To be or not to be?

To be or not to be?

The critical question for Putin and Ukraine this summer

Last December, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin hold a joint press conference. (Wikimedia Commons)
Last December, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin hold a joint press conference. (Wikimedia Commons)

None of us can really imagine being Vladimir Putin, the embattled president of Russia, because the circumstances that shaped him are hard to replicate in 21st-century America.

You’d have to imagine being born at the end of World War II into poverty-stricken, war-demolished Leningrad, to an embittered father who fought in the Soviet army for all five years of the war and a grief-stricken mother who’d survived the Nazi-created famine, but whose first child had not.

You’d have to imagine living in a communal building, a place with all the charms of a Lower East Side tenement, a place that took the worst elements of a kibbutz — the complete lack of privacy and agency at home — and blew off the good parts, the sense of a shiny shared future. You’d have to imagine being a street kid, scrawny, puny, and smart, succeeding on his wits, manipulating. Always manipulating.

That’s why Alexander Smukler of Montclair calls Putin the angry dwarf. Angry, because his grim childhood would make most people angry; dwarf, because Putin’s small size affected the way he had to fight.

Mr. Smukler grew up in a communal building in Moscow. His was a childhood similar enough to Putin’s in enough ways to provide him with an understanding, but dissimilar in others — Mr. Smukler is Jewish, so that put him in a specific place in the Soviet Union. Not a good place. And unlike Putin, he grew up with love.

Even if we could imagine a childhood and adolescence like Putin’s, and a career as a gray, seemingly featureless KGB agent, it’s impossible to imagine what 23 years of nearly absolute power could do to a person.

But now, as Mr. Smukler, whose connections in Russia and Ukraine give him a deep understanding of the situations in both countries since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, proposes, imagine being Putin.

Alexander Smukler

Every single one of us has made mistakes; some of us have taken catastrophic missteps. But few of us have the ability to make them on the scale of Putin’s.

Let’s look at his situation now.

He’s completely cornered, Mr. Smukler said.

“There’s an order issued for his arrest by the International Criminal Court. He’s losing on the front lines in the war, and he has not had the opportunity for the massive offensive he needs because he lost any momentum he had.

‘Now he has to mobilize another 400,000 to 500,000 people, because his major deficit — and he has many — is the lack of cannon fodder.

“But as we discussed two weeks ago, he cannot bring more people onto the front lines because of his election.” In our last story together, Mr. Smukler said that Putin’s next election for the presidency will be next March, and although as a dictator he does not have to win any election, and although his winning margin will be exaggerated when it is reported publicly, he finds it necessary for his own internal peace, as hard as that is to imagine, to know that more than 50 percent of his constituents actively want him to remain in office.

That means that he can’t dragoon their sons and send them off to the Ukrainian meatgrinder until after he’s won their votes. That means almost a year before he can declare war and draft them openly. “Another wave of mobilization right now would create enormous political turmoil, so he is very cautious about doing it,” Mr. Smukler said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shake hands at the G20 Summit in China on September 4, 2016.

“They’re still quietly drafting people, and they’re increasing their efforts to sign contracts” for soldiers, he continued. The effort to recruit soldiers, particularly in prisons, began soon after the war did. “Now they’re opening more and more offices, new mobilization centers, where people can sign contracts,” Mr. Smukler said.

There’s been a striking change, he continued. “In September and October, the Russian ministry of defense and the Wagner Group,” the savage mercenary militia controlled by Putin’s friend Yevgeny Prigozhin, “signed contracts for six months. After six months, the contract could be renewed — or it could be over. Then, the person who signed it” — or, realistically, his family — “will get a huge bonus if they died, and a smaller bonus if they survive.

“Now, though, the minimum contract is 18 months, which means that Putin’s timeline has changed. He and his generals think that the war will last not for six more months, but for at least 18 months.”

That means that if soldiers are signed up for at least a year and a half, those who still are alive still will be in the army during the election, so Putin will have to scrape up fewer new fighters.

But those fighters are dying at horrifying rates. “Russians’ survival rates during offensives are six to 16 percent,” Mr. Smukler said, citing the experts he’s consulted. “Ninety-four percent of them died before the six months of their contractual obligations ended.”

