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Ukraine’s Real and Unreal Elections

Ukraine recently witnessed one real election and one pseudo-election, but both may be turning points in the country’s history.

The real election, to the Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament in Kyiv), took place on October 26th; the pseudo-election, in the Donbas enclave occupied by Russia and its proxies, took place on November 2nd. The former was fair and free and, as a referendum on popular attitudes, produced a clear victory for pro-Western, pro-democratic, and pro-Ukrainian parties. The latter was a staged event overseen by thugs with guns that, unsurprisingly, produced a clear victory for the pro-Russian thugs with guns.

Russian Provocations Increase Against NATO

Russia is provoking Poland on purpose to see how NATO will respond. From Popular Mechanics:

NATO and allied jets have scrambled more than 100 times this year in response to Russian military sorties. This activity is growing more dramatic. Within the last week, NATO intercepted four groups of Russian aircraft. "These sizable Russian flights represent an unusual level of air activity over European airspace," the alliance said in a statement.

When the planes at Łask jump into action, it's called a Quick Reaction Alert, or QRA. Lt. Col. Ireneusz "Palm" Nowak, the base commander at Łask, says that while the Russians keep to their own airspace, the Poles scramble fighters to shadow them whenever they come near. Sometimes, Nowak says, Russian aircraft cruise right up to the Polish border in what professionals call RECCE missions — reconnaissance endeavors meant to test the enemy's readiness.

[…]

Because they can't match the Russians plane-for-plane, the Poles look to the United States for help. The U.S. has responded with an increased presence, but the American warplanes here arrive unarmed. They're here to train the Poles, not fight alongside them.

There’s also a report from the European Leadership Network describing “almost 40 sensitive incidents that have occurred over the last eight months. The locations of the majority of these are graphically represented in the map in Appendix A. These events form a highly disturbing picture of violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, and other dangerous actions happening on a regular basis over a very wide geographical area. While the majority of the documented incidents have taken place in the Baltic Sea, there have also been ‘near misses’ in the High North, Black Sea and along the U.S. and Canadian borders.”

The regular news media are paying little attention to this. (Perhaps because no one is shooting at anyone over Poland.) So we’re learning about this in Popular Mechanics—hardly a foreign policy magazine.

The war in Eastern Ukraine has also dropped off the screen, more or less, thanks most likely to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but not entirely.

This is unfortunate, not because we’re about to enter a new Cold War—we aren’t—or because Russia is planning an invasion of Poland—it isn’t—but because Russia, like ISIS, is determined to disrupt the international order and scare everyone else into giving it a free pass to do whatever it wants militarily within its self-declared sphere of influence.

Which wouldn’t be a problem necessarily if Russia were a responsible power like, say, France, which unilaterally invaded Mali to take out a proto Al Qaeda state in the north. Russia is acting more like a hegemonic 19th century power. Its ideology is much less extreme than that of ISIS, of course, but its size and its strength are orders of magnitude greater. The amount of pain and disruption Russia can cause if it wants is enormous.

It’s tempting sometimes to think we’ve moved beyond that stage in our history, but Vladimir Putin and his sometimes violent supporters have not. 

FARC Accountability and Prospects for Peace in Colombia

Back home after a successful road show last week in Europe promoting peace negotiations with the country’s FARC guerrillas, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia now awaits some positive sign from the leaders of FARC’s heavily armed insurgents. The FARC high command has gathered in Havana, Cuba—the venue for the negotiations that have dragged on for two years—and Colombians await some novelties in a conflict that has lasted 50 years and produced 220,000 fatalities. The moment is critical.

Before taking his message of peace to Europe, Santos authorized the clandestine trips of the FARC commanders to Cuba, all of whom have arrest orders in Colombia for years of criminal violence against security forces, sabotage of public services, kidnappings and extortions, recruitment of minors to serve as combatants, as well as drug trafficking on an international scale. This free pass to Havana was supposed to make possible a negotiated peace settlement by which the guerrillas would demobilize and give up their enormous arsenal of arms in exchange for being accepted as a legitimate political movement, evidently under Colombian law.

