It’s been more than 90 days since February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Alexander Smukler of Montclair said.
Because he used to be Aleksandr Smukler of Moscow — he and his wife moved to the United States in 1990, a little less than half their lives ago — and because he’s stayed in close touch with friends in Russia and in Ukraine, and because he’s been the president of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, and because he’s a successful entrepreneur whose business involved many trips back to Russia and Ukraine — Mr. Smukler has been a great source of information and insight into Russia’s unprovoked war.
Now, three months in, Mr. Smukler looks back and ahead.
It’s a pretty grim view.
First, though, he tells us that one of his sources, Pavel Feldblum, has been sending him photographs as well as dispatches from Russia. Dr. Feldblum, who is trained as a pediatrician but who has made his successful career in the pharmaceutical business, was “a prominent Jewish businessman in Moscow, and for many years was one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Moscow,” Mr. Smukler said. According to the internet, Dr. Feldblum was, among other things, the executive director of the Russian Jewish Congress, and now is heading the board of trustees of the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations in Ukraine. He also was very active in Moscow’s Maccabi Club, Mr. Smukler added.
Dr. Feldblum publicly “opposed Putin’s policies in Ukraine — he is an amazing person — and he immigrated from Russia to Kyiv, and despite the fact that he is 56 or 57, he recently joined the military in Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said.
“He is serving there now. It’s a little unusual but at the same time an encouraging story.”
So, putting together what he’s heard from Dr. Feldblum, from his other sources, and from Russian state television — all Russian television is state television, Mr. Smukler said — he presents his summary.
Start with the obvious, Mr. Smukler said. “Putin completely failed in his plan — a quick invasion and occupation of at least the eastern and central parts of Ukraine, including the Russian-speaking cities of Kharkiv and Kyiv. He planned a blitzkrieg, but that plan fell apart when the Russians were not able to complete their plan, and particularly to take Kyiv.
“So the Russians started to regroup their forces and concentrate more on the so-called liberation of eastern Ukraine, especially the eastern Donbas region. That’s Putin’s Plan B.
“They are slowly succeeding with this plan. Today it is obvious that 98 percent of eastern Ukraine is occupied and fully controlled by the Russians.
“And in the south, the Russians were able to take over the area called Kherson, on the Black Sea.” The city is in the oblast — the province — with which it shares a name. “So the Russians have Ukrainian ports,” Mr. Smukler said.
“The front line today is more than 900 miles long,” he continued. “I talked to a military expert, who explained that with a front line that long, and with approximately 100,000 soldiers, it’s almost impossible to hold.” To back up, the Russians started with an estimated 120,000 troops, and the Ukrainians claim that they’ve killed about 27,000 of them. It’s hard to get real numbers, Mr. Smukler said; that 27,000 lost seems to be approximately accurate, but it’s hard to know if they’re all dead or some of them are just resting. (No! But some of them may be injured, captured, or AWOL. Still, many of his sources, including British intelligence, agree on the 100,000 or so left on the front lines.)
But the front line’s indefensible length means that the Russians have regrouped “and reconsidering, and that’s why they’ve withdrawn their military brigades from the areas near Kyiv and Kharkov and leaving the cities close to Kyiv that they’d already taken, including Bucha and Irpin.
“Their plans for a blitzkrieg failed because they thought that the Ukrainian army would vanish like smoke in a mirror, and the population would meet them with joy and flowers. When that did not happen, Russians understood that they were a small group, too small to fight and win and keep that front line.”
But what the Russian planners lacked in firepower they made up for in resilience, Mr. Smukler suggested. “That’s why they completely changed tactics and strategies in three months,” he said. “Now they’re concentrating on completing the invasion of eastern Ukraine, which includes Donetsk and Luhansk, and they captured Kherson. That’s it. That’s what they’ve accomplished in 90 days of war.”
The war is not over. Vladimir Putin, the angry dwarf whose unchecked rage, seemingly nurtured since childhood and subject to no bounds, cannot lose. “Putin is not going to stop,” Mr. Smukler said.
“When the Russians try to take over other provinces, after the Donbas, they will move very slowly, using very sophisticated, modern weaponry, including all kinds of missiles and artillery. They will destroy all the Ukrainians’ infrastructure, including railways, highways, bridges, ports, and industrial areas. They will move slowly, slowly, on their new targets.” That way, they can rain more destruction on those areas.
