Vladimir Putin and his political scissors

Vladimir Putin and his political scissors

Alexander Smukler updates us on the fighting in Bakhmut and the upcoming Russian elections

A hotel stands behind devastation in Bakhmut last summer.
A hotel stands behind devastation in Bakhmut last summer.

March 17 is an important date in the ongoing war in Ukraine that Russia started when it invaded its neighbor on February 24, 2022, Alexander Smukler said.

Mr. Smukler of Montclair is the Russian-American-Jewish businessman and philanthropist who analyzes the war for us; he’s spent about half his life in Moscow — he, his wife, and their sons left in 1991, just before the Soviet Union crumbled — and the other half here. He’s got a strong network of sources in Russia and Ukraine.

March 17, 2023, is important because March 17, 2024, will be supremely important to Vladimir Putin, and what matters to Vladimir Putin necessarily matters to the rest of the world.

It’s the day that Putin faces the voters as he runs for his fifth term as president. And the clock has started ticking on the runup to that election.

Wait! We can hear readers saying. What? Putin’s election is fake. He’s a dictator. He will win because in Russia, unlike in the United States, elections really are rigged.

Yes, of course that’s true, Mr. Smukler said. But remember who we’re talking about. It’s the Angry Dwarf, the street tough who grew up in St. St. Petersburg as a small, belligerent boy, the son of parents who suffered enormously during the war and whose first child died of starvation, who had to prove himself but lacked brawn so needed brains.

What’s the scissors? It’s the two sharp blades that he’s caught between, the horns of the dilemma he established for himself.

“He has to make a serious decision in this election,” Mr. Smukler said. “On the one hand, of course he’ll win — he’s going to be probably the only and certainly the major candidate — but his goal, his passion, is to have a smooth election. He doesn’t want to repeat what happened in Belarus a few years ago, when the dictator there falsified his election win.” That was in 2020; the dictator is Alexander Lukashenko, who still leads the country, and is in thrall to Putin. “There were massive demonstrations and uprisings against Lukashenko, which Putin and his army suppressed,” Mr. Smukler continued.

“Putin doesn’t want to have something like that happen. He doesn’t want a color revolution or a Maidan-like uprising.” (There was a successful color revolution in Ukraine in 2014, at the beginning of the current hostilities between Ukraine and Russia.) “He has to be prepared, even though he completely controls the election.”

Despite the control over the ballot box, and despite his government’s general control over the people, “he doesn’t want to see thousands of people out on the streets,” Mr. Smukler said. “For that, he needs to do two things.

Alexander Smukler

“Number one, he can claim some victory in the war. If he can’t, if he cannot reach or claim any victories, he has to freeze the conflict, minimize the casualties and the losses. Because it is an election year, he cannot have a massive mobilization.”

Can’t he just postpone the election? The problem, again, is that Putin is a dictator who doesn’t want to look iron-fisted. “Of course, as a dictator, he could just cancel the election — but for that he has to announce martial law.” Even for Putin, some laws must seem to apply.

“Martial law never has been announced in this war. It’s just a special military operation. Martial law was announced in Ukraine, so all elections were postponed, people can be drafted, and men are not allowed to leave the country.

“The whole country is one military camp.

“But it’s different in Russia. Putin can announce military law and become a military dictator, but this is not what he wants. Remember, he’s an angry dwarf from a street gang.

“Remember that there are rules about becoming a leader in a street gang. Your gang members have to respect you, they have to choose you to be their leader, and they have to be scared of you.

“Putin needs to be respected by his inner circle. And he does not want to be a dictator like Lukashenko, who definitely is not supported by the majority of his population, and who only is there because the Russian military machine supports him.

“Putin does not want that. And during all four of his previous terms, he never had that.

“Yes, the Russian elections have been falsified left and right since Putin became president — but remember one thing. I never have doubted that the majority of the population voted for Putin.” Yes, there’s constant propaganda, and no, he does not face strong opponents. “But every one of the four times he was elected, he was supported by the majority of the population,” Mr. Smukler said.

He explained the mechanics of Putin’s hold on power. He ran and was elected to the presidency four times; next March 17, therefore, he’ll run for his fifth term. The first four terms were four years each. But in 2020, “the Russian parliament changed the Constitution.” Presidential terms now last for six years, and a president can hold power for two consecutive terms.  But Putin’s first four terms no longer count under this new Constitution, so he can run in 2024, and again in 2030.

