Two weeks ago, in a story called “Enraging the already angry dwarf,” Alexander Smukler of Montclair — but before that, and for the first 30 years of his life, of Moscow — detailed some of the history and culture that combine to make Vladimir Putin the highly specific monster that he is.
As the war that Putin began when he made up stories and invaded Ukraine continues — when Mr. Smukler and I talked on Monday, the war had gone on so far for 19 days — there is much more to discuss. Although the situation continues to change, some underlying facts are becoming clear.
Mr. Smukler has deep ties to Russia and to Ukraine, as well as to the United States, where he has lived with his wife, and until they grew up with their children, since 1990. He’s in frequent touch with friends in both countries; he’s been an active advocate for Jews from the former Soviet Union since he first arrived here, and as a serial entrepreneur, with business interests not only in the United States but around the world; he still owns a business in Moscow, Agroterminal, which had been doing well until the war, but like all Russian businesses since then, is sinking rapidly.
All this gives him background and authority when he speaks — with bleak, grim passion — about the war.
“It seems to me that the Russians are exhausted now, and that the obviously angry dwarf did not reach the targets that he planned to reach,” Mr. Smukler said. “At the same time, we understand that the Ukrainian resistance is incredible. That’s why Zelensky” — that’s Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine — “is David, and Putin” — the angry dwarf, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, because metaphors do not have to be exact as long as they’re emotionally on point — “is Goliath.
“So now Putin became insane, because after the sanctions were implemented it took just two weeks for the economy to be completely crushed and ruined. And he is extremely angry at his generals and his intelligence service, which totally misled him.”
Mr. Smukler believes that Vladimir Putin honestly believed that the Ukrainians would welcome the Russian military with joy, open arms, and garlands of roses. In fact, the Stanford University political scientist Francis Fukuyama, writing in the online publication “American Purpose” on March 10, reported that “Russian soldiers were evidently carrying dress uniforms for their victory parade in Kyiv rather than extra ammo and rations.” (Of course, Dr. Fukuyama, a highly respected academic, is best known for his 1992 book “The End of History,” which proved to be wrong, so there’s that.)
There were a few reasons for Putin to expect that Ukrainians would welcome what he thought they would see as a liberating force. “He thought that it would be like it was in Crimea in 2014,” Mr. Smukler said. “He thought that when he would cross the border, at least eastern Ukrainian cities, or cities on the Black Sea, like Kharkiv, Odessa, and Mariupol, would welcome him.
“I think that his intelligence completely misled him, telling him that as soon as we cross into Ukraine, and the front line starts moving toward Kyiv, it will be exactly the same as it was in Crimea.
“But it’s different now.
“First of all, that was eight years ago. Ukraine is a completely different country now. The young generation — even the ones who are Russian-speaking or Russian by nationality — obviously doesn’t want to live under Putin’s rule. They already were ‘poisoned’ — to use quotation marks here — by democracy. They already had democracy dripped into their veins.
“When he took Crimea in 2014, almost 90 percent of the population was Russian,” Mr. Smukler continued. “There was a very small percentage of Ukrainians and Tatars there. Now, in cities, in Kharkiv, there might be between 60 and 70 percent of the population that’s Russian, but they are completely different Russians. They lived in a democratic country for 30 years. They were able to travel freely in Europe without visas. They were involved in international projects. It’s a completely different population.
“Putin thought that he could make the same moves in Ukraine that he did in Crimea, but on a larger scale. That was the biggest mistake. Ukraine now is a multinational state. About 60 to 70 percent are Ukrainian by nationality, and they speak Ukrainian, and about 30 to 40 percent are Russian-speaking. But Ukrainians all are fighting together against the Russian troops.
“That’s why Putin met such strong resistance when he came to Ukraine, and that’s why his initial plan fell apart.”
Why didn’t Putin expect that change? What happened?
Mr. Smukler compares the situation in Ukraine to what happened when the United States military left Afghanistan in August. “Two weeks before Kabul fell to the Taliban, our president said that we were leaving, but that the Afghan army was very well trained and very well equipped, and he was sure that they would defend the democratic government of Afghanistan,” Mr. Smukler said. “We can leave; they’ll be okay.
“So what happened after we left? The Afghan army disappeared in two days, without any shooting. No fighting. They just left, they simply disappeared, and all the weaponry went to the Taliban. And the Taliban took Kabul.
“The same thing is happening in Ukraine right now.”
