It’s hard for those of us who are not in Russia to understand what’s going on there now, Alexander Smukler of Montclair says.
Mr. Smukler spent his first 30 years in Moscow; that’s just a little less than half his life. He retains connections there and in Ukraine that position him well as an observer and commentator on what’s going on there, and he has been sharing is insights with us.
In the last three weeks, Mr. Smukler says, everything has changed.
It’s not as if life has not changed in Russia since Vladimir Putin, the country’s president — the moral midget that Mr. Smukler calls the angry dwarf — invaded Ukraine, hoping to be in and out in less than a week, taking a large part if not all of the country with him, annexed to Russia. That was on February 24.
Since then, sanctions ate into the profits of the elite class of businesspeople and politicians and made it harder for them to do business. Young urban professionals have fled the country, and global chains like Starbucks and MacDonald’s have closed up shop.
But life still seemed more or less normal. People would wake up every morning, have breakfast, go to work or school or exercise class, come home for dinner, relax in front of the television or the computer, go to sleep, wake up the next morning, and do it all over again.
But the last two weeks have changed everything. The Russians still are in Ukraine, but the tide of the war appears to have turned in Ukraine’s direction, and now Putin is cornered. And the Russians feel it.
Putin has decided to ignore his own promises not to mobilize an army, and people are reacting to that change by either running away — that’s mostly men of draft age, which is up to 60 — or staying and demonstrating — that’s mainly women, who are less likely to be dragooned.
Mr. Smukler suggests that to understand what’s going on now, we should look at what led to it.
“Last Friday, September 30, Putin made an incredible speech announcing the annexation of about 17 percent of Ukrainian territory,” the oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia, Mr. Smukler said. It’s incredible, he elaborated, because “no one who lives in the 21st century would believe that any European could make this speech, after the disaster of the First and Second World Wars. The idea of the speech was a simple refusal to recognize any possible rule that is a pillar of our global modern world. Putin denied all of it as he called his country to fight against the satanism of the West.
“That speech reminded me of 1938, when Hitler made his speech in Munich.” That was the Munich Agreement — also dated September 30 — when the U.K., France, and Italy agreed to let the Germans annex the Sudetenland, in Czechoslovakia. That was when the U.K.’s Neville Chamberlain tried appeasement; it didn’t work. “It was not the Second World War yet, but a year later, all of Europe was involved in the war,” Mr. Smukler said.
None of that worked out well for anybody; nonetheless, despite the lessons from recent history staring him in the fact, Putin decided to push on. “The Russians call the territory they said they’ve annexed Novorossiya, New Russia,” Mr. Smukler said. “They officially annexed this territory after an absolutely unlawful referendum, where people had to vote under the incredible pressure put on them by the aggressor.
“As we know, nobody in the civilized world recognized this. In addition, when Putin announced the annexation of these territories, he did not control a substantial part of them.
“Basically, it’s as if he could have a referendum that approves the annexation of Alaska which used to be a Russian territory.
“For example, the capital city of Zaporizhia Oblast, also called Zaporizhia, is under Ukrainian control. It has a population of approximately 600,000, and Putin does not control it. And then there is the city of Lyman, a key strategic town. A very successful Ukrainian counteroffensive liberated it. According to many sources, including from Britain, Russians lost almost 5,000 soldiers there, in Lyman.
“So right now, the war is entering the next level. According to Putin, they will expand these new Russian territories with all means at their disposal, including nuclear weaponry.
“So once again, the stakes in this game are incredible. I do not think that it is a bluff. I think that it is a real threat because Putin is completely cornered, and he has no way back. He has to move forward and defeat the West.”
To do that, Mr. Smukler reported Putin as saying that “we have liberated Novorossiya, and that we will defend it no matter what. Then he reclassified the military operation to the level of a holy war. A patriotic war.”
That’s when he announced the mobilization. “During this last week” — that’s from about September 23 to the 30th — “almost 360,000 people, mostly young men, fled Russia. The borders were open then.
“Now the borders are closed, and men below 60 are not allowed to leave.
“Until September 29, the men who were successful in escaping moved to four different directions, to places that were open to them.”
At that point, the young men were not running away because they believed themselves to be at any real risk for mobilization. They were just trying to escape a bad economic system. But when Putin made clear that his goal was to mobilize more young men, many of those young men realized that it was time for them to leave.
Almost 100,000 people arrived in Kazakhstan in the last seven months, and thousands of them went to Baku in Azerbaijan. Almost 150,000 are now in Tbilisi, in Georgia, tens of thousands ended up in Istanbul, there are almost 100,000 in Yerevan, Armenia, and tens of thousands remain in Israel.
“This is the most massive wave of immigration — but no, you can’t call it immigration, because no one knows how permanent it will be,” Mr. Smukler said, arguing with himself. “But people have just run away from mobilization.
