Here, we continue our series of interviews with Russian-turned-Jersey Jewish entrepreneur and political activist Alexander Smukler of Montclair, whose explanations of the Russian invasion and attempted capture of Ukraine are based on a lifetime of experience with Russians, and his contacts there. Although many communications have been cut off, some — particularly through VPNs and Telegram — remain usable.
So, what does Mr. Smukler think is going on now?
He’s not sanguine.
First, he acknowledged the obvious, the part of the situation that you don’t have to be an expert to see.
“We realize that Putin already admitted that his operation in Ukraine is not going as it was planned, and we see that the Russian army is having major problems in many directions,” he said. “That includes the most important and bloody point, which is Mariupol,” a city of nearly half a million people — no, to update, a city that once had nearly half a million people, most of whom by how have fled or been murdered by Putin and his minions. It’s a port on the Sea of Azov, an extension of the Black Sea, and by now it’s almost all rubble and bone, a true charnel house.
But the Russians have withdrawn, at least for now, from Kyiv, the city that Putin thinks of as Russian civilization’s birthplace, and therefore an integral part of Russia. And for now, it seems, that will have to wait.
“The way that Russian troops withdrew from Kyiv has absolutely no precedent in history,” Mr. Smukler said. “They left cities and town with lots of bodies on the streets. The Russians’ main direction was to take Kyiv. They thought they could take it very easily. Very quickly. That plan fell apart, so they withdrew the army from Kyiv’s suburbs. That’s why they left so many casualties among the civilians.
“The way they withdrew the troops shows us that there obviously is something wrong with the central command of Russian operations.
“So right now the fight is slowing down; in my personal opinion, that’s because the Russians are rearranging their troops and getting ready for another attack in another direction. And as far as I can see, the next attack will be completing the battle in Mariupol, and then getting ready for a major battle in the next few days.”
Mr. Smukler predicts that the next battles will be in Kharkiv, then Nikolaev, and then on to Odessa, on the Black Sea; also they’ll go for Syeverodonetsk, another large city.
“Putin wants to have a substantial victory that he can celebrate on May 9,” Mr. Smukler said. That’s Russia’s Victory Day, when it celebrates its defeat of the Nazis (and of course Mr. Putin has engaged in specious comparisons of the Ukrainians in general, and the country’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky in particular, with Nazis, although he’s toned down that rhetoric recently because it’s fallen flat, as Mr. Smukler has pointed out).
“So Putin has ordered his generals that they must accomplish something with visible, positive results by May 9, so he can announce to the Russian population that the second stage has begun. He already announced that the first stage is done.”
The first stage, as Putin sees it, Mr. Smukler explained, was “when they took over Kherson,” a provincial capital and the first and as of this writing the only capital city the Russians have occupied in this war. “The Russians took over a number of small cities around Luhansk and Donetsk,” in the area of eastern Ukraine that the invaders have claimed for years. “So according to Russian propaganda, the first stage is over, which was to secure that region, and it has been successful,” Mr. Smukler said. “They’re now moving toward eastern and southern Ukraine to ‘liberate’ the so-called Russian areas there.
“In reality, it means that they will try to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea and try to take over the most populated major cities in eastern Ukaine.” That includes Kharkiv, he said. “I’m afraid that in the next few days we’ll see a major battle, with lots of artillery and tanks and missiles. Some Russian sources are saying that they’re calling it another Stalingrad, the most important battle in the war.” (That was the horrifyingly deadly fight, in the winter of 1942-43, that the Nazis lost, and that many historians see as World War II’s turning point. Ironically, in this war, the Russians are playing the part of the Nazis, and the Ukrainians are the Russians.)
“The Ukrainians today are much more ready for battle than they were when the invasion first began, because they keep getting massive amounts of supplies from the West,” Mr. Smukler said. “And their army is much better organized and experienced than it was 45 days ago, after 45 days of fighting.
“As we can see, the Ukrainian army is showing absolutely outstanding results in their defense of their country, and I think that in the future military historians will study how it was able to hold off the massive Russian invasion for such a long time.”