Kremlin Returns to Soviet Practice of Stripping Citizenship

MOSCOW — One of the ways of punishing political dissenters under the Soviet regime—alongside prisons, labor camps, and “special psychiatric hospitals”—was forced exile accompanied by a loss of citizenship, to ensure that “offenders” would never return to their country (in practice, “never” was curtailed by the collapse of communism in 1991). This was done, among others, to Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, samizdat publisher Alexander Ginzburg, and Moscow Helsinki Group founder Yuri Orlov.

The writer Vladimir Bukovsky—one of the most prominent figures in the Russian dissident movement—was a rare exception. Forcefully exiled from the USSR and exchanged for Chilean communist leader Luis Corvalán in December 1976, Bukovsky was not stripped of his Soviet citizenship. The Politburo decision on his release and exile did not mention such a sanction, and the senior KGB official who accompanied Bukovsky on the flight to Zurich, Switzerland, handed him a new Soviet passport, with hair and civilian clothes drawn on his prison photograph.

Is Russia Artificial?

Most people would unthinkingly answer: of course not! Just look at all the Russians inside and outside Russia. Just look at the Russian state. They’re real, aren’t they? They’re organic. How could one possibly suggest Russia might be artificial?

If you subscribe to these views, take a deep breath and hold on to your seat. The fact is that the Russian state is completely artificial, while the Russian nation is completely fragmented. Both are historically contingent. They’re as real—or unreal—as any non-Russian nation or state or as any recently constructed post-colonial state.

Whether or not Russia is artificial matters because Vladimir Putin and his Western apologists justify Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in terms of Ukraine’s supposed artificiality. The larger principle they’re invoking is that “artificial entities may be dismembered.” That principle is dangerous nonsense. No less important, if applied consistently, it leads to Russia’s dismemberment.

Railway Wars in the Himalayas

On October 31st, China’s official Xinhua News Agency announced that the National Development and Reform Commission had approved a new rail line running from Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, east to Nyingchi.

Toward its eastern end, the line will come close to India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing claims most of Arunachal as its own, calling it “South Tibet.” Therefore, the Lhasa-Nyingchi section, part of the Sichuan-Tibet railway, is bound to heighten concern in New Delhi.

Beijing has been expending substantial sums for more than a decade on transportation infrastructure in the Tibetan homeland. The new 402-kilometer-long line is billed as Tibet’s second railway. The first one, the controversial Qinghai-Tibet railway, went into operation in 2006.

New Book Release – TOWER OF THE SUN

My new book, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, will be released on November 20. You can pre-order the Kindle version right now for only 7.99 and it will be automatically delivered to you the morning of the release date.

Here’s the description from the back of the book.

Prize-winning author Michael J. Totten’s gripping first-person narratives from the war zones, police states, and revolutionary capitals of the Middle East and North Africa paint a vivid picture of peoples and nations at war with themselves, each other, and—sometimes—with the rest of the world.

His journeys take him from Libya under the gruesome rule of Muammar Qaddafi to Egypt before, during and after the Arab Spring; from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights in Syria on the eve of that country’s apocalyptic civil war to a camp on the Iran-Iraq border where armed revolutionaries threaten to topple the Islamic Republic regime in Tehran; from the contested streets of conflict-ridden Jerusalem to dusty outposts in the Sahara where a surreal conflict few have even heard of simmers long after it should have expired; and from war-torn Beirut and Baghdad to a lonely town in central Tunisia that seeded a storm of revolution and war that spread for thousands of miles in every direction.

Tower of the Sun is a timeless close-up of one of the world’s most violent and turbulent regions that will resonate for decades to come.

