In the mid-1970s, Alexander Smukler, now a Jewish-American entrepreneur happily living in Montclair but back then a Russian Jewish 10th grader in Moscow, read “War and Peace.”
So did every other Russian 10th grader; so, for that matter, had Vladimir Putin, seven years older, a physically small, nearly feral communal-apartment-and-street-kid, growing up with harsh postwar deprivations and grim war-scarred parents in Saint Petersburg.
“War and Peace” was on the curriculum across the Soviet Union because the ruling Communist Party “wanted to show the heroic role that the Russian people — not the czars, not the government, but the people, the peasants — took to protect their land.” The message that their teachers wanted the students to take from the massive novel, to which they devoted two to three months, was that the so-called First Patriotic War, the war that broke Napoleon, was because the peasants rose up. “It’s about people standing for their land during the war,” Mr. Smukler said.
The Second Patriotic War was World War II, he added.
But for him, “War and Peace,” which Leo Tolstoy published in 1869, has a very strong connection to what’s going on today. The novel, with its many incursions into philosophy and history, is set during Napoleon’s attempt to conquer Russia. “With his invasion of Russia, Napoleon destroyed his empire. And that shows us how easy it is to start a war, and how difficult it is to end one. And in most cases, ending a war led to global change.”
It’s now exactly six months since Putin invaded Ukraine, on February 24. “More and more the war is becoming global, involving more and more countries, and nobody has any idea how to end it, or how to get out of the situation, which is becoming so dangerous for our world,” Mr. Smukler said. He has many sources in both Ukraine and Russia, both in and out of the Jewish world, and has become our analyst as we try to understand what’s going on in Eastern Europe.
“People are starting to realize, after six months, that this is not going to be a short-term war. It’s six months, not six days, like the war in Israel in 1967.”
Given that truth, “Most politicians and experts are offering different recipes for ending the war, but it seems to me that none of them are attainable in any practical sense,” he continued.
“For example, in May former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that the only way to reach peace in Ukraine would be through negotiations with Putin, and that at the end of the negotiations, Ukraine would have to sacrifice between 15 to 20 percent of its territory. Basically, that’s Crimea and the Donbas area.
“Despite the fact that Kissinger — who is 99 years old — is one of the greatest living experts in global conflicts, his proposal is totally worthless. The Ukrainians are not ready to accept the idea that they will sacrifice 20 percent of their land, or that they will negotiate with Putin.”
Last week, nearly 20 former diplomats and military experts “signed an open letter calling on the Biden administration to increase the supply of military munitions, including the long-range missile systems that will cover most of the Ukrainian territory and will allow the Ukrainians to hit targets on Russian territory,” Mr. Smukler said. (The letter is in the Hill; googling will surface it easily.)
“The signers include very well-known names, including Alexander Vershbow, a former ambassador to Russia, whom I’ve known for many years and have met with many times when he was in Moscow.” The list of signatories also includes, among other well-known ones, General Wesley Clark, William Taylor and Marie Yovanovich, both former ambassadors to Ukraine, and Kurt Volker, former NATO ambassador. (They all list other, more current affiliations, mostly academic, as well as their governmental work.)
“These people all know Russia very well,” Mr. Smukler said. “I think they probably are the most knowledgeable and most experienced experts in the world on Russia and Ukraine. They all understand that Ukraine today does not have enough capacity to fight with the Russians, and to push the Russian army out of Ukraine, with the level of supplies that they’re getting now.
“That’s obvious, because, as we’ve said before, for at least the last month the war has been in limbo. The Ukrainians are very successful at destroying the logistical supply chains and munitions depots behind the front lines, but it has not let them move forward. The Russians also are not able to move forward. Even now, after six months, they are not able to complete the so-called ‘liberation’ of the Donbas region, because the Donetsk Oblast is holding them up, and parts of it are still controlled by the Ukrainian army.”
Still, he fears, if the Ukrainians do get the heavy equipment that the signatories of the open letter request, “that will possibly lead to the escalation of the conflict and move the conflict itself to a completely different level. I have no idea how the Russians will respond to that situation, when they already have major problems in recruiting soldiers and officers to send to the front.”
It’s not that the Russians can’t get soldiers to fight the war, he explained. Because Putin has not labeled the war what it is — a war — instead calling it a special operation, he does not have the power to draft soldiers. Instead, they are paying people to join the army, “and people are standing in line to sign the contract. But most military experts are saying that there still is a big shortage, because they need trained personnel. Without drafting and mobilizing soldiers and sending in their regular, drafted army, it seems to experts, and to me, that the Russians are not able to move forward. Remember, the Russians cannot afford to lose more soldiers.” If many more die, Putin fears, his people will grumble and revolt.
Then there’s the problem of the tanks. “The Russians today can send 10,000 more tanks to the front” — many of them are the unsophisticated but still-deadly Cold War relics that have been shipped west from their storage areas in Siberia by train — “but each tank needs a crew of either three or four, and the Russians cannot find 40,000 tank drivers.”