Therefore, despite Putin’s often demonstrated lack of concern for the men he sends off to die, much less their families, and given his visible concern about the optics of allowing his soldiers to be butchered, at least until the election, his offering them 18-month contracts seems to mean that he thinks that the war both will last at least 18 months and will be defensive rather than offensive. “The Russian generals are not planning active offensive operations because they think that these people will survive longer,” Mr. Smukler said.

“Also, Russians now are recruiting students in military academies and schools,” he continued. “They announced this year that those students will finish their education two months earlier than usual, and they are being drafted to the front lines right after their graduation.” In other words, instead of graduating in June and being sent to the front lines in Ukraine, now they are finishing school in April — that is now — and then being shipped off.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen (Wang Yu Ching / Office of the President)

Unlike in the United States, with its four service academies and private military schools, Russia has many military schools, and the state runs all of them. “This is the first time since the Second World War that the government has cut short the education and drafted them two months early,” Mr. Smukler said.

That’s because “today Russia has a huge deficit — not in military equipment, although they do have that deficit. But the industry is rapidly modernizing its capacity and increasing the production of artillery shells and tanks.”

The real deficit “is on manpower,” Mr. Smukler said.

“For example, my sources tell me that the Russians are producing more tanks, and they have many tanks that are 40, 50, maybe even 60 years old in their stockpiles that they can use — they still work — but they don’t have any people who can operate them.

“I had a conversation with an expert a few days ago who told me that British intelligence estimates that the Russians lost about 4,300 tanks in this war. And when a tank is lost, when it’s hit by an antitank missile or an artillery shell, you are losing not only the tank but also the people inside it. It’s extremely difficult to educate new people, so the Russians are losing both lives and expertise.”

There’s another huge problem that Putin is facing. It’s a problem that’s entirely of his own making, which most likely does not make it easier to confront and overcome.

“Remember that a historic thing took place last week,” Mr. Smukler said. “A historical event. Finland became a member of NATO.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen and the U.S. Speaker of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R), meet in California in early April. (Wikipedia)

“Putin told his people that he was pushing NATO away.” At the start of the war, he said that he invaded Ukraine to keep it from joining NATO. “But now NATO is right next to Saint Petersburg.” It’s less than 200 miles away. “The border with Finland is 1,200 kilometers — that’s a little more than 800 miles. It basically doubled the length of the border between NATO countries and Russia. And now NATO also controls the biggest part of the Baltic Sea.

“So now Putin has to build up a defense line behind the border with Finland. That defense line hasn’t existed since 1940.”

Mr. Smukler talked about the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union, which was fought between November 1939 and March 1940. “The war was very short but very bloody,” he said. “Russia lost 126,875 soldiers in the conflict, according to its statistics,” but eventually much smaller Finland was forced to negotiate, became a Nazi ally, and lost almost 16 percent of its territory to the Soviets after the Second World War.

“After the war, the Soviet Union tried to keep Finland neutral. It took an enormous effort, but for many years Finland was a major gateway to the west for Soviets. During the Brezhnev time, the government understood that if Finland joined NATO, it would be very challenging for the Soviet defense system. It was too close to St. Petersberg for comfort, and it would allow NATO to control the strategic part of the Baltic Sea called the Finland Gulf.”

So first the Soviets and then the Russians worked hard to keep Finland neutral, but Putin miscalculated so badly that he drove it into NATO. “Now NATO is right on his doorstep,” Mr. Smukler said.

That means that the Russians will have to divert much of their resources from Ukraine to the Finnish border. “That of course will increase their deficit of manpower in Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, Russia has become a vassal state of China. Last week, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, and the president of the EU, Ursula von der Leyen, went to Beijing to “try to convince President Xi not to support Putin’s regime, and to condemn Putin’s aggression.” To cut to the chase, they failed. “The Chinese are very pragmatic,” Mr. Smukler said, and they benefit from Putin’s situation. “They buy Russian mineral resources at great discounts, and they have become Russia’s major trade partner — really, Russia’s only trade partner, and that provides a profitable market for Chinese goods.”