“It’s the most massive migration of young men out of Russia since the civil war in 1918.”
Mr. Smukler knows two of those approximately 360,000 people.
“My second cousin, a very high-level IT engineer and administrator, was running away from Moscow,” he said. It took him 18 hours to get from the Russian border control in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, to the checkpoint in Georgia.
“They are about 200 meters apart.”
Russians cannot drive their cars across the border, so “thousands of Russian cars are left behind,” Mr. Smukler continued. “People exchanged their cars for bikes, to try to bypass the lines, so they abandoned or exchanged their cars. Right now, there are thousands of empty, abandoned cars near the checkpoint on the Russian border.
“My cousin is 36. Right now, he’s in Tbilisi. He has enough money, savings, to let him live there for a month or so. Thank God, he’s an IT person, so he can work remotely.”
Most of the escapees are like his cousin, Mr. Smukler said; they’re “mostly successful professionals. Those who went to Georgia and Armenia and Istanbul were able to afford the incredible price of airline tickets. A one-way ticket to Armenia could cost $5,000 to $6,000.
“My cousin went alone. He left his young wife and their 3-year-old daughter in Moscow and hopes that they will meet in Israel.
“His wife and daughter are Jewish, and he is half Jewish. They agreed that his wife, who is an English teacher, will buy tickets and fly to Israel, and that he will be able to join them. But it will take time; she has to communicate with the Sachnut,” the Jewish Agency for Israel, “and do the paperwork, including proof that they’re Jewish.”
They made those plans before Putin’s September 30 speech and the upheaval that it spawned.
“My other cousin is a mechanic, who owns a body shop,” Mr. Smukler said. “He was not able to move out of the country. He was afraid that he would be stopped and mobilized immediately, because until about six years ago he served as a tank driver in the Russian army. So now he is in hiding, and they are hunting for him. They badly need those kinds of specialists. So he disappeared. We just know that he is hiding somewhere inside Russia.
“We are speaking about incredible tragedies.”
And the worst of it, Mr. Smukler said, and the most important part of it, is “that they do not understand why they are fighting the Ukrainians. They have nothing to do with it. It is so far from them.
“This younger generation was born after the Soviet Union collapsed. For them, Ukraine always was a similar country, a very friendly country, with the same language and similar culture.” It’s almost as if the United States decided to attack Canada to take Montreal or Toronto. “They do not understand why they are being asked to sacrifice their lives.
“I can talk about tens, maybe hundreds of friends whose children are in desperate situations right now. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, among my friends and relatives, there are many kids. The young men have received requests to go to the places from where they will be sent to the front line.
“I don’t know a single one among my friends and relatives in Moscow or St. Petersburg who has ended up going there. Everybody is hiding or running away.”
But, he added, the stakes for these young people and their families are incredibly high. If you don’t report within 72 hours of getting a demand to do you, you are considered a criminal, and liable to up to 10 to 15 years of imprisonment.
So if you are one of those young men who has received a draft notice, or if you are the parent or partner or sibling of one of those young men, you cannot wake up every morning, have breakfast, and then conduct business as if it were any other day. Your life has changed, and your new companion is dread.
Until September 30, “Putin misled everybody,” Mr. Smukler said. “They believed the propaganda. They believed that the war in Ukraine was a special military operation, that would be fought by people who signed contracts to fight. Putin said hundreds of times that they were not going to draft anybody. Those who didn’t believe the lie left Russia — but now everyone sees the lie.
“Still, Putin said that we are not declaring war,” he continued. “He said that we are involved in a war with the collective West, but we are for peace, and we are ready to stop any military action in Ukraine if the Ukrainian government would be willing to negotiate with us. We are ready to sit around a table with them and negotiate the peace.
“But” — and of course there’s a but — “we are not going to negotiate the territories that already are liberated.”
In other words, the fake referenda that ended up with phony results are to be treated as true elections. And, oh, the sanctions imposed in response to the Russian invasion must be lifted.
“This is of course absolutely unacceptable, not only to the Ukrainians but also to its Western allies, who will never recognize those territories as Russian,” Mr. Smukler said.
“I have a friend in Moscow who is a very well-known criminal lawyer, and I asked him what he thought about the referendum,” he continued. “And he said that the referendum was not legal based on the Russian constitution, because they are supposed to ask us if we want the territories.” So not only was the election a sham because people were forced to vote, and only allowed to vote yes, but they were inherently illegitimate from the Russian side as well. “A polling firm asked Russians if they wanted those territories, and only 25 percent said yes. The majority of Russians would say no. So, basically, the referendum is against the Russian constitution.”
Russians are fighting back. “We hear more and more stories about resistance,” Mr. Smukler said. “Last week, incredibly, there was a protest in Dagestan, a Russian Muslim republic on the coast of the Caspian Sea. The women of the republic went to the streets to demonstrate against mobilization.”