It’s not an exact analogy. We publicly supported the Afghan military, which was an official organization, an arm of the government. Mr. Smukler is saying, “based on what I’ve heard from many different sources, that during the last eight years” — that is, since soon after the Russians took Crimea — “the Russians supported opposition groups and built up a fifth column inside Ukraine.
“The Russians financed these groups, which were pro-Russian and working within the Ukrainian political system.
“The Russians spent an incredibly large amount of money to support a large movement against the Ukrainians, in support of Russian culture and Russian history, and the idea that Russians have to unite against Ukrainians.
“And that was a major mistake. Because in reality there was no opposition. They disappeared as soon as the war started. There were no opposition groups. They vanished.
“It was all smoke and mirrors. All that money, all that effort, was wasted. Putin was told that as soon as the Russians went into Ukraine, there would be a very well-organized pro-Russian movement that would greet them. But there wasn’t.”
The group seems to have been led by Viktor Medvedchuk, Mr. Smukler said. Mr. Medvedchuk, a longtime ally of Putin’s, might not have been a billionaire — according to Forbes, he was said to be worth about $630 million — but he’s under house arrest now, accused of treason.
The money from the Russians seems to have been stolen, Mr. Smukler said. He doesn’t think that most members of the would-be fifth column ran way; instead, he thinks, “most of them joined the resistance. I personally think that they decided to be together with the Ukrainian people and Zelensky when the invasion happened.
“When Russia invaded, Putin planned to take the cities with the highest percentage of Russians very quickly. He was told that it would be easy. He was misled and misinformed.”
“Putin realizes that it was horrible mistake. He now is involved in an incredibly bloody war and meeting enormous resistance. He did not fulfill his plan at all. It is falling apart.”
So what can he do?
“On the one hand, Putin understands that using missiles and bombing cities is not possible for him, because it will create a very strong opposition inside his own country,” Mr. Smukler said. “There are so many Russians with family in Ukraine. Everyone has relatives in a city the Russians are bombing. But using more ground troops will require enormous effort, and he will have to draft more and more young boys into the army. And he understands that it will be tens of thousands of casualties.
“So he is in limbo now.”
There’s no good way out for anyone here. Not for Putin. Not for the Russians. Not for the Ukrainians.
“Inside Russia, the economy is totally destroyed,” Mr. Smukler said. “It is amazing. It took just two weeks for the economy to fall apart completely, after the massive sanctions that were implemented by the European Union, Great Britain, the United States, and Japan.
“The ruble crashed. It lost 80 percent of its value in two weeks. People lost all their wealth. Putin froze every hard currency account, so people cannot use their savings, which they kept not in rubles but in dollars and euros. The government says that it’ll be frozen for six months, but nobody believes that.”
Most Western businesses have left Russia, which is another blow to the economy, Mr. Smukler said. And then, “and this is extremely important, Russians don’t have airplanes.
“All the planes they have are Boeing and Airbus, and Boeing and Airbus have stopped supplying service and parts. They also shut off their computer system, which keeps track of when every airplane needs service, and what parts or supplies it needs. So all of Russia’s airplanes are on the ground.
“And the major insurance companies terminated their policies. They are not insuring these aircraft anymore, because of the lockdown of services. So more than 550 airplanes are on the ground.”
So, to recap, almost no international flights land in Russia, and there are almost no domestic flights because no one wants to get on a poorly maintained, uninsured plane. But there still are a few international airlines that go to Russia. El Al still makes two flights a day; twice a day, it takes people out of Russia to Tel Aviv. They’re not planning on going back to Mother Russia.
The young men on those flights are trying to avoid the draft, Mr. Smukler said. “Most of them are afraid that by tomorrow they’ll be drafted and sent to Ukraine.”
It’s surprising that those young men know enough to know that they should leave, however, because Putin has instituted draconian measures to keep news out of his country. “During the last two weeks, Russians lost opportunities to see any western programs,” Mr. Smukler said. “Everything was shut down. YouTube was shut down. Facebook was shut down. Instagram was shut down. Now there’s very limited access to the internet. Now, the only lines of communication are WhatsApp and Telegram, which for some reason that I don’t understand still are working. That’s the only window to the West, but I’m sure that in a few days both those channels will be cut off too.
“At the same time, Russian propaganda is unbelievable.”
Mr. Smukler closely monitors Russian TV, he said. “They have shut down every show for families. They’ve shut down anything that’s entertaining. All they’re showing is political propaganda and military movies about World War II.
“The propaganda is preparing Russians for the big war.”