On the other hand, the Ukrainians “probably have enough soldiers, because they can mobilize as many as they want, but they don’t have enough weaponry to attack Russia and keep the Russians out from occupied territories.
“Some experts are saying that in order to move forward, Ukrainians also need several thousand tanks and bulletproof armoured vehicles. And they don’t have them. It is expecting to receive tanks from different European countries in the next few months. Two hundred tanks. And Russia can send almost 10,000 to the front.
The difference between the Russians’ capacity and the Ukrainians’ “is gigantic,” he said.
To return to the letter, we see that its authors write that while they understand the American administration’s reluctance to take actions that might, in the words of national security adviser Jake Sullivan, cause “World War III,” the United States still is in itself a potent threat, and that Putin is reluctant to take it on. “But the U.S. is also a nuclear power, and it is a strategic mistake to suggest that nuclear deterrence no longer works,” the open letter says. “Nuclear deterrence still works.”
Mr. Smukler worries that this might not be the case.
To be clear, Mr. Smukler respects and admires the signatories and their experience. He is not disagreeing with them, he says, and he hopes that they are right; he just is not sure about the response the actions they call for might evoke. He is not convinced by their argument. “I can only assume that supplying Ukrainians with long-range missiles will put the conflict on a different level, and that might escalate the war drastically,” he said.
In other words, it’s not easy to end a war.
A third high-level attempt to end the war came from Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who “met with Zelensky” — that’s Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky — “in Lviv last week, in the presence of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “Erdoğan is trying to find ground for the Zelensky to meet with Putin and discuss the possibility of ending the war and reaching a peace agreement,” Mr. Smukler said. “Erdoğan is playing a more and more active role, and this is understandable, because he controls the Bosporus and the Dardanelles,” straits that provide access from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, to the Aegean and then to the Mediterranean and the outside world. Turkey also belongs to NATO, and that, too, increases Erdoğan’s power. “Recently, he had a substantial success in negotiating with Putin and getting an export of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain,” Mr. Smukler said. “So he is trying to mediate a peace agreement.”
But it’s not working. “I don’t think it can happen, at least not now, because neither Putin nor Zelensky is ready to meet,” Mr. Smukler said. “Putin can’t. He has nothing. Nothing to show. Nothing to declare as a military victory, just a bloody heavy bombardment of Ukrainian cities, and even being called a war criminal by many world leaders. And Zelensky can’t meet with Putin, because his population is not yet ready to lose the territories. They will not let Zelensky sign any peace treaty with Russia that will lead to the loss of substantial territories.
“So let’s get back, again, to Tolstoy. The conflict is in limbo, and no one has any idea how to stop it.”
To get back to “War and Peace,” Napoleon started the war “by mistake, and it was a tragic mistake,” Mr. Smukler said. “He lost his army completely, he had to run away, and eventually he lost his empire completely, and died in exile on the island of Saint Helena in 1821, when he was 52.
“It’s similar to the mistake that Putin made this year, when he invaded Ukraine.
“This mistake was made, according to a report by British intelligence that was published this week, based on intelligence that Putin got from the FSB,” the Russian Federal Security Service, successor to the USSR’s KGB.
The British intelligence report was detailed, and it described how Putin was misled. “The FSB report said that Kyiv would fall in four days, and that the Ukrainian population would welcome the Russian army, just as they did in Crimea in 2014,” Mr. Smukler said. “The FSB also said that it had a widespread network of Russian intelligence personnel and collaborators in every city in Ukraine. It said that everything was prepared. So Putin moved in his army, and made a critical, terrible mistake, which hopefully will lead him to exile.”
(We have to take a short time-out here to brag, just a little. The British intelligence report provides details about a story that Mr. Smukler first told me in our March 18 issue, called “Angry dwarf works to provoke the big war.” He was right. How did he know that? “I do have certain sources that help me understand the situation more deeply,” he said.)
Back to Putin, “he made the same mistake that Napoleon did in 1812,” Mr. Smukler said. “He based his actions on his intelligence, which completely misled him. He started the war and it became a tragedy for millions of Ukrainians and also millions of Russians.”
Mr. Smukler listed other modern examples of bad decisions based on bad information. “The shameful withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan,” he said. “Two weeks before, our president said that based on our intelligence reports, the Afghan army can hold and keep the Taliban out of Kabul for at least 90 days, and we will have time to evacuate our soldiers and those who helped them.” Wrong.
“And the same thing with President Bush, with the reports about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so the U.S. occupied and destroyed Iraq, for no reason. The weaponry was never found in Iraq, although the decision to invade was based on that intelligence.” Again, wrong.
“History repeats itself,” he continued. “People like Putin, like Napoleon, they believe in their destiny. They believe that they are chosen. They make mistakes that throw the world into global conflict, and in the end they lose and die in exile.
