Just about everyone is excited about Ukraine’s successes in its war against Russia, which it’s been fighting ever since the giant county invaded its large-but-still-much-small neighbor on February 24.
Alexander Smukler, our resident analyst and Cassandra, takes heart from those victories, but he is far less sanguine than most onlookers. He lives in Montclair now, as a successful entrepreneur and a committed advocate for Jews from the former Soviet Union, and he has lived in the United States a little more than half his life, but he grew up in Moscow.
He recognizes Vladimir Putin, the thuggish Russian president whose desire to reclaim the glories of old Russia, and whose historically inaccurate idee fixe is that Ukraine always has been a Russian vassal, will not give up easily.
When he talked about the last two weeks of the war, though, Mr. Smukler did not start off with Putin. Instead, he talked about “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the powerful 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque. “All Quiet,” written from the point of view of a German soldier during World War I, is about the boredom and random terror of trench warfare in particular — and of war in general. It’s about how the young men consigned to fighting the war, sold on images of patriotism and honor, soon realize that they have no idea why they’re fighting, or what they’re fighting for.
Mr. Smukler read the novel when he was a student. “It was not on the curriculum, but Remarque was published in the Soviet Union,” he said. “He was antiwar, and at that time his books were considered to be very in line with Communist dogma. Soviet propaganda told people that we were fighting for peace and against war,” he said.
So the images from that book, and from another Remarque novel, “Three Comrades,” are much in his mind as he watches, reads, and talks to his sources in both Ukraine and Russia.
“People had no idea what they were fighting for,” he said. They had no clue. It was a war between empires; in the global world, in the beginning of the 20th century, there were conflicts between the leaders of dying empires. People had no understanding of why they were dying, but as a result of that war several empires collapsed, especially the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Russian empire, and Germany.
“The analogy between this conflict, which ended in 1918, just a little more than 100 years ago — the Versailles peace agreement was signed in 1919 — and the current conflict in Ukraine, is strong.
“This could be the beginning of another world war. Right now we have a regional conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but the risk that the regional conflict could become World War III grows every day. The conflict is escalating.”
But Alex, why do you have that feeling? What’s it based on? What’s wrong with feeling good about what the Ukrainians have accomplished?
He does feel good about it, Mr. Smukler said.
“We all know that Ukraine had a very very successful counteroffensive,” he said. “It was a tactical victory. Different sources give different numbers, but as far as I know they already have liberated almost 6,000 square kilometers, which is close to the size of the state of Rhode Island. It’s a pretty small area of a giant country like Ukraine, which is five times bigger than France, but from the military point of view it’s a huge territory, which was liberated by an extremely fast and unexpected counteroffensive.”
As much of the coverage of the war has explained, the Ukrainians used all the media sources at their disposal to make the Russians believe that they were about to start an offensive in Kherson, in the south; instead, they “started a massive attack in the Kharkiv province, and they liberated the cities of Izyum, Kupiansk, and Balakliia,” he said. “Those cities are all very close to the Russian border. It’s a huge, Russian-speaking province, and it had been occupied by Russian forces on probably the second day of the invasion.”
The city of Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second largest. “The Russians thought that they could take it over easily, because it has a population of about one million people, and about 90 percent of them are Russian-speaking.”
But whoops. “They failed, and basically stopped about 40 kilometers away, but they have totally occupied the huge area around it for six months, and the Ukrainians liberated it with a sudden attack. It was on the one hand a small tactical victory but on the other hand it had huge political impact.
“The Ukrainians, with the help of Western countries and NATO, were not only able to attack but also to beat up and destroy the Russian military machine.
“That showed how incompetent the Russian army and its military leadership are. They missed what was going on; they were misled by the Ukrainians. The tactic the Ukrainians used is so primitive that it’s in every military textbook and taught in every military academy.”
And because the Ukrainians were able to use this obvious tactic to take the Russians by surprise, “the Russians just ran away, leaving hundreds of military machines, heavy artillery, and other munitions.”
Worse, in human terms, “they left so quickly they didn’t even have the time to evacuate the collaborators who had worked with them during the occupation.