Fighting in Bakhmut in November 2022.

“And here, in the United States, we are also coming to our election year,” Mr. Smukler added. “These two events — in March and November of 2024 — are going to affect next year, not only in terms of the geopolitical picture and the global Game of Thrones, but also the war in Ukraine.”

He returns to the fragile state of Putin’s ego; as we know, absolute power corrupts absolutely. “Putin does not want to become Bokassa” — that’s Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the self-proclaimed emperor of Central Africa, who was notoriously brutal and mind-numbingly cruel. “He does not want to be Pinochet” — Augusto Pinochet, whose military junta in Chile was known, among other things, for dropping opponents from helicopters — “or the Greek colonels,” the right-wing military dictatorship that took over the government in Greece.

“He wants to be beloved emperor of his people,” Mr. Smukler continued. “He does not care if he is elected by 70 percent or 56 percent, but it is very important for him that a majority of people elect him and give him strength to make decisions.

“After the elections, we will read that 96 percent of people voted for him. This will be a lie, but if he sees that for real at least 56 percent of people supported him, that will give him internal strength.

“That’s why next year is critical for him.

“He also wants to avoid any social turmoil or political earthquake inside Russia, including massive demonstrations and uprisings by people who will demand fair elections. He wants this to be quiet and smooth. He wants everything to continue as it was for the last 23 years. He wants to be elected by the majority of the population.”

Yeah, well, if that’s what he wants, he picked an odd way to work toward it. What was he thinking when he invaded Ukraine?

“Putin understands that he made a mistake,” Mr. Smukler said. “There’s no question about it. He knows that he made a major strategic mistake, and now he’s fighting to try to save his power and his popularity. He’s trying to explain to his people that the war was not a mistake, but a necessity. He lied to his people, the propaganda describes the current situation in a completely twisted way, and Putin fully understand that.”

It’s not at all surprising that Putin sees the situation clearly, Mr. Smukler said. “I said that he’s an angry dwarf, but I never said that he’s a foolish one. He’s very smart. He’s playing chess. He understands that for him to preserve his place in history, it is very important to be fairly elected in this election. So this year, 2023, will see a lot of events that are deeply connected with his political future in Russia.”

Mr. Smukler retraced the history that brought Putin to this point. “For the first months after the invasion, he was completely destroyed,” he said. “He was depressed about the mistake he made. He had been misled” — he had been told that the Ukrainians were weak, unpatriotic, and longed for Russia’s re-embrace. He had been terribly misinformed. “He made the wrong decision, and hopefully it will knock his empire apart completely, but after a few months he is back on his feet.

Putin does not want to use Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, seen here in 1971, as a role model.

“He told himself, ‘I made a mistake, fine, now I have to fix it. I have to deal with it.’ He is completely cornered now, and the only way out is victory.

“His intention is to defeat Ukraine. Ukraine is an outpost of the organized West and of NATO, and the only way out is to defeat them and announce victory.

“Putin is ready for a long, long battle. He is not in a hurry.”

Looking back at the last few months, he can see that “Putin and his army failed again,” Mr. Smukler said. “They lost the opportunity of an effective offensive during the wintertime.

“The Russians had a window for an effective offensive, as we’ve discussed before, because they know how to fight in the winter.” But they didn’t take it. “So now it’s the middle of March, the first spring month. We can say that the Russians tried in several directions, and they failed at all of them.”

Mr. Smukler talked about Bakhmut. “We’ve heard about it for eight months, because that’s how long the battle’s been going on,” he said. “The Russians already have said that they occupied it several times, but it never happened. The Ukrainians are defending it like the 300 Spartans” at the battle of Thermopylae, who lost in the end, but not before taking many hundreds of their enemy with them. The Russians are thought to have lost about 30,000 soldiers in this fight, and no one has any idea how many more were wounded.

“It’s amazing, even to military experts. Why are the Russians so crazy about this town, which has no strategic meaning? NATO intelligence just published a report that said the Russians lost 1,100 soldiers there in one week, and 1,500 others were wounded. And the Russians still are fighting in Bakhmut, and the Ukrainians still are managing to defend it.”

It’s not as if the Ukrainians aren’t losing people too, Mr. Smukler continued. “The same NATO report shows that the Ukrainians are losing five times” fewer men than the Russians are. “So the casualty rate is 1 to 5,” he said. “And I keep thinking that we can use these numbers, we can throw out these numbers, but think about how many lives are behind them. It’s not just the soldiers; it’s how many children became orphans? How many families lost their fathers? For what?