“If Putin could wake up tomorrow, after six months of this war, and say to himself, ‘Oh my God, what a terrible dream I had, that for six months I have been fighting in Ukraine and with the whole world!’ How happy he’d be! But it is a dream.”
Instead, he said, something will have to happen, but right now neither side can do much. And, he added grimly, “I am afraid that time is on the side of the Russians, not the Ukrainians. Soon it will be fall, and winter will be coming.” That means not only that it will be snowy, icy cold, and the Russians will be in their element, but that even before that, leaves will fall, and the Ukrainians will lose their cover. “They will not be able to hide their artillery and missiles in the forests that protect them from Russian satellites. As soon as the leaves fall, the Ukrainians will have major problems.”
To add to the problems that will confront the Ukrainians, China soon will ship military supplies to Russia. “That’s the result of growing tensions between China and Taiwan, and China and the United States,” Mr. Smukler said. “Also, during the last two weeks Russia started to receive ships with drones from Iran.” They’re shipped on the Caspian Sea,
Until now, a source, “a Chinese friend, a businessman who speaks fluent Russian and has done business in Russia for many years, and who is highly connected in the Chinese government,” reported that “at the beginning of the war, the Chinese government decided to stay away from the conflict because they did not want to irritate the U.S.,” Mr. Smukler said. “Basically, it was because they decided they would benefit more if they did not take a side,” at least publicly. They just waited, biding their time. But now, with first House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then another group of members of Congress going to Taiwan, “that’s completely changed the whole ball game,” Mr. Smukler said. “They cannot understand why the U.S. needs to escalate the tension with China. They don’t understand what the hell is going on. They can’t explain it, even to themselves.
“In this global game of thrones, they can’t figure out the move that Pelosi made. But basically, in the last two weeks we already can see signs of an arms race in South Asia, particularly in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. They’re buying like crazy.”
Then Mr. Smukler returned to Russia, to the fiery death of Daria Dugina, the 29-year-old right-wing propagandist best known as the daughter of Aleksandr Dugin, the Russian nationalist theorist whose beliefs that the necessary triumph of the properly illiberal Russian world over the decadent liberal West will happen eventually, even if it takes buckets of blood to get there. Observers often think that his ideas influence Putin, although it’s not clear if the two men have ever met.
Ms. Dugina’s car was blown up by a bomb; until a last-minute change of plans, her father was going to be there with her.
The explosion, on the way home from a nationalist festival in a wealthy Moscow neighborhood, where the father spoke and the daughter was featured as well, was on Saturday night; by Monday, the Russians announced that they knew who did it. A Ukrainian. A woman named Natalia Vovk, who moved to Russia with her own young daughter to stalk and then kill Ms. Dugina, and then escaped to Estonia. According to some versions of the story, she drove her own getaway car, a Mini. “Interestingly, it took just two days for the FSB to find the person they claim was the terrorist who killed Daria Dugina, but 4,000 days so far are not enough to find the real murderer of Boris Nemtsov,” the political reformer who was assassinated in 2015.
At the same time, a former Russian reformer and politician who now lives in exile in Ukraine, Ilya Ponomarev, “alleged that the car bomb was organized by the National Republican Army, a new organization that we had not known about before, that was created and acted underground on Russian territory, fighting against the Putin regime.
“This is their first assassination, Ponomarev said, and they will continue to fight the regime, including by killing members of Putin’s inner circle.”
Mr. Smukler is stumped by this. “I don’t know what to say, except that personally I am very sorry about the death of a young woman,” he said. “I think that there are many versions of this explosion, and it also can lead to an escalation of the war. But I know that if Ponomarev, who truly is one of the most important political leaders, is speaking the truth, that he was authorized by the National Republican Army to publish that statement, then I see a huge crack in Russian society.
“If that organization really exists,” he adds. “We’ll see in the nearest future where this goes.”
As for the Jews still in Russia, Mr. Smukler noted that although Russia had made public its plans to kick the Jewish Agency for Israel out of the country, that hasn’t happened yet. “I understand that there are active negotiations between Russians and Israelis right now,” he said. “The court postponed its hearing for a few weeks. I don’t know what’s happening, but something is going on.”
Then Mr. Smukler went back to his main theme. War and Peace. “War starts easy, and you cannot easily reverse it. Napoleon made a stupid move and lost everything. If he hadn’t done that, he would have ruled half the world and probably died at home in Paris, possibly as an old man.”
When rulers amass huge amounts of power, “they are chess players, and their decisions impact our lives. That is exactly what Tolstoy described in his novel in 1869.
“Napoleon’s story happened at the beginning of the 19th century, just about 200 years ago. Since then, history has repeated itself. Our political leaders are making exactly the same mistakes. They don’t learn. They think about their short-term political purposes.
“It seems as if they haven’t read ‘War and Peace.’”