwar, economic war, chemical war, nuclear war, etc., etc.
“Right now, we are moving in a very scary direction.
“One of the most important things that took place last week was a speech by the CIA director, Mr. Burns.” That’s William Burns. “He said that the United States is watching the Russian nuclear arsenal very closely, and taking the threat of their using tactical nuclear weaponry very seriously.
“I have known Mr. Burns for many years,” Mr. Smukler said. Among many other high-level jobs, Mr. Burns was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008. “We met several times when he was ambassador when I was the president of the NSCJ,” the organization that advocated for Jews from the former Soviet Union. “I know him as probably the best and most knowledgeable experts about Russia in the United States, especially in this administration, so when he says that the United States is watching the Russian nuclear arsenal he knows what he is talking about.
“The U.S. administration understands the threat that is coming from Russia. It is a very real threat. I was pleased to hear that the administration finally admitted that there is a huge risk that the Russians will utilize every possible weapon that they have in their possession to fight against Western civilization right now.
“The conflict is much deeper now that it was when it started, and it is growing. And that is exactly how World War I started, by involving more and more people.”
To repeat the grim obvious, “I am afraid that in the next few weeks we will see very bloody developments on Ukrainian territory,” Mr. Smukler said.
How are the Russians dealing with this?
“We have to separate out three different groups of Russians,” he said. “There are the Russian politicians, including the ones who surround Putin and support him. Then there is the media, and the third group is the general population.
“I can tell you that the general population is suffering drastically because of the economic sanctions. The Russian economy is falling apart. Every day, the population feels the impact of the sanctions.”
Are you feeling a bit better, reader? Don’t. “At the same time, Putin’s support is strong, and it gets stronger every week,” Mr. Smukler said. “The sanctions were supposed to decrease Putin’s popularity and decrease his support, but it is having a completely different affect. His support is incredibly strong today.”
How can that be?
“The Russian middle class was very small,” Mr. Smukler said. “There was a very small group of super-rich people and a very thin middle class, and then a large population that was living close to or below the poverty line.” That’s similar to the way life was in Czarist Russia, before the revolution that made everyone theoretically equal (although theory and fact rarely met anyway). “It’s typical of Russians through their history,” he added.
“When has happened is that the sanctions implemented against Russia destroyed the economy directly, basically, completely destroyed the middle class,” he said. “The middle class lost everything.
“The super-rich all live in the West. They lost their planes and yachts, but they’re fine. Most of the middle class are trying to leave the country. They’re not going to fight Putin’s regime.
But the people who live from paycheck to paycheck and getting payments from the government — their lives did not change at all. They didn’t lose anything, because they had nothing to lose. The government is still paying them money. It’s just printing rubles.
“It’s similar to what is happening in Venezuela,” Mr. Smukler explained. “Nicolas Maduro is still in power. Why? Because despite all the attempts to overthrow him, the military supports him, and he has enough oil to finance the army, and the poorest people support him because he keeps printing money. No matter what happens, he just keeps printing money, and they get money from the government.
“The same thing is happening in Russia.
“Everyone except the super-rich and the middle class supports Putin, and they will continue to support him very actively until they get their sons coming home from the war in coffins. That will be the point when the Russians will stop supporting the regime.”
And then, off to the east, there’s China, biding its time.
“Even if Europe embargoes Russian oil and gas, China will buy it, at a discount, as it does now. And that will allow Putin to survive for many years.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed and Gorbachev signed his resignation in 1991, do you know how much the oil price was that day?” Mr. Smukler asked. He knew. “It was $9 per gallon,” he said. “So if Gorbachev had oil prices like they are today, around $100 per gallon, the Soviet Union would still exist. It would be flourishing. So Putin will have the chance to sell mineral resources, primarily oil and gas, to China. Putin’s regime will survive.
“The biggest problem is China.
“As I mentioned before” — and Mr. Smukler did, the first time we talked about the war in Ukraine, in a story published on March 2 — “Russia is becoming a Chinese colony, a main source of mineral resources for China. China will do everything possible to protect Putin’s regime, because they get such a strong discount for oil and gas.
“This is the biggest challenge for Western civilization. The combination of Russia and China makes China much stronger and gives Putin a way to survive.
“I live with fear,” he concluded. “I see that Russia will not stop. I see it going in the scariest direction.”
He’s clear about which side he took in the debate over whether to counsel negotiations or to send more weapons. “I was waiting for the day when someone would say, ‘Hey, stop. Let’s meet. Let’s talk. Let’s give Putin something that will stop the conflict.’
“Instead, they keep sending missiles, helicopters, tanks. How will this stop it? It will kill more innocent people. It will become a huge war that will extend to Europe — and thank God not to the United States, although everything is possible right now.”
Now, though, he repeated, we have passed the point of no return.
What about the consummation that is so devoutly wished? That somehow, whether naturally or unnaturally, Putin would cease to exist? “I don’t see any reason to think that anyone inside Russia will get rid of him,” Mr. Smukler said. “Not yet.
“Remember that Hitler was in power for 11 years before the first attempted assassination took place. I don’t see anyone yet who could stop Putin.”
So for now, all we can do is wait and watch, hope and pray that history does not repeat itself.