The war that Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin, started when he invaded Ukraine on February 24 is about to enter a new phase, Alexander Smukler of Montclair said.
Mr. Smukler, our Russia/Ukraine analyst, spent almost half his life in Russia; since 1991 he and his family have lived in the United States. His history as the son of a communist but Jewish family; his exploration of his identity, which he can trace back from the Moscow of his birth to Ukraine; his work in the Jewish Russian underground, and then his emigration and life as a resourceful and successful entrepreneur have yielded him a rich network of contacts in Eastern Europe and beyond. Together, that all combines to produce rare insight.
Now, Mr. Smukler says that this winter, which, as he told us two weeks ago, the Ukrainians will be able to survive with patience and time, will be the transition to Phase 2 of what he sees, at least metaphorically, as WWIII.
First, he says, remember what the Ukrainians are enduring now. “The Russian army is continuing to destroy Ukrainian infrastructure, and people are freezing. How would people in New Jersey or New York survive with temperatures below zero Celsius, with no hot water, no cold water, no water at all; no functional sewage system; no supermarkets; no transportation, and no heat except from firepits in the streets, fueled by trees cut down in the local park?”
But he thinks the Ukrainians will survive that.
Nothing has changed militarily in the last few weeks, Mr. Smukler said. “There’s been continuous, very hard, very bloody fighting near Bakhmut, which the Russians still have not taken, although they keep trying. Otherwise, the military battlefield is pretty quiet.”
The action has moved to the diplomatic battlefield, he said. “We have been witness to extremely important events.”
On December 19, Putin went to Belarus, where he met with that country’s dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko. Although the two have met often during the last few years, it’s been either in Moscow or somewhere nearby; this is the first time since 2019 that Putin has traveled to Belarus. He brought his minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu, his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, “and a bunch of other military people with him,” Mr. Smukler said.
On Wednesday, December 21, “Putin’s closest ally and supporter, the former president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, met with Xi Jinping in China,” he continued. “And of course the biggest surprise in the diplomatic arena was President Zelensky’s surprise visit to Washington, his meeting with Biden, and then his speech to Congress.” That, too, happened on Wednesday, December 21.
Mr. Smukler said that in his opinion, “this is the start of Phase 2, the highest-level negotiations, where both sides had to increase their efforts in the political and diplomatic fields, instead of the military.
“The war is temporarily in limbo now” — a combination of the weather and both sides’ need to rearm and regroup — “so the leadership has time, and has found it necessary, to activate their political and diplomatic efforts in order to strengthen their ability to fight each other.”
Before he moved onto the diplomatic efforts both sides have begun, Mr. Smukler described the state of hostilities so far.
“It’s been nine months since the war started,” he said. “We know, based on recent reports from British intelligence and other sources, that the Russians have lost close to 100,000 lives, and almost 240,000 were injured. Those are all Russian combatants.” Aside from the human devastation — as if anything can ever be aside from such devastation — “that means that the Russians have to replace all those soldiers.”
He reflected on what those numbers mean. “Russia lost two times more soldiers during these nine months than the Americans lost in the Vietnam war, and two and a half times more than the Russians did during the Afghan war, and that took nine years.”
There are few reliable sources that cite the number of Ukrainians who have died — the Ukrainians do not release those numbers — but “Russian sources, whom I am usually reluctant to trust, say that there are almost 400,000 wounded or killed. All the experts think that the Ukrainians lost even more soldiers than the Russians did.
“And the Ukrainians also lost tens of thousands of civilians during the brutal bombardments of their cities and villages. And yet, during those nine months, the Russians accomplished almost nothing from a military or tactical point of view. They claim to have annexed 16 percent of Ukrainian territory” — the oblasts of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia — “but in reality they do not control the territory they claim to be theirs. Apart from Crimea” — which the Russians invaded and annexed in 2014 — “the Russians do not control 100 percent of any of those areas.
“To me, it is a miracle that the Ukrainians have had such a heroic defense. They have been so strong in defense of their country and their land. They did not let Russia achieve even a small military goal.
“Right now, the Russians have almost 450,000 soldiers on the front lines — but the front lines are almost 1,000 miles long, so 450,000 soldiers are nothing if you want a strategic advantage in a military conflict.
“In other words, the Russians have no human resources, so they cannot mount an offensive attack.
“But — and this is a very important part — we have to understand that it is extremely critical for Putin to be able to claim a victory over almost anything. That’s because during these nine months basically he lost the war. He did not reach any of his original goals during nine months of military conflict.
“So in 2023, he must move forward and take as much as possible, particularly in the territories, which he claims that he already anschlussed. Or he has to move forward to take Kyiv, demolish the Ukrainian government, and put in his own. Or he has to push the Ukrainian government to start negotiations and then sign a peace treaty based on Putin’s conditions, which will include annexations of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, and also of Crimea.”
