As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, the gloves and the mask are off, Alexander Smukler of Montclair said.
Mr. Smukler, who spent half his life in Russia and the other half as a successful entrepreneur in the United States, and who has maintained his connections with the Jewish communities in both Russia and Ukraine, warned that although it is impossible to predict what will happen, the war is not going well for the Ukrainians.
And as the reality of a long, bloody, pitiless campaign by the bigger, stronger, better equipped if infinitely less motivated Russian army sinks in, the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, is losing himself more and more in the glittering future he sees for himself once it’s finally over.
Putin — the man Mr. Smukler calls the angry dwarf — increasingly thinks of himself as the heir to Peter the Great, Mr. Smukler said.
Sunday was Russian Independence Day, which, perhaps coincidentally, falls close to the czar’s 350th birthday; Peter was born in 1672, became czar when he was 10 (his family history and the country’s politics both were complicated, to understate), took sole control of the country in 1696, and remained czar until he died in 1725.
Peter oversaw the war “that took over the northern part of modern Russia from Sweden,” Mr. Smukler said. “It lasted 21 years, and then they signed a treaty, and Peter declared it was over. Sweden lost almost 4 percent of its territory, and after that, Peter was named Emperor of all Russia.”
Putin sees such an imperial title in his future as well, Mr. Smukler said, and his aspiration was on display on Russian official news channels on June 12.
“When you watch Russian TV channels” — Mr. Smukler does — “you see them explain the current situation in Ukraine by making parallels to the war with Sweden.
“It’s always been known that Peter the Great is Putin’s hero. When he’s shown in his office, you can see the portrait of Peter the Great hanging there. And it’s interesting – Peter was the grandson of Michael Romanov, the first czar of Russia. Michael I. He was royal.
“In a recent speech, Putin said that they were able to trace his ancestors to the 16th century. They were peasants, all of them, from a very small village in the Tverskaya oblast, about 300 miles from Moscow. “And until the beginning of the 19th century, there weren’t really peasants in Russia,” Mr. Smukler continued. “They were slaves.” Not chattel slaves, as in the United States, but serfs, tied to rich people’s estates.
So, in other words, Peter had a boost toward greatness; he was born into it. Vladimir Putin reached it all by himself. (Peter the Great, and Vlad the Greater?)
Russian Independence Day and Peter the Great’s birthday are new holidays, Mr. Smukler said. Were they marked during his childhood? “Are you kidding me?” Mr. Smukler asked. “I grew up in a communist country. They talked about the czars as bloody monsters. Boris Yeltsin established Independence Day right after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Putin is turning the whole country back,” he said. “He wants to erase all memory of the 70 years of the communist regime. He is preparing the audience to continue the history that stopped in 1917.
“I suddenly realized, when I saw Russian television, that if Putin decides to restore the monarchy in Russia, and if he announces himself as emperor, the Russian population will support it,” Mr. Smukler said. “He has a unique chance to do that. The Russians keep saying that they need to restore the empire.” And every empire needs an emperor. “This might sound totally ridiculous, and maybe it will never happen, but I have a feeling that if Putin declares war on Ukraine” — something that until now he has been careful not to do — “that will give him a clear chance to say that the communist era is over, the great empire is restored. And he will change the constitution.”
In order for Putin to become emperor, he has to win in Ukraine, although the definition of the verb “to win” in this context is not clear yet.
The effort to win the war that Russia started when it invaded its neighbor on February 24 had been going badly for the instigator, as Mr. Smukler detailed in earlier stories. The 900-mile front line was too hard to hold, and “different sources say that the Russians lost between 32,000 and 37,000 troops,” Mr. Smukler said. These were all casualties. Dead soldiers. “This is a huge number; the largest number of casualties for any one army in a 110-day period in the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries.
“At the beginning, the Russians didn’t care,” he continued. Certainly Putin didn’t. “They didn’t know how many soldiers they’d lose.” But it is not sustainable to lose that many people in that short a time.
“Originally, it was going to be a blitzkrieg. Just a few days. But now Russia is ready for months or even years of war. That’s why, in his recent speeches, he keeps bringing up Peter the Great’s 21-year-long war with Sweden. He is preparing the Russians.
“But he still doesn’t use the word war. He uses that word only when he talks about the United States and NATO. But at the same time, he is preparing the Russians for a long fight, but at the end he will return the land that belongs to Great Russia.
“The Russian official propaganda from the state TV channels also has changed,” Mr. Smukler continued. “They stopped talking about the denazification of Ukraine, about the demilitarization of Ukraine, about protecting Dombas from the Ukrainian regime, as they call it now.