The stories that the Russians are trying to mobilize forces in ethnic republics are true, he said. “It is much easier there, because they are so economically depressed. Putin promised to pay every man who would go to the front 150,000 rubles a month. That’s not a contract — he’s offered up to 400,000 rubles for men who signed contracts — but in these very depressed ethnic areas, 150,000 rubles is a giant amount of money. He promised to forgive their debts, including their mortgages, as long as they’re in the army. And he promised that if they die, their contracts will be forgiven.”
Putin knows that in order to get the 300,000 fighters he said he needs, he will have to send draft notices to many more. “I have heard from different sources that the number of notices they have sent out is between three and 12 million,” Mr. Smukler said. “I cannot tell you which number is correct.”
He told another story from a friend “whose daughter is halfway through her four-year education as a registered nurse; it takes four years of study in Russia, and she just started her third year. A few days ago, a dean came to the class and announced that the school will give each of them a diploma, because this is an emergency. ‘And all of you will go to the front lines as medical personnel,’” they were told.
Did she go? “Oh yes. They all went. They had to.
“Everyone who ran away is a criminal. There will be no way for them to come back until Putin’s regime ceases to exist.
“The world does not understand the danger of this moment,” Mr. Smukler said. “The world does not remember what happened in Munich in 1938 and compare it to what is happening in Moscow in 2022, but right now we are in 1938. In 1939, World War II began.
“On September 30, President Zelensky said that Ukraine will never recognize the referendum and the annexation. From this point, he said, Ukraine will never negotiate a peace agreement or cease-fire if Putin still is president of Russia.
“There is no way out for Putin. He can only fight. He is completely cornered. The stakes in this poker game are incredibly high. We are all in limbo.
“We can only fight Putin and defeat him. There is no option for negotiation. There are no grounds for negotiation. Nobody will ever recognize the annexation of a European country. It is against every rule of the modern world.”
According to what is “my own personal opinion,” Mr. Smukler said, “only one player in the global world can stop this now, and that is China.
“If the United States can find a way to negotiate with China, to convince the Chinese leadership to walk away, that could make a difference.
“In the whole world, the only countries that still support Russia, as we say in the latest voting in the United Nations, are China, India, Brazil, and Gabon. So if China will walk away, if China will tell Putin that they will join the allies against Putin, that they will support the West in this global game of thrones, Putin will be by himself.”
India can be convinced to abandon Putin, Mr. Smukler added, but it’s China that really matters.
“We already have seen some signs that China is distancing itself a little from Putin, but they still are buying Russian oil and gas. They’re getting Russian mineral resources at a huge discount. But we can see during the last few weeks, and especially after the annexation, that China is backing out. Now it is up to the U.S. State Department and the Biden administration to find a way to convince Chinese leadership to cooperate with them.
“We all remember how after September 11th, George W. Bush was successful in creating unity among countries against global terrorism. Today I think the United States government has to do the enormously difficult job of getting China on the side of the West. If that does not happen, we are on the verge of the third world war.”
Is there any way that someone inside Russia, someone close to Putin, will take him out?
“That’s not likely now,” Mr. Smukler said. “Unfortunately, we don’t see any signs of strong reaction to Putin’s policies inside Russia. All the opposition are in prison or outside Russia,” or they’ve been pushed out windows or down steep flights of stairs. “We don’t see any cracks in his regime yet.
“It probably will happen if the Ukrainians are strong enough on the battlefield to win another counteroffensive and liberate more territories, or if thousands and thousands of Russians get notices telling them that their sons or husbands or brothers fell on the front lines — but not yet.” And, he added, “the Russian ministry of defense already announced that they can draft up to 25 million people if there is global war.”
We’ve been told that Putin is unlikely to use even tactical nuclear weapons, much less even more destructive ones, because he does not have a death wish, and he knows that such an attack would be tantamount to suicide. Mr. Smukler is unconvinced by that argument because “it would be a simple choice for Putin,” he said.
“Unless he defeats his enemies” — at this point an unlikely if not entirely impossible outcome — “he will end up in an international criminal court, like Slobodan Milosevic” — the Serbian warlord who died four years into his trial at the Hague. “Or he could die like Saddam Hussein,” who was dragged out of the hole in which he was hiding — not very effectively — tried, and hanged for war crimes.
“So he could either die in a nuclear disaster or be hanged,” Mr. Smukler said. “Right now, there is no third option for him.”
Mr. Smukler’s world is a grim one, but there have been so many surprises, so many unexpected turns, since February 24 that it would be foolish to assume that there are no others yet to come.
As the old curse — often thought to be Chinese but in fact apocryphal and most likely not Chinese at all — puts it, we all are unlucky enough to live in very interesting times.