Mr. Smukler is deeply worried. At first, he said, Putin thought that the so-called special operation he’d planned would take a day or two and end in glory. Now, there’s no way out for him. He has to plunge ahead, sowing and reaping death. That’s why “Russian propaganda has started preparing the population for a long-term war,” he said. Russians had been told that they were fighting Ukraine; now they’re being told that they’re fighting NATO, and by proxy the entire world. “Ukraine is just a battlefield of that war,” Mr. Smukler said.
“They already are trying to implant in Russian public opinion that this is a war that they,” the Russians, “did not start. Ukraine is just a battlefield for the Third World War. We are fighting against NATO. This is just the beginning.”
That’s why the language has changed. “It is no longer a special operation,” he said. True, “you can go to prison for calling it anything else.” The recommended prison term for that transgression is 15 years. Still, “they are no longer talking about denazification or demilitarization, the way they were at the beginning. Now, they’re talking about the war with NATO. They’re talking about defending the country against the aggressor, NATO.
“That’s the most frightening part of this, the most dangerous trend,” Mr. Smukler said.
And why is that? Because there is only one solution for Vladimir Putin, he explained. “The only way for him to survive internally is if the population understands that he is not the aggressor, he is not the invader, he is not a dictator, but that he is the defender of Russia, fighting for Russia against NATO and its allies.
“This is a defensive war, and he is not an aggressor.”
That’s why Putin is provoking NATO now, Mr. Smukler said. It is necessary for him to do so.
To Mr. Smukler, the only way out is for Western leaders to play along with Putin, to “stop supplying airplanes and more and more weaponry. They need to be careful, because that is exactly what Putin wants.
“Now Putin wants a war, and he moving toward it.”
He suggests that the Western forces meet with Putin, at a Yalta-like summit, “where they could sit with him and discuss all the issues and how they can communicate better in the future.” That might involve dividing Ukraine “in order to stop another world war.” Yes, that’s placating a bully, but “in my personal opinion, I think this is the only way out.”
Isn’t it a bad idea to give in to a bully? Not to mention the moral questions raised by placating a mass murderer — something that never should go unmentioned. And there’s also the question of empowering him to do it again.
“Yes, he can do it again, because he has that button that can send off nuclear missiles,” Mr. Smukler said. “But I think that he learned a lesson, now that he realizes how quickly the economy can be destroyed.”
Is there any chance that Putin could be assassinated? Don’t spend too much energy hoping for that, Mr. Smukler suggested. “He is a KGB man. And I think that he fully understands that the whole world wants him dead.”
So where in the world is Vladimir Putin?
“Nobody knows,” Mr. Smukler said. “I assume that he is not in Moscow, but in a secret bunker somewhere in Siberia or the Urals.
“Nobody has seen him since the operation started. He’s only on Zoom.” This of course is in severe contrast to Volodymyr Zelensky, whose physical presence and obvious courage has inspired first a nation and then the world.
Mr. Smukler, despite everything, tells what turns out to be a funny story about Putin. “When the rumors,” the questions about where he might be, “started to circulate, on March 8 Putin was on Russian TV at a meeting with women, Russian women who are pilots and stewardesses.” It was in honor of International Women’s Day. “They were sitting around a table with him, drinking tea and coffee, sharing opinions about how to live during the crisis. Putin was surrounded by the group of women.” It seemed as if he were in the studio, not in hiding.
“But the next day, several major European TV stations said that it was completely falsified. The women were sitting around a table, but Putin wasn’t there. It was a computer simulation.
“And then I realized that it was true. The women were looking in different directions. You could see that it looked very weird. It was completely falsified, with whatever computer program they used. He wasn’t there.
“They’re misleading the Russian population. I’m sure that he’s hiding in a bunker.” So it wouldn’t be easy to assassinate him. “It wouldn’t be easy to find him and mow him down.
“I don’t even want to discuss that as an option, because I don’t think that it could happen in reality,” Mr. Smukler continued. “I assume that we will have to deal with him for the next 10, 15 years. He’s turning 70 this year. It will be a long time before someone will replace him.”
So, Mr. Smukler, is there any help.
Alexander Smukler tries to be less dark. It’s hard. “Right now, Putin is looking for an exit,” he said. “Right now, the only way seems to be a big war. Unless the Western leadership can find a way to deal with him, to call a Yalta-like conference to stop the war and figure out a way to deal with him in the future.”
Until then? Hang on and pray.
Next week, Mr. Smukler will discuss refugees from Ukraine and Russia. Where are they going? What will happen next? He has some ideas.