“What they say now has nothing to do with that. Now, like Putin, they say that Russia is fighting against external enemies, against the United States and its allies in NATO. Now they are saying that they are liberating the land that has always belonged to Russia without mentioning where that land is. They talk about protecting the Russian world.
“It’s a special term that appears more and more often in Russian propaganda,” Mr. Smukler said. Russians are fighting “for the unique Russian world.”
As the propaganda changes, and as Putin cites the parallels between the war with Sweden in the 17th century, he ignores modern-day Sweden, Mr. Smukler said.
“Russian propaganda doesn’t mention much about Sweden and Finland joining NATO,” he explained; those two countries, which have been neutral since World War II, decided to apply for membership in the alliance in response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. “If they talk about it, it will show the complete failure of Russian foreign policy. When they join, that will bring NATO much closer than if Ukraine joined, because Russia’s border with Finland is less than 120 miles from Saint Petersburg. Putin mentioned it once; he said that there are no territorial issues with those two countries at this point. He doesn’t want to discuss it.
“Finland was always like a window in the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. It was a channel for communications between the Soviet Union and the Western countries.” Now it’s joining the West. “It’s a huge failure of Russian foreign policy,” Mr. Smukler said.
It’s also a repetition of the way the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Mr. Smukler said. “In the beginning,” Hitler said, ‘We’re moving our army into the area to protect the Germans in Sudetenland.’ So Hitler tried to mislead his own country, and the world. That’s exactly what Putin did in Ukraine, saying he was moving the army in just to protect Russian interests in the Dombas region. But, of course, they moved away from Dombas, just like Hitler did.
“History repeats itself. It is the same way of misleading the world and his own people.”
Putin’s revised plans for continuing the war against Ukraine call for a revised strategy. “The Russians are moving much more slowly now,” Mr. Smukler said. “They are basically using heavy artillery and bombing before they send in troops. They slowed down their penetration into Ukrainian territory until they completely demolished the area’s military, industrial, and civil infrastructure.
“The battles are extremely bloody. Now they’re happening in the city of Severodonetsk” — we spoke on Sunday, and the news from that destroyed city has gotten only worse since then — “and soon the Russians will control it. It’s one of the last in the Dombas region; once it falls, the Russians will control 100 percent of Dombas. At the same time, they’re building up civil administration in other areas.
“The Russians also control much of Kherson province, and Zaporizhzhia. Kherson is along the Black Sea, and the Russians are celebrating Russian Independence Day there, and they started to issue Russian passports to people remaining in those areas. Russian state TV shows long lines of people trying to apply for Russian citizenship. And neither of those two areas, Kherson or Zaporizhzhia, have anything to do with Dombas.
“The masks are off now,” he repeated grimly. “That’s why the propaganda is changing its direction. Now it’s about returning the land that used to belong to Great Russia. The Russians are now implementing their own financial system, their banks are opening local branches there, and rubles are becoming local currency. This is all still considered eastern Ukraine, but it’s pretty far away from the Dombas region. And remember, according to what the Russians said at first, the whole reason for the war was to protect Dombas against what they call the Kiev regime.
“News sources are saying that the Russians started heavy military attacks and bombing in a new area, in Nikolaev. It’s a big region, next to Kherson, on the Black Sea. That’s the last stop before the Russians’ most important target.
“So it’s totally clear now that Putin has regrouped and is moving forward; they’re moving toward Odessa and blocking Ukraine from the Black Sea. They’re going to start operating near Kharkiv again; it’s the second largest city in Ukraine, with a population of one million.” The Russians tried to take it over in the beginning of the war; they failed and left, Mr. Smukler said, but they will try again.
Russia now controls about 20 percent of Ukrainian territory, he added. “For those who don’t understand Ukrainian geography, 20 percent of Ukraine is about the size of half of France.” It’s a huge country.
“Putin’s not in a hurry anymore,” Mr. Smukler said. “That’s why Russians are using their old Soviet weaponry, including artillery and tanks. They’re shipping that old weaponry to Ukraine.
“He has endless stocks of that old military equipment.” It was Cold War equipment, impossibly aged now. But enough of it still works to kill Ukrainians. “The Ukrainian president” — that’s Zolodymyr Zelensky — “said in a recent speech that for every 10 shots coming from Russian artillery, we are able to respond with only one shot. Zelensky is calling on the West, and especially on the United States, to immediately increase its support with military supplies.
“A lot of European countries are shipping their old-style Cold War tanks and artillery, but the numbers are nothing compared with what the Russians have.”