“A decade in the making, Tower of The Sun is not just an authoritative, intimate and lively reconnaissance of the tectonic upheavals shaking the earth from North Africa's Maghreb to Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s also a masterpiece of clear-eyed political analysis and literary journalism in the travel-diary style of Paul Theroux.” – Terry Glavin, author of The Sixth Extinction

“Totten…practices journalism in the tradition of George Orwell: morally imaginative, partisan in the best sense of the word, and delivered in crackling, rapid-fire prose befitting the violent realities it depicts.” Sohrab Ahmari, Commentary

“I can think of only a certain number of people as having risen to the intellectual and journalistic challenges of the last few years, and Michael J. Totten is one of them.” Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism

“Michael J. Totten, to my mind, is one of the world’s most acute observers of Middle East politics. He is also an absolutely fearless reporter, both physically—he has explored the darkest corners of Middle East extremism—and morally.” Jeffrey Goldberg, author of Prisoners

The release date is coming up and you can pre-order the Kindle version right now.

Eight Ways to Thrill

My first novel, Taken, is included in a thriller box set for a limited time from Storybundle.

When you buy a box set from Storybundle you pay what you want. You can even choose how much money goes to the authors and how much goes to Storybundle. As long as you pay at least twelve dollars, you get all eight books. That’s a buck and a half apiece. 

Eight thrillers for twelve dollars? That’s a great deal even if you only read a couple of them.

The box set is only available for a couple of weeks. Before November is out it will vanish from the shelves, never to be seen again. So if you want this--and of course you do--snap it up today so you don't forget until it's too late.

Ukraine's Commitment to Values Ensures Its Independence

At the moment, Russia has lots of hard power and very little soft power, while Ukraine has lots of soft power and little hard power. Russia’s determination to exclude soft power will ultimately be suicidal. In contrast, Ukraine’s future is bright, but only if it manages to hold on to its soft power while building up its reserves of hard power.

US Proxies Surrender in Syria

Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front just surrendered to Al Qaeda in Syria.

Most people have never heard of either organization, though they’ve been sort of quietly backed by the US since they oppose the Assad regime, the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and the Islamic State. Now they may be effectively finished. 

The US waited far too long to back proxies in Syria while the Islamic State and the Nusra Front spent years building up their strength and conquering territory. Throwing support behind anyone but the Kurds at this point is too little too late.

It’s over.

They were bad proxies anyway. The Syrian Revolutionary Front was an Islamist organization. Less deranged than Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, sure, but it was still an Islamist organization. Harakat Hazm is more secular, but it consists of a measly 5,000 fighters while the Islamic State has as many as 100,000.

Syria is gone. The only portions of that former country that may still be salvageable are the Kurdish scraps in the north. The Kurds are good fighters and they may be able to hold on with our help, but there is no chance they will ever destroy the Assad regime or the Islamic State. They don’t have the strength or the numbers.

So unless the United States decides to invade outright with ground forces—and fat chance of that happening any time soon—we’re going to have to accept that the geographic abstraction once known as Syria will be a terrorist factory for the foreseeable future.

Brazil Stays Populist

In a free and well informed election, a slim majority of Brazil’s 142 million eligible voters chose Sunday to reelect President Dilma Rousseff to a second four-year term, during which Latin America’s largest country will continue in the nationalist populist camp. The election was deeply confrontational and nothing in the campaign indicates Rousseff plans to modify her alliance with the Latin America’s leftist regimes, particularly those in Venezuela, Cuba and Argentina. Officials in these countries were jubilant with Sunday’s returns and showered congratulatory messages on Rousseff. President Obama also called Rousseff on Tuesday and, in addition to congratulations, offered an invitation for her to make an official visit to the United States in the near future, her previous visit having been cancelled after revelations that the NSA had recorded her personal communications.

Countering the Threat of North Korean Warheads

On Friday, General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of UN and US forces in Korea, told reporters that he believes Pyongyang has developed the “capability” to miniaturize a nuclear device. The regime, he said during a Pentagon press briefing, also has the “technology” to deliver that device by ballistic missile. The general did not claim North Korea had actually mounted a warhead on a missile or that it had in fact tested the combination, but of course it is only a matter of time before it does so.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the North likes to call itself, has claimed that its February 2013 atomic test was of a “miniaturized and lighter nuclear device.”