None of these plans seem likely to work. But “next year, Putin cannot afford to be in the situation he’s in right now,” Mr. Smukler said. “He cannot continue to destroy Ukrainian cities and civil infrastructure and lose his cannon fodder” — the unprepared, untrained, unwilling men he’s pressed into army service — “on the front lines. So he needs action. He needs something that will allow him to claim victory
“But on the other side, it seems to me that the Ukrainians have exhausted their capacity for counteroffensive attacks on the Russians so they can throw them out of their country.
“The Ukrainians are reaching a limit and will not be able to bring more and more people to the front lines. There are now approximately one million soldiers in the army, but because the front line is so long, they will need many more to concentrate an attack on the Russians. They have a deficit in human resources, and an enormous deficit in artillery, long-range missiles, and most importantly in anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems.
“Ukraine also has almost no air force. No military fighter jets, and no helicopters.
“So that’s why I’m saying that Phase 1 of the war is over,” Mr. Smukler summed up. Both sides are in limbo. Neither can now attack and achieve important advantages on the military field. Both sides are exhausted.
“And Putin needs a victory.” Vladimir Putin is up for reelection in 2024, and “he cannot afford not to win this war before he starts his reelection campaign,” Mr. Smukler said.
An American’s logical reaction to that statement is “Wait. What?’” We all know that Russian elections are fake.
Yes, but, Mr. Smukler said. It’s true that “in Russia, all the elections are fake, including to the Duma and for local government,” he explained. “It’s all a set-up.
“But I have no doubt that during his political life, Putin was elected by the voters. He always had a majority.” It’s true that his numbers might have been inflated, Mr. Smukler said, but his majority wouldn’t have been. It didn’t have to be. “I know for a fact that since 2000, when he became president, and every time he was reelected, the election was fair because the majority of Russians supported him,” he said.
“But now, for the first time, we see signs that his popularity is declining. At the beginning of the ‘military action’ in Ukraine, his popularity went up. Now it has dropped drastically, and it will decline more and more when more and more soldiers come home in boxes.
“So next year, if the war continues and continues to be unsuccessful militarily, no one can predict how the election will go.”
If it does not go his way, Mr. Smukler said, Putin “will have to fake it.” And interestingly, because it seems to indicate a crack in the strongman’s defenses, “that will change the whole ballgame,” he said.
“Putin leads the country with the feeling that the majority of Russians support him, and that gives him strength,” Mr. Smukler said. “That is his major driving force. He has said so many times.
“That’s why in 2023 we will see an enormous battle on Ukrainian territory, like the battle of Stalingrad during World War II. That’s because Putin will have to be able to claim victory.
“At the same time, Zelensky also will badly need to be able to claim a victory, and to continue his counteroffensive actions, as he did this year. He understands the strain on Ukrainian civil society. Until now, the Ukrainians have had very strong motivation, but Zelensky has no idea if they will be strong enough not only to hold on but to kick the Russians out.
“We are coming to the point where we will be witnessing increasing military action and enormous battles on Ukrainian land,” he said grimly. “And remember that this is a war between brothers and sisters. It is the same people, the same nation, the same church, mainly the same language.
“They are killing each other because one bloody dictator decided to start a war.”
So, back to the diplomacy that is beginning to transition to the war’s Phase 2.
“Putin didn’t go to Belarus for a state visit,” Mr. Smukler said. “He went because he badly needs to convince the Belarusian dictator to take part in the conflict and open a second front in this war.
“He’s been trying to push Lukashenko for nine months, but so far he’s been able to hold out. It seems to me, though, that now, when Putin went to see him, with his highest-level people, and as far as I understand it Putin told Lukashenko that he has to do it, that Lukashenko just can’t say no anymore.
“I think that Putin simply told Lukashenko that if he doesn’t open a front with the Ukrainians and actively participate in military action, Belarus will not get Russian gas and mineral resources,” Mr. Smukler said. Russia sells those vital goods to Belarus at ten times below market price. He believes that Putin delivered that message directly, “without diplomatic smoke and mirrors.
“Lukashenko is having a very difficult time,” he said. “His army is a tiger on paper legs. They have old Soviet weaponry, and maybe 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers. It’s basically no army.”
But it’s enough of an army to bedevil the Ukrainians, who will have to send soldiers to guard the newly extended front line. “If Lukashenko joins, it will be another 600 miles long,” Mr. Smukler said. The Ukrainians will have to juggle their forces, moving soldiers from Donetsk to Belarus; the Russians know that the Ukrainians are running out of people to recruit or draft and then train. “It will be very painful to Ukraine if Lukashenko does what Putin wants, and that is why Putin went to Belarus in person.
“He was there to put pressure on Lukashenko.”
While this campaign was going on, Medvedev went to China to meet Xi. It would be unusual for Xi, as the head of the government, to meet directly with Medvedev, who is not. “It was a huge achievement for Putin’s diplomatic efforts to get that meeting,” Mr. Smukler said.
But it looked to him “like Medvedev is speaking to his sovereign,” Mr. Smukler, who often has emphasized how China, which is hanging back instead of supporting Russia openly, still is likely to benefit from Russia’s war. Medvedev looked like a vassal paying obeisance to his liege lord.