“So the whole world could see, and President Zelensky demonstrated, how powerful the Ukrainian army could be if it can continue to get help and support from NATO and the Western allies.
“It was a very important tactical victory.”
And that’s why he’s worried.
“If you remember that when we first started talking, and in our first story, we talked about Putin as an angry dwarf,” he said. (That story, “Enraging the already angry dwarf,” was published in our March 2 issue.) “I said that Putin basically grew up on the streets in Leningrad, and basically he was in a street gang.” His parents were older and war-scarred, just like most Russians who had lived through World War II, and the communal housing where they lived made staying at home unappealing. But when he was out on the streets, Putin’s small size demanded that he master the arts of manipulation and deception to stay safe. He did that well, Mr. Smukler said.
“The rules of the street are that you have to fight,” he said. “If someone punches you in the nose, you punch back ten times harder. You do that before you have time to think about it. You have to respond immediately. Then you can think about running away or surrendering or whatever, but before that you have to hit hard.
“That’s what the Russians are doing, and I predict that we will see Putin and his commanders hit Ukraine brutally hard. They will bomb cities. They will bomb power stations. They will bomb the infrastructure. They will hit everything that they can in revenge for that punch in their nose.
“According to different sources, I have heard that the attack in Kharkiv cost more than 10,000 lives from both sides, and more than 15,000 were injured, again on both sides. Remember ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ We are speaking about sacrificing human lives for no reason.”
Where are the Russians getting all those troops from? Putin refuses to declare war, and so he cannot draft anyone; that would be so unpopular that he dare not risk it, Mr. Smukler said.
But on the other hand, “the front line is longer than 1,000 miles,” he continued. “It’s huge. And British intelligence just released a statement saying that Ukraine has almost 700,000 men and women serving in the regular army and has announced that it can increase that number to 1 million.
“According to my sources, though, Russia has no more than 150,000 troops. So Ukraine has many more soldiers fighting than Russia has. But Russia has 10 to 15 artillery shots for every one that the Ukrainians have. So Ukraine has more soldiers but the Russians absolutely have more ammunition, artillery, and missiles.
“After the counteroffensive, it is totally clear that Russia does not have enough capacity to move forward and attack Ukrainian soldiers, but what they can do easily is destroy Ukrainian infrastructure, hit cities and towns and villages, and kill civilians.”
Still, Russia needs more troops. “Many sources say that without thousands and thousands of fresh troops, they will not be able to move forward. They have no capacity, and the troops on the ground are extremely tired. This is the seventh month of the war.”
But the Russians have come up with a plan.
“They are recruiting from prisons,” Mr. Smukler said grimly. His sources tell him that “they already have recruited tens of thousands of prisoners and sent them to the front.” A Russian-language video has circulated widely on Telegram, “showing how the Russians are recruiting criminals.” They’re told that in return for six months of service on the front lines in Ukraine – if, of course, they survive that service — they will be cleared of all the charges against them, and their sentence will be lifted. They will be free to re-enter society.
These convicted criminals are not white-collar offenders; they’re not from the Russian equivalent of what we (probably inaccurately) call country-club prisons. They are murderers, rapists, thieves, extortionists, drug traffickers, human traffickers — the worst of the worst. “These people know how to kill,” Mr. Smukler said. “They are predators.”
Right now, “there are almost 560,000 violent criminals in Russian prisons who could potentially sign the contract.”
The contract, he said, is harsh. It could be hard to release violent criminals, give them weapons, and ask them to kill — but only to aim at the people defined as enemies. The Russians are on top of that.
They are signing contracts with a private military organization, not unlike Eric Prince’s Blackhawk, called ChVK Wagner. (The ChVK part is an abbreviation of the Russian words meaning more or less private military organization, Mr. Smukler said; where the German name Wagner came from is anybody’s guess.) It’s led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarph known as Putin’s chef, whose name surfaced in some of the report that former FBI chief Robert Mueller released as he looked into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Prigozhin also appears in several unsavory election-related stories, and he is under U.S. sanctions.