Tunisian Voters Say No to Islamists

Tunisia just held a parliamentary election and Ennahda, the sort-of-moderate-but-not-really Islamist party lost to the ardently secular Nidaa Tounes, which translates into Call of Tunisia.

Ennahda is the Tunisian Branch of the Muslim Brotherhood under another name, and it wears a more moderate face than the Egyptian branch. Tunisia is a genuinely moderate country and Ennahda’s leaders have no choice but to tone down their rhetoric and their platform if they want to seriously compete in elections.

Even so, they still only won 30 percent of the seats.

The previous regime was aggressively secular. Religion wasn’t banned, but it was heavily regulated by the state, as were the religious rights of individual citizens. Headscarves, for instance, were prohibited outright in schools and government buildings. The government wasn’t just secular. It was atheistic and hostile. Ordinary religious people who had no interest in living under an authoritarian or totalitarian theocracy found it offensive, and they voted for Ennahda not because they wanted an Islamic state but because they wanted a government that didn’t screw with them.

Ennahda earned the support of the true believers also, of course, the kind of people who really do pine for what Mohammad Morsi promised for Egypt before the country spit him out. Such people exist in Tunisia. Such people exist everywhere, including in the United States. They just can’t win elections on their preferred platform.

Tunisian politics might be more coherent if a viable mainstream conservative party were to compete with a more-brazen Ennahda and split the votes of religious moderates and religious extremists, but Ennahda certainly won’t split itself. The Islamists would have even fewer seats in the parliament if that were to happen. Ennahda can’t even win an election with its ostensibly moderate platform.

Much hay is being made of the fact that a large percentage of Islamic State terrorists in Syria and Iraq hail from Tunisia. We can speculate about the reasons for that, but I can tell you with absolute confidence that it’s not because Tunisia has a broader base of support for totalitarian political Islam than other Muslim countries.

On the contrary, Tunisia is the most liberal Arab country in the world. I’ve known that for a decade. In such marked contrast to Egypt, Libya, and Syria, it has emerged from the upheavals of the Arab Spring as a more-or-less properly functioning democracy. On January 26, 2014, Tunisia ratified the most liberal constitution in the entire Arab world.

There is no chance of establishing an ISIS-like “caliphate” on that soil unless an army invades and conquers it from the outside. The ideology can appear there, but it cannot grow there. Anyone interested in seriously pursuing it has little choice but to go somewhere else. So they’ve run off to Syria and Iraq where they will kill and where they will die. Think of it like brain drain, only the people being drained aren’t the smart ones.

Leave Putin His Scraps

Would territorial retreats whet Vladimir Putin’s imperialist appetite?

I’d be rich if I had a hryvnia for every time I’ve heard that question answered in the affirmative. Accordingly, if one concedes an inch to Putin, he’ll take a mile. And, naturally, that mile will only be the prelude to many more miles. In sum, you can’t concede an inch—or else.

Critics of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s “peace plan” for the Donbas enclave controlled by Russia and its terrorist proxies generally make this argument. Providing the enclave with a special status and effectively conceding Russian control of the territory isn’t just a “capitulation.” It’s an invitation to further Russian aggression.

Let’s unpack the arguments for inches becoming miles.

Only Tariffs Will Stop China's Cyber Attacks

On Monday, GreatFire.org, an Internet monitoring group, charged that China launched “a malicious attack on Apple in an effort to gain access to usernames and passwords and consequently all data stored on iCloud.”

The “man-in-the-middle” attack, which deceived users into logging onto a Chinese government-controlled website instead of Apple’s, was directly traceable to China’s central government. “We know that the attack point is the Chinese Internet backbone and that it is nationwide, which would lead us to be 100 percent sure that this is again the work of the Chinese authorities,” said Charlie Smith, GreatFire co-founder, to the South China Morning Post. Only the Chinese government and Chinese Internet service providers “have access to the backbone.”

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