So the Russians basically are clearing out their attics and garages and storehouse in Siberia, at least metaphorically. They’re using all their old stuff. “It costs them nothing,” Mr. Smukler said. It was paid for decades ago. That old weaponry is unsophisticated and imprecise. It doesn’t target specific goals. It just kills indiscriminately. “The Russians don’t care,” Mr. Smukler said. “That’s why the war has become so brutal.
“The Russians have the ability to use their new hypersonic precisions missiles, and they do use them, maybe four or five a day, but every one of them costs millions of dollars.”
The Ukrainians still have one thing that the Russians lack. “They still have a very strong motivation to fight,” Mr. Smukler said. “So when it comes to battles on the ground, the Ukrainians win. But when the Russians use their heavy artillery, the Ukrainians lose.”
One of the signs of the changed war is how visible Putin has become, Mr. Smukler said. “He is back on his feet, and he’s back on TV, 24/7. For the first few weeks, he was lost, but now he’s back, he’s implementing his Plan B, and he knows what he is doing, and slowly, slowly, the Ukrainians are losing the war.”
He can hear it firsthand, from the large Ukrainian community in Fair Lawn, Mr. Smukler said. (There’s a large Russian Jewish presence in Fair Lawn, but most of the Ukrainians there are not Jewish, he explained. Most of the Ukrainian Jews are in Brooklyn. It has to do with how HIAS and NYANA worked with them.)
“My wife and I have become very friendly with people in that Fair Lawn community,” Mr. Smukler said. “We are collecting donations and money, which they ship to Ukraine.
“At the beginning of the war, the community was very involved in helping, in shipping donations, in helping refugees, placing them with families, finding places for them to stay.
“Recently, though, I’m hearing different things from the activists. They are exhausted. They say, ‘we’re getting tired.’ People in Ukraine already are starting to say that they are losing too many people, especially boys, especially their husbands in the army.
“Too many bodies are coming back, they say. Now I hear them say, ‘I don’t know how long we will be able to hold out.’
“More and more people are thinking and saying, ‘We need peace with Russia. Whatever they want, let them take. It’s better than losing our sons.’
“This is the first time that I have heard this from Ukrainians here, who have been very, very active in helping. So it is the first sign that Ukrainian society is getting tired.
“There’s not a critical mass saying that yet, but it’s getting close. They are getting ready to sacrifice some of their territories. That is exactly what Putin is looking for. And it seems to me that he can wait as long as he needs to, and eventually Ukraine will ask for negotiations.
“It’s really upsetting,” he said. “We hope that Russia will lose the war. Maybe something will change. Maybe Ukraine is still not getting all the supplies that are being sent.”
There is a complication with that too, he said. Just about every country that is sending sophisticated weapons has its own weapons system. Each system is different, and operators have to learn to use each one. It’s a formidable job, training people on so many systems, in what necessarily must be so little time.”
Mr. Smukler returned to Vladimir Putin’s ambitions. “He is thinking about what he will do in 10 years,” he said. “He has approximately 11 years left until he will have to run again. That would be his sixth term, and he would be 80. He has to protect himself.”
There’s one more point that talk about Putin’s age brings up, Mr. Smukler said; that’s how this fight between Russia and Ukraine is in some ways a generational fight. No matter how it ends, it will change the world’s politics, it will cause alliances to shift and reform. “Some countries will get weaker and some will get stronger,” Mr. Smukler said. It many ways, it’s about the end of the old world and the beginning of a new one.
“Putin and the people surrounding him were born and raised in the Soviet Union,” he said. “They are between 60 and 75. That’s the last generation that remembers, that carries the genes of the Soviet Union. Zelensky and the people who surround him, the members of the Ukrainian parliament, are between 35 and 50. Some of them were born during the Soviet era, but they grew up in independent, Western-facing Ukraine.
“They were raised in the free world.
“So this is the Soviet dragon, and woke up to take a last bite at the world before completely disappearing into history. This is its last gasp. The new generation was raised in a completely different world.
“That’s why Putin cannot sit down with Zelensky.” Putin has dismissed Zelensky as a clown — something the world has seen not to be true, although at the beginning of his career as a performer and a satirist it was partially true, but Zelensky also is a lawyer, as well as a brilliant and charismatic leader, and by the way he’s Jewish — “but the deeper truth is that they have nothing in common.” They cannot negotiate because Putin comes from the Soviet era, Zelensky from the free world, and they have no common ground.
“For Putin, that is his darkest dream, that Zelensky’s generation will win over his generation.” Of course, that is inevitable. “Deep down, Putin is trying to stop time,” Mr. Smukler said. “That is why he is speaking about monarchy. He wants to stop the clock.” But no one can do that.
There are many other issues going on in Ukraine and Russia; we have not mentioned the largest of those issues, the economy. Next week, unless something huge happens, we will take on that burning question.