So how can they do it? What’s going on?
“For me, this is the most important explanation,” Mr. Smukler said.
“As we know, when the Russians crossed the Ukrainian border and began the invasion, there were approximately 190,000 Russian soldiers. We know that the Russians lost between 20,000 to 25,000 soldiers. That’s how many were killed. We don’t know the number of war prisoners, or the ones who were injured, or who deserted.
“But we know that in 45 days of fighting with the Ukrainians, the Russians lost more soldiers than they did in the nine years they fought in Afghanistan — and that was a very bloody war. So the Ukrainians are absolutely outstanding in terms of their military capacity to defend their country.”
Why? What do they have that the Russians don’t? What’s their secret?
“I think that the secret is that the Russian army is absolutely not motivated,” Mr. Smukler said. As a result of their having no noble cause to fight for — even if the nobility of the cause were clear only to them — “many foreign sources show us that the Russian soldiers are raping women, killing civilians, and stealing things.
“They are pillaging. They are plundering.”
They are also looting; taking household goods from the homes they’ve invaded and sending them back home. “Many Russian sources on the internet and Telegram have publicized the information that lots of soldiers have gone back into Belarus and Russia and shipping stuff that they’ve plundered back to Russia,” Mr. Smukler said. “This is amazing. There’s even video about how the Russian soldiers are sending boxes filled with stuff — things like people’s TVs — and as soon as they’re over the border they go to the post office and ship it off to their wives and their relatives.
“I heard a podcast with someone who put the tape of a conversation on, a telephone conversation that had been taped, between an officer and his wife. The wife told the officer what she needs in her house, what he should ship her.
“These kinds of things have been published on the internet; many Ukrainian and Russian opposition forces have been publishing it.
“And remember,” Mr. Smukler added, “that Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe.” Those aren’t new, high-quality goods the Russians are stealing.
Not only is this objective bad behavior, it also “shows us that the Russian army is completely demoralized and amoral,” he continued. “They came to Ukraine to fight for no reason. They don’t understand why they are fighting. Where are the Nazis? Where are the Banderas?” (Stepan Bandera was the anti-Semitic, Nazi-collaborating Ukrainian whose memory is used as a reason for Jews to side with Russia against Ukraine.) When the soldiers can find neither Bandera nor any other Nazis, “they decide that at least they can take advantage of the situation and send gifts to their wives and families.”
The Ukrainians are in an entirely different position.
“The Ukrainian army is fighting with dignity,” Mr. Smukler said. “Their soldiers know exactly the reasons why they are fighting. Their morale is extremely strong. And that is why they are winning – because of the psychological difference between the Russians and the Ukrainians.
“The Ukrainians are defending their families, and the Russians are sending stuff to their families.”
It’s also true that the Russian soldiers can use the plunder. “Several Russian opposition forces have published Russian soldiers’ salaries on the internet,” Mr. Smukler said. “Regular Russian soldiers are getting paid between 30,000 and 70,000 rubles a month, which today is between $500 and $1,000. That can help explain why they are coming to a foreign country to rob people instead of fighting for an idea.” It’s important to understand that the Russians are in many ways more like a marauding band of villains in thrall to a warlord than a modern army, he suggested.
“It’s also important to understand the structure of the Russian army,” he said. “The regular Russian army is managed and controlled by the ministry of defense. Approximately 40 percent of the regular Russian army are professionals, and the other 60 percent are young people who are drafted — every Russian male citizen has to serve in the army for at least a year.
“Besides the regular army, that ministry of defense army, Russia also has so-called national guards. That’s approximately 330,000 soldiers — they’re professionals, it’s a full-time job — and according to Putin’s Constitution the national guards were created a few years ago to protect the country, internally, from terrorism.” (The Russian Constitution was created in 1993, as the Soviet Union died, and in 2020 Putin introduced amendments that among other things would allow him to stay in office virtually as president for life.“The national guards report only to the president. They report directly to Putin. They were created and funded in 2016, and they have become one of the most influential bodies inside the Russian military machine.”