“The question is, for what?

“The Ukrainians are defending their land. For them, it became political. Yes, the town has no strategic or military meaning, but the Ukrainians quickly realized that the town is like a black hole for the Russian army.” It’s sucking people in, and they never get out. “The Russians are like orcs, sending troops to attack and losing and losing and losing.”

Valerii Zaluzhnyi is Ukraine’s chief of staff.

The politics were manifested in an intense disagreement between Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and its chief of staff, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, on whether to keep defending Bakhmut.

The Russian soldiers are just “cannon fodder,” Mr. Smukler continued, and the Russians just keep throwing more and more of them into the death machine. “And that’s why Ukrainians keep sending fresh units there.” They’re staffing the meat grinder.

“The Ukrainians’ major purpose there is to exhaust the Russian army.”

That was Zaluzhnyi’s argument, and so far he’s winning. It’s working. “Zelensky was against it, saying that we should withdraw because we shouldn’t sacrifice the lives of our soldiers, and the town is leveled already” but Zaluzhnyi won. “He says that it’s a mythical place for Russians by now.”

Why are the Russians doing it?

“Some experts think that the Russians keep sending more and more troops there because once they reported to Putin that they’d taken the town, and in reality they had not, the generals are scared,” Mr. Smukler said. “They have to prove to Putin that they didn’t lie to him.

“I think that’s why they keep sending more and more troops there, and the Ukrainians keep killing them.”

Mr. Smukler talked a bit about Bakhmut. “It’s a beautiful southern town,” he said; or at any rate it used to be. It’s rubble now. “It had a small downtown, about 77,000 people, with a lot of private residences. It used to be like Montclair. Now, humanitarian organizations think that there somewhere between 300 and 500 civilians remain there, hiding in shelters, underground, in mines, in caves, wherever they can feel relatively safe.”

The town was founded in 1571, he said; in 1922, the Soviets named it Artemovsk after a dead Bolshevik called Artem; the Ukrainians reverted to its original name in 2016. Like neighboring Soledar, its economy was based on the salt mines that still lie beneath its surface.

“It used to be a very Jewish town, before the Second World War, but all the Jews were exterminated by Ukrainian collaborators in the ghetto,” Mr. Smukler said. It’s a very complicated, history-ridden part of the world.

Putin votes for himself in 2018. (He won.)

Now that the winter is just about over and the mud season is about to begin, the Russians will start preparing for their offensive, but “they are having major logistical problems,” Mr. Smukler said. They don’t have enough military supplies, especially artillery shells, and they will not get them as quickly as they need it, because their military industry is delayed in its production of missiles and shells. They need time to fix that.

On the other hand, “the Ukrainians keep getting more and more supplies from the West, including tanks. The Leopards are supposed to be on the front lines by the end of May, and according to my understanding the Ukrainians are working hard to plan the summer offensive.

“My personal opinion is that the Ukrainians have a unique window of opportunity to defeat Russia this year, and completely kick them out of Ukrainian territories,” Mr. Smukler said, adding the caveat that he’s not including Crimea.

That brings us back to the election.

“Putin is having major issues in mobilizing more soldiers,” he said. “They already drafted 300,000, and now they are having a hard time finding enough cannon fodder for the front lines. Putin would have to mobilize another 300,000 to 500,000.

“But from a political point of view, he cannot mobilize more people now because he does not want to have a massive return of dead bodies to Russian families during the election year.

“After the election, Putin can do whatever he wants. He can send millions of people to die. He wouldn’t care. That’s why for the Ukrainians, this summer is the most critical.

“The Ukrainians cannot start an offensive before the end of May,” Mr. Smukler said. “First, the ground has to dry. The new tanks will not be effective in the mud.” (Nor would any tanks the Russians could scrounge up work well in those conditions. The Ukrainians can use that time to train their fighters on the new technology and machinery. “They will be able to operate it by the end of May,” Mr. Smukler said. “So I estimate that at the end of May or the beginning of June, Ukraine will start a major offensive.

“So Ukraine will have a unique window of opportunity this summer, because Putin is between the blades of his political scissors,” he concluded.

Next week, Mr. Smukler will look at the global effects and reverberations of the war in Ukraine and the upcoming elections in Russia and the United States, as well as other political actions around the world. Stay tuned.

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