The Telegram video shows Prigozhin and some of his employees explaining the terms of the contract to potential soldiers. “They will be paid up to 400,000 rubles a month and they will be liberated after six months, but if you surrender and we catch you, you will die. If you run from the front lines, you will die. If you use drugs on the front line, you will die. If you rape somebody, you will die.
“There are six rules.
“The criminals will be put into units with other mercenaries, who are allowed to shoot them with no warning and no explanation if they violate any of the rules.”
“Several human rights groups sent an open letter to Putin and members of the Duma, requesting an answer from them on what grounds they are using to allow people to leave prison, because legally they cannot. Legally, there is only one way for people to leave before they’ve served their sentences. The president would have to give them a pardon.”
So far, that group has received no response to their very brave — we hope not foolhardy — request.
Another fear the activists have is what will happen when the predatory criminals released from prison to spend six months fighting and killing come back home.
Meanwhile, Russian propaganda has moved on from the idea that Russia had to attack Ukraine to de-Nazify it. Now, “on official Russian channels, you only hear about how we are in a war with the United States and NATO. It is a patriotic war, and we have to defend the Russian world, which is being destroyed by Western civilization.
“This is a dangerous trend, because they are preparing the audience for the idea that the Ukrainians are just zombies, fighting with American military munitions and killing our people, and we are defending the Russian world. Now we’re fighting on Ukrainian territory, but it is possible that the area of the fight will extend drastically.
“That is a dangerous trend,” Mr. Smukler said.
He’s also starting to hear “that a few top-ranking Russian politicians are talking about the possibility of using tactical nuclear missiles.” It’s particularly worrying because they talk about it almost casually, as if they were HIMARS, which are powerful, precision weapons the U.S. is supplying to the Ukrainians but far less world-shattering than going nuclear would be.
Putin is responding to the pressure.
On Tuesday, Russia announced that it would hold what it called referendums, so people in the Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and Donetsk regions could vote to join Russia. Those referendums were seen as a first step toward annexation. Then, any Ukrainian attack on those regions could be played as an attack on Russia itself, and dire consequences would flow from that attack.
On Wednesday, Putin finally gave the speech that had been teased and postponed the day before. On television, he announced what he called a “partial mobilization,” which seemed to mean that reservists could be recalled to military service. “Only citizens who are currently in the reserve will be subject to conscription, and above all, those who served in the armed forces have a certain military specialty and relevant experience,” he said. He is doing it because the West “wants to destroy our country,” he said; in fact, Russia’s opponents tried to “turn Ukraine’s people into cannon fodder.”
If necessary, he implied, he could go nuclear. He has “lots of weapons to reply” to the West’s imperial ambitions. “It’s not a bluff,” Putin said.
There are also some good signs coming from Russia. “There are starting to be cracks,” Mr. Smukler said, while cautioning that they’re small so far, and it will be a long time before they can cause the kind of fractures that bring down regimes. But not only did human rights activists write the open letter about the prisoners-turned-soldiers, but “65 mayors of municipalities, from St. Petersburgh and Moscow to Samara to several other cities, signed an open letter requesting Putin’s ouster. Those letters are circulating widely on the internet and have had a huge impact inside Russia.”
It also took inordinate personal courage to sign such a letter.
And then, on Sunday, “the most famous Russian pop star, Alla Pugachova, put a very strong statement on her Instagram against the war, and against Putin. As far as I know,” he said on Monday, “almost 1.5 million people already reacted positively to her statement.”
Ms. Pugachova, who is 73, is a huge star; Mr. Smukler compares her to Madonna in her prime. “There is no one in Russia who does not know her,” he said. “She is an icon. Publishing that statement had a huge impact.”
She is married to Maxim Galkin, a stand-up comedian. They spent the first six months of the war in Israel; now she’s back in Russia, but he’s still in Israel.
Wait. Israel? What? Why? As it turns out, Mr. Galkin, whom Mr. Smukler said “is one of the most popular and famous celebrities in Russia,” is Jewish, and she is of partial Jewish descent. The two were able to get Israeli citizenship.
Mr. Galkin stayed out of Russia because he’ll be performing in the United States. “He’s planning on doing standup in major U.S. cities in March,” Mr. Smukler continued. “The tickets are all sold out already.” He already has his.