And then, inside the national guards “there is another group, the so-called Chechen national guards,” Mr. Smukler said. “Different sources report different numbers; there are between 40,000 and 70,000 of them. They are extremely well trained and extremely well equipped soldiers. They’re in Chechnya; officially they are all Russian national guards but in reality they report only to the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov.
“Those details are important because today we can see that not only is the regular Russian army fighting in Ukraine, but so are the Russian national guards, and most important, so are the Chechen national guards. Some sources say that approximately 40,000 Chechens are fighting in Ukraine.
“That’s who we’re talking about when we are talking about the Russians who are taking over cities. Especially Mariupol.”
The national guards, remember, are supposed to work only inside Russia, and the Chechen national guards only inside the part of Russia that is Chechnya, but they’re in Ukraine now.
Mariupol is particularly important “because it’s the biggest port in the Dombas region,” Mr. Smukler said. “They can’t really control the whole Dombas without Mariupol. And it is amazing that the Ukrainians have been able to hold onto it so long, even when it was completely surrounded, and today it is completely demolished.
“And that’s why Putin sent the Chechen national guards there.”
This is possibly the most chilling part. “They know how to fight inside a large city infrastructure,” Mr. Smukler said. “They’re trained. They know how to fight on the streets and they know how to fight underground. They know how to take a large city.”
The Chechen national guards learned those bloody lessons during the Second Chechen War, from 1999 to 2010, although the most devastating fighting ended in 2000. “Putin won the war by buying the Chechens,” Mr. Smukler said.
As for the Chechen national guards who came out of that war, “they are very brutal, and they have no morals. They are just fighters.”
Now some of the soldiers who have been in Ukraine since the beginning of the war are being relieved; they’re being replaced with these more brutal, more disciplined fighters.
Then Mr. Smukler talked about Bucha, the town where the horrific images of bodies lying in streets, bodies with bound hands and bullet holes, have been shown all over Western media, making the evil of the war impossible to overlook.
“The bodies were left by Russian soldiers, but the Russians denied they had done it,” Mr. Smukler said. “I want to remind our readers that the Russians always deny everything.
“During the last 10 years, they denied that they poisoned Skripal in Salisbury.” Sergei Skripal was a retired Russian military officer who was a double agent for the United Kingdom; the Russians imprisoned him and the Brits traded for him. In 2019, two bumbling Russian agents poisoned Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England; they used a nerve agent called Novichok in a perfume bottle. The Skripals survived, but a woman completely unrelated to the Skripals, Russia, or any kind of international intrigue died when her boyfriend gave her the Novichoked perfume bottle. The murderers had thrown it away. The boyfriend also got sick, but he recovered.
“The Russians denied that their missile hit the Dutch airplane.” That was Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which the Russians shot down in 2014 over eastern Ukraine as they took over Crimea.
“The Russians denied that they poisoned Navalny with Novichok.” That’s charismatic Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who survived the poisoning, came back to Russia, was imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and now is serving a sentence that keeps being extended, most recently just a few weeks ago.
“This is the Russians’ style, to completely deny whatever they’ve done. Whatever they’ve done, they deny it. Nobody in the world will believe them by now, because of their long history of denial.”
Also, Mr. Smukler pointed out, there are photographs that show bodies lying in Bucha’s streets while the Russians were there, before the Ukrainians won it back, further disproving Putin’s lies.
“What the Russians did in Bucha is not only outrageous, but also direct and clear evidence of war crimes,” he said. “I always have taken the position that instead of fighting, Western leaders should sit in a conference with Putin, like at Yalta, to negotiate. To find a way to a compromise. To stop the war.
“But after Bucha, the point of no return has been passed. That is the biggest problem.
“After Bucha, after killing more than 50 innocent people in the train station in Kramatorsk, we can’t talk about negotiations with Putin. No one in Western leadership can do that.
“That doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, and the Russians now are willing to negotiate with Ukraine, but I know that the Ukrainians would never accept the Russians’ conditions, because they know that they can defend their motherland.”