Guests at a seder in Kyiv, Ukraine, including many families from heavily damaged Kharkiv, sit around the seder table on the first night of Passover, April 5, 2023. (Marcel Gascon Barbera)

At the very same time, he continued, a delegation of U.S. members of Congress went to Taiwan, and the speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, welcomed Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, during her American tour. “This diminished the value of Macron’s visit down to zero,” Mr. Smukler said.

At the same time that Macron and von der Leyen were in China, Xi welcomed “two highest-level delegations, one from Saudi Arabia and the other from Iran, also in Beijing,” he continued. “They celebrated their new relationship. It was an absolutely unprecedented meeting. They were not just establishing a diplomatic relationship, but the Chinese created the environment for it; they talked about culture and economic exchanges. And it was all brokered by the Chinese.”

This is a huge change of the status quo in the global game of thrones, Mr. Smukler said.

So Putin’s massive miscalculation has boxed him in, the Ukrainians have outfoxed him, the Finns have outsmarted him, the West has outlawed him, China has neutered him. What can he do?

“If I were Putin, what would I do to save myself?”— because surely he’d recognize how wrong he’d been in his initial assumptions, and what deep trouble he’s in now. He needs at least a year and a half to get his army to the point where winning the war would be possible even theoretically, and how could he buy all that time? “What would I do to save face — and basically save my life?” Mr. Smukler asked rhetorically.

“And I found the answer. There is only one answer. I would pull all the strings in my puppet theater to destabilize the situation in a different part of the world.

“The first place I would try to destabilize is the Middle East. I would of course use all my power and all my capacity to create problems for the so-called organized West, and especially the United States, in a different part of the world.

Dighton police cars block Maple Street in North Dighton, Mass., half a mile from the house where Airman Jack Teixeira was arrested for posting classified documents, on April 13, 2023.
(Kylie Cooper for the Washington Post/Getty Images)

“And now I look at what’s going on around the world,” Mr. Smukler continued. “My patron, China, suddenly successfully brokers an unusually strong relationship between the Saudis and Iran — Sunnis and Shias. So now we see what’s going on in Israel right now. It’s defending itself on three front lines — it’s being hit by missiles from Lebanon, it’s being hit by missiles from Syria, and Hamas woke up. We see that Israel’s becoming a very hot spot.

“If I’m Putin, I will speed up the technology transfer and help to the Iranian nuclear program, which obviously and without a doubt will create a possible military conflict between Israel and Iran. If Iran announces that it possesses nuclear power, and Iran is an ally of China, I would do everything possible to arm Iran with nuclear capacity to see military action in the Middle East.

“That would immediately take the United States’ attention and military resources to the Persian Gulf instead of to Ukraine.”

Did Putin create the instability racking Israel now? He doesn’t think so, Mr. Smukler said; the Israelis could do that on their own. “But he’s taking advantage of it.

“Bibi always had a very strong, friendly relationship with Putin, but we always knew that Russia maintained very strong ties with Hamas, and with Hezbollah through Iran.”

Next, Mr. Smukler addressed the leak of intelligence documents about the war; we’ve learned that they seem to have been posted by Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard in Cape Cod.

So far, he said, “the more I read about the case, the more surprised I am by the level of intelligence provided there.” That level is low, he continued. “These documents basically mean nothing. There is nothing that you can’t find elsewhere, and it looks very childish to me. Very unprofessional.

“It reminds me of 20 years ago, when our secretary of state, Colin Powell, showed some white powder and said that the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction. That was the reason for our war in Iraq, which cost almost 1 trillion dollars and enabled the birth of ISIS.

“It seems to me that our intelligence community now is on the same level that it was 20 years ago.

“We are now witnessing the intelligence agencies of every country playing their own game,” Mr. Smukler continued. “We see just a little tip of the iceberg. Every expert has their own opinion on it.” Beyond his criticism of its quality, he does not. “But it is an interesting twist. We understand that something is boiling underground, and we see tiny wisps of smoke, like from a volcano.”

The Ukrainians have this summer to win the war, he said. “I can only hope that they can use the coming months, which will be a unique window of opportunity for very strong offensive operations that could change the situation on the front lines.

“And that situation has not changed for many months already.”

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