“He is outside Russia because he strongly condemned Putin right after the invasion, and he was taken off every program.
“But she came back to Russia last week with their kids.” (Mr. Galkin, 46, and Ms. Pugachova have two children together; they were born, as every Russian knows, to a surrogate mother.)
“She published a statement that blew my mind,” Mr. Smukler said.
“She said, ‘I am a patriot of Russia. My kids have to go to school, and I want them to go to school in Russia. I believe that this regime will fall, and my country needs me.’
“She strongly supports her husband,” Mr. Smukler continued.
Her Instagram post makes that clear. It’s in Russian, but according to Politico, this is what she wrote:
“Please include me in the ranks of foreign agents of my beloved country since I am in solidarity with my husband.” Her husband is “a true and incorruptible patriot of Russia who wants his homeland to flourish in peace, with freedom of speech, and wants an end to our boys dying for illusory goals, which has turned our country into a pariah state and made life a burden for our citizens.”
“It was an incredibly brave step,” Mr. Smukler said.
He does not know what will happen to her, or to the 65 mayors, or to the human rights activists. “And there are others,” he said. “We can see the beginning of a certain resistance inside Russia to Putin’s regime.”
Putin is facing real pressure, Mr. Smukler continued; not being able to recruit regular soldiers, to begin a draft, to confront critics – all that is new to him. It’s happening now because “more and more people, especially the intellectual elites, understand that there is no exit from this situation. Their lives will be sacrificed because of Putin’s mistake. Russia will be a pariah country for years. And the sanctions now are starting to have an effect on the economy, and there is no clear understanding of how to stop it.
“We know that after the war started, nine million Ukrainians were displaced, but nobody knows how many Russians left their country. It seems that somewhere between one to one and a half million Russians fled during the last seven months because they disagree with Putin’s regime.” Many of them are in fields like IT; it doesn’t matter how remote they are when they work. They are not welcome in Western countries, but they can go to places like Tbilisi, Georgia, Yerevan, Armenia, and Baku, Azerbaijan. And 50,000 or more people went to Israel; the ones with Jewish backgrounds are applying for citizenship, but others are staying in Israel because they don’t need visas.” And the many Russian speakers in Israel help the new Russians visitors feel at home. “This is the biggest migration from Russia since the civil war in 1918,” Mr. Smukler said.
He’s greatly disturbed by legislation that was introduced in the Senate last week, which would label Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. It’s a bipartisan bill spearheaded by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham and Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal. It would circumvent the State Department, and President Biden already has said that he will refuse to sign it.
The bill would “bring the world to a dangerous new stage,” Mr. Smukler said. “Russian propaganda and Russian state channels already are mentioning it.”
The biggest problem it would pose is “how can a state that will be recognized as a sponsor of terrorism, with all the sanctions associated with that, be a member of the United Nations Security Council? And that would mean that the whole post-World War II structure for the global world would be paralyzed.
“If Russia had that status, that would mean that the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. couldn’t even sit next to the Russian ambassador. It would mean that the postwar rules are completely demolished, and the world will have to recreate an entirely new structure.
“And those rules will never be recreated without another war.”
Mr. Smukler recognizes that his self-imposed task — pouring cold water on readers’ hopes — can be scary. “But I’m just trying to be reasonable,” he said.
“I would vote for the legislation too,” because it is true, and it is good to speak the truth. But it is also good to be careful.
“The danger is incredible. And why the direct confrontation? We don’t need it. Putin already is in a corner. There is no way out for him.
“Putin is in survival mode. He can only move forward. Is he going to stand up and say, ‘We’re sorry. We will withdraw the troops,’ and the sanctions will be lifted, and he will be welcomed in the civilized world?
“Never. As soon as it stops, he will be sent to the World Court as a war criminal. He understands that.”
So do many other people. “Everyone calls him Putler,” Mr. Smukler said.
“So we have to be careful. We have to help Ukraine, and we have to do it quietly. We have to support those groups and people who are against him internally.
“It’s like the Cold War,” he concluded. “Slowly, slowly, slowly the Soviet Union collapsed. It was very slow, but finally we won it.”