It’s not possible for Western leaders or NATO to negotiate with a war criminal, Mr. Smukler said. “We can see that the war will continue, and people will die. I am afraid that Putin is not going to stop in Ukraine, because he cannot stop at all.
“He is so cornered that for him there will be no outcome other than victory or death in a battle.”
Our readers might remember that Mr. Smukler refers to Vladimir Putin as the angry dwarf, the small (in every way, ranging from the less-important physical to the far more important moral sense) man whose thin skin, imperial power, and paranoid isolation have led him to more and more ghastly decisions, with outcomes that devastate both individual people and the world’s political balance.
Putin also controls the direction of the propaganda that tells his people what to believe.
“The propaganda has completely changed direction,” Mr. Smukler said. The war started out as a so-called special operation in Ukraine. “Now they are saying ‘We are not fighting with Ukraine. We’re not fighting with anybody except NATO, and NATO is just using the Ukrainians to fight with us. Ukraine is just the battlefield.’
“They are fully misleading and brainwashing by saying that soldiers are dying in Ukraine, but they are dying fighting not Ukrainians but against Western liberalism.
“For them, this is not a regional war but a war of civilizations.”
Putin’s popularity in Russia continues to grow, according to polls, Mr. Smukler said. It’s true that it’s hard to know how seriously to take polls, because it’s hard to imagine that Russians would feel comfortable being honest about their political beliefs with a stranger carrying a clipboard, but “I personally think that his popularity is growing,” he said. “We can see that at least in the last two weeks, there have been no demonstrations against him.” Again, it’s hard to tell if that’s because the Russians support Putin or it’s because they fear him, but it might not even matter.
“Yes, people cannot demonstrate, but I can remind you that I was in Moscow in August 1991, when the military coup took place.” That’s when Mikhail Gorbachev was president; the coup weakened but did not remove him, at least not immediately. “I have to tell you that the next morning, after the coup started, there were a million people in the streets in Moscow. That’s why the coup was not possible. That’s why Gorbachev returned from exile.
“What we have now is a completely different picture. No one went to the streets. No one is in opposition to Putin. This is amazing. And the sanctions keep destroying the Russian economy, hurting deeper and deeper, but I don’t understand, or the population doesn’t understand it yet, or they are so scared. I don’t understand. This is an incredibly strange phenomenon.”
At the beginning of the war, Mr. Smukler said that Putin was offended at the idea that Volodymyr Zelensky possibly could be seen as his peer. Even though Zelensky has come to be seen as the free world’s hero, “I don’t think that anything has changed” about the way Putin sees the Ukrainian president, Mr. Smukler said. Zelensky has offered to meet Putin several times, but “Putin refused. He does not see Zelensky as his partner. No one in the civilized world will call Zelensky a clown now — and I think that only makes Putin even more angry.”
So what will happen next? Nothing good, Mr. Smukler said sorrowfully. “We have passed the point of no return,” he repeated. “It seems to me that every European leader already understands that there is no way of negotiating with Putin. There is outstanding unity among the European leaders, except for two of them — the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić. The rest of the European and civilized world are completely united.
“Now we are going to see probably the bloodiest battles since the Second World War in eastern Ukraine.”
Mr. Smukler also talked about a new development that hasn’t been much in the news yet, and that he plans to discuss in more detail next week.
It’s about the Russians — mainly young Russians, who are more mobile and have better sources of outside information — who have fled Russia.
“As you know, we have a crisis on our southern border,” Mr. Smukler said. “Thousands of people are trying to cross the border from Mexico.
“Recently, I learned that among those people are many, many Russians.”
There are no direct flights from Russia to the United States anymore, and for that matter there are none from Russia to Mexico, but planes do fly from Moscow to Istanbul. “They can fly from Istanbul to Mexico, they don’t need visas, and they can try to cross the border into the United States as refugees. So we have a new phenomenon now — Russians trying to run away from Putin’s Russia by trying to cross into the United States from Mexico.”
He has a friend who is volunteering as an interpreter at the border, Mr. Smukler said. So stay tuned…