“My personal suspicion is that their new targets will be along the Black Sea, including the city of Mykolaiv, in the Mykolaiv Oblast. It’s a shipbuilding center near Odessa. “That will allow Russia to keep Ukraine from access to the sea. This is a new strategy,” and a potentially disastrous one for Ukraine, should it work.
“Ukraine is the third largest grain supplier in the world,” Mr. Smukler said. “Even now, when Ukraine controls Odessa and Mykolaiv ports, their cargo ships aren’t able to leave the ports because the Black Sea is blocked. I’m sure that Putin’s plan is to gain these ports.” If he can win them and retain them once the war is over, “then Ukraine will be cut off from the sea forever. And as far as I understand it, if he gets them, then Putin will be willing to start negotiations with the Ukrainians, and his position will be extremely strong. But until that happens, the Ukrainians will never negotiate with Putin, so he needs to reach certain strategic goals in order to dictate the conditions of future negotiations.”
Moreover, Mr. Smukler said, Putin’s constant talking point at home, the piece of propaganda that he’s pounded into Russian heads, is that “Russia is not fighting Ukraine. ‘The fight is with the European Union, and mostly with our enemy, the United States,’ he says in every interview.
But can Putin and his not-as-formidable-as-advertised military accomplish this goal? Can the Russians take Ukraine’s east and south, and cut off its seaports? Does it have the troops, the resources, the weaponry, the will to do that?
“Interestingly, last week we found out that the Russians are shipping military ammunition and equipment, including tanks,” Mr. Smukler said. Very old tanks.
“During these 90 days, the Russians lost 1,000 very modern, sophisticated tanks, and several military experts say that the invasion of Ukraine shows that in the modern world, in the 21st century, tanks are not the effective weapons that the Russian military thought they were.
“As we’ve seen, they can be easily destroyed by missiles like Javelins,” relatively inexpensive weapons the United States has sent to Ukraine.
“Experts believe that each new, sophisticated tank the Russians have lost cost about $50 million,” although that’s an average — and jaw-dropping — number. “And the Ukrainians already have destroyed 1,000 of them,” Mr. Smukler repeated.
“So now, according to intelligence sources, particularly British sources — and yes, this is crazy — the Russians have 20,000 tanks, but among those tanks are many tanks, thousands of tanks, that were designed in the 1960s and stored in Siberia during the Cold War.”
So the Russians plan to continue the war on Ukraine using antique tanks, it seems.
There are many levels of meaning to this action.
“They never used them before in Ukraine, but now they are starting to ship them out,” Mr. Smukler said. “That means that the Russians have run out of the sophisticated modern ones. And the whole world can see these tanks going from Siberian storage to the Ukrainian front on railroad cars.” (Just google it on YouTube.)
“This also means that they don’t care about their soldiers,” he continued. “These tanks are so unsophisticated that they require a crew of four rather than three, and Javelins can hit them and set them on fire very easily. The crews in the tanks are basically kamikazes, and the Russians don’t care.”
There is much to worry about, though; not all of this war is a clown-car sideshow.
“The scariest thing now are the Russians’ newly designed hypersonic ballistic missiles,” Mr. Smukler said. Just a few days ago, the Russians tested them, he continued. “They say that they are the most precise and powerful middle-range missiles, and they carry nuclear warheads.
“The drill obviously is a sign and a message that they will not think twice before they use these nuclear missiles, if it’s necessary.”
Russian propagandists are sending these messages not only to their enemies, but also to their internal audiences. “You hear almost every day, from politicians on all levels, from all the new channels, that if we need to use nuclear weapons we will use them,” Mr. Smukler reported. “We have no choice. We have to end this conflict with Ukraine, which really is a conflict with the EU and with the United States. We must win, and in order to accomplish this victory we will use every possible measure and we will never think twice about using nuclear weaponry.”
Mr. Smukler recounted the most chilling such piece of propaganda he has heard. “Margarita Simonyan is the head of the RT channel” — that’s the state-owned media giant that used to be known as Russia Today. “She said, on a major Russian talk show, that we should not think twice before we use nuclear missiles, because we cannot afford to lose this war with the United States and Europe.
“When I heard that — she is a mother, and her youngest is just 2 or 3 years old — and she is saying to millions of people that we shouldn’t think twice before using nuclear bombs and missiles — I realize that it means that the Russians are completely zombies. They have lost their minds completely. We are dealing with orcs.