Medvedev was accompanied by Andrey Turchak, a 47-year-old Russian senator “who many experts who say that Putin is in bad health — I personally doubt this — think that Turchak is the person who will replace Putin. He was sitting next to Medvedev when they met with Xi, and I do think that he was brought to be introduced to Xi. To his sovereign. So I think that one of the purposes of the meeting was to introduce Turchak to Xi. It showed me that something is cooking in Russia’s political kitchen.”
Medvedev and Turchak met with Xi as supplicants because “they badly need Chinese military support,” Mr. Smukler said. “They have been asking the Chinese to supply electronic parts and semiconductors for the Russian military industry, which is suffering from a lack of supplies.” That’s the result of American sanctions. “This is the most important issue between Russia and China today,” he said.
“In order to pay their sovereign for such favors, Russians are begging the Chinese to continue buying the gas and mineral resources. The Russians are ready to supply more and more mineral resources, including gas and oil, at incredible discounts.
“That’s why Medvedev went to China to meet with Xi Jinping. In order to start Phase 2 of WWIII, Russia needs very strong and active support from China. China is the key player, and a key source of money for Putin’s regime.
“Today, China and India together buy 47 percent of Russia’s oil and gas exports. Before the war, it was between 16 and 18 percent. During the last nine months, Russia redoubled its exports of oil and gas to China, and China today is the major source of money going to Russia.”
Finally, Mr. Smukler turned to Volodymyr Zelensky (who is, irrelevantly for this story but worth repeating nonetheless, because many Jews take great pride in this fact, Jewish) and his surprise trip to Washington.
“During the nine months of the war, Zelensky never left Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said. “This is the first time he was able to fly to the United States. He flew on an American military plane, which brought him to the United States for almost a day.
“The fact that he was able to come here means that the front is more or less stable right now, and he was able to leave his country for two days; the day in Washington and then a day meeting with Polish leadership in Warsaw.
“Zelensky came for personal meetings because he and the Ukrainian government officials understand what Putin is planning. They know that there will be a massive attack, and that it will be completely different than the attacks at the beginning were.
“Putin will never repeat his mistakes. He will not invade Ukraine again with 150,000 troops, believing that people will wave and greet him. That it will be as easy as it was to take over Crimea.”
Putin has three options, Mr. Smukler said.
Option 1 is that Ukraine will agree to a peace treaty that will allow Putin to annex the four territories and Crimea, and that the international community will agree to it, accept that territory as Russian, and lift all the sanctions it has put in place against Russia — sanctions that are starting to have real effects.
That’s not likely.
Option 2 is to overthrow Mr. Zelensky and install a puppet government. If that would have been easy to do, it already would have been done.
Option 3 is “to hold onto the annexed regions militarily, complete the annexation, and announce to his people that he won the war, completely attained his goals, and it’s over.
“There would be no war and no peace.” That very cold détente “could last for many many years,” but it would allow Putin to save face.
Knowing all this, “Zelensky knows that the first phase of the war is over,” Mr. Smukler said. “The Russians will be better prepared, and the next phase will be much more advanced militarily. So Mr. Zelensky is trying to prepare his country to defend itself for the next few months.
“That’s why he came to speak to Biden. The Ukrainians are suffering. They need a guarantee of continuous financial support.
“It is not a secret that today the major burden of the financial support of Ukraine is on the shoulders of American taxpayers. We have to supply them with between $5 and $6 billion a month just to support their population. None of that goes to the military, just to maintain the existence of the Ukrainian state, which badly needs that money
“It also needs military equipment. I’m sure that’s why Zelensky came personally. In his speech to Congress, and probably in his talk with Biden, he made clear that he needs long-range missiles and anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems, like the Patriot. They also need bulletproof military vehicles, tanks, and regular artillery. They can’t attack the Russians without them.
“We know that Ukraine is running out of tanks and old Soviet-era anti-aircraft missiles. Germany promised to give them, but they delayed.”
When it comes to the Patriot missile system, Mr. Biden is held back by his desire to ensure that if the Ukrainians do bring the war to Russian territory, it not be done with American-made weapons. “The Russians locate their supply centers far from the front lines,” Mr. Smukler said, so that’s an inherent problem. “But by now everybody understands that NATO and the United States already are fully involved in the war. Ukraine could not have survived without it for such a long time, even though their soldiers are fighting like lions.”
Mr. Biden did promise one Patriot battery; he said that after the Ukrainians are trained to use it, and they prove that they can, he might send more. That’s far less than what the Ukrainians need, Mr. Smukler said; they’d need at least 10 times that for it to be effective.
“So it was very important for Zelensky to explain to Biden personally what Phase 2 is. That Russia will attack Ukraine so badly that Ukraine cannot protect itself without an enormous increase in military support.
“That is why Zelensky decided to leave his country and fly over the ocean, and why I am saying that in two or three months we will see an enormous battle in Europe. The biggest battle since the Second World War.
“Both sides are ready to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives. For Ukraine, it’s to protect themselves and kick Russians out of their territory. And for Putin, it’s in order to be able to claim a victory.”