“If the mother of three kids is saying we should use the nuclear bomb, she should understand that she will get the nuclear bomb coming right back at her.
“What is the future of her world? What is the future of her children? I have never seen a mother like her, but I am afraid that there are millions of mothers like her.” And that makes Mr. Smukler very afraid.
Now, more than 90 days into the war, “we can say that the conflict is escalating very rapidly,” he said. Until Monday, it seemed as if one of the weapons the United States was prepared to send Ukraine was its multiple launched guided missile system, a very sophisticated weapon that would allow the Ukrainians to reach 500 miles past its border, well into Russia. Such a weapon would have brought the war to an entirely new level, and it is to Mr. Smukler’s relief that President Biden seems to have decided not to send it to Ukraine.
Putin also has shown restraint, Mr. Smukler said. He never said that Russia was at war, instead using the term special military operation. He has not announced a mobilization, and so he has not drafted more young men. Instead, he has lifted the age limit on men signing contracts as fighters, so that 65-year-olds can go off to war. That’s safe, Putin said, because those older men will be sent to support front-line fighters, rather than go to the front lines themselves. “But it is a sign that the Russians are running out of people to sign their contracts,” Mr. Smukler said. As further evidence, he points to the recruiting stations that have opened in every Russian city of any size.
As he sums up, Mr. Smukler looks at the effects of the sanctions, which had been effective but no longer seem to be. “The Russian economy was shrinking and suffering, but now, ironically, the Russians are getting more money for their oil and gas exports than they had been before the conflict began, because their oil prices went up so much since the beginning of February, “Now, the Russians are selling less mineral resources to the world than before, but they’re getting more money for them, because of the drastically raised prices.
“The major buyers for the oil and gas, and for the steel, and titanium and other mineral resources are China and India. Those two are the biggest buyers of mineral resources today, and probably will be for years to come.
“Because of the sanctions that limit Russia’s ability to sell to the West, it has just three major markets — China, India, and Latin America. Today, China is Russia’s most important partner.
China has been careful, Mr. Smukler said. “At the beginning, it was very cautious and had to appear to have a neutral position. It never showed the world that it fully supports Russia in the invasion, but it was quietly reaping the benefits of the sanctions.”
(Last Monday, the European Union agree to ban all imports of Russian oil through its members’ seaports by the end of the year, thereby reducing by two-thirds the amount of oil it buys from Putin.)
Mr. Smukler is unnerved by Mr. Biden’s remarks on Taiwan, made last week at a press conference in Japan. When the president was asked, “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” he answered: “Yes. That’s the commitment we made.”
The next day, the White House walked back that comment.
“These words were the biggest gift to Putin he has gotten during these last three months, and Russian propaganda immediately used those words,” Mr. Smukler continued.
China has been tangled into the war, at least indirectly, since before it started, he said. Russia decided to wait until after the China-hosted Olympic Games ended before invading Ukraine. He didn’t want to annoy the Chinese by diverting attention from those games. And then, “in December, Biden met with Putin and they had a conversation about Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said. “Putin drew red lines in Ukraine, saying that NATO cannot be extended there. And according to Russian propaganda, Biden said, “F*** off, and walked away, leaving Putin angrily saying he would not swallow that.
“And that’s what makes Putin the angry dwarf,” Mr. Smukler said.
If the war goes as Mr. Smukler predicts it will — if it will turn into a long, slow, devastating nightmare affair, with massive bombing and destruction — “I am afraid that in the next few months we will see a terrible battle in Ukraine,” he said. “Despite the fact that we understand that the Ukrainian people are heroic and defend their country as much as they can, the Russians will regroup.
“The war will not end soon.”
That means that Ukraine will need a great deal of help. “Americans will have to support it financially,” he said. “I am afraid that very soon we will exhaust our financial resources. The Senate just approved $40 billion in aid, and that will last a month or two.
“We will have to support 40 million people, who are completely out of any resources. The country has no money, and it needs to finance the army. The Europeans are exhausting their resources, and I am sure that Biden will go back to Congress.
“That is Putin’s goal — to exhaust Western efforts to support Ukraine. And if we want to defeat and replace Putin, we are doing so much in the wrong direction.”
Still, 90 some odd days ago, almost no one would have predicted that we’d be where we are now. It seemed impossible that Putin would not roll over Ukraine, as he rolled over Georgia, Chechnya, and Syria. And when there are unexpected outcomes, there always is at least one small shred of hope.