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What Vladimir Putin is Up To

So Ukraine’s Crimea “voted” to join Russia at gunpoint.

I have no doubt a large percentage of Crimeans sincerely wish to join Russia despite the obvious-to-the-rest-of-us drawbacks. Crimea has a Russian majority—58 percent according to the 2001 census. And Crimea used to be part of Russia before Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev moved the border in 1954.

But just a few years ago, a majority of Crimeans in a national survey identified Ukraine, rather than Russia, as their motherland. The referendum ballot itself was highly dubious, and it’s spectacularly unlikely that a majority of Crimea’s Tatars and Ukrainians are interested in being subjects of Moscow, but let’s leave that aside for right now. Vladimir Putin is no more interested in what Crimea wants than what Kiev wants.

What he’s doing is simple.

U.S. Ambassador George F. Kennan described Russia’s mid-century foreign policy this way: “The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.”

Russia had been behaving that way long before Kennan figured it out, and it’s still behaving that way today.

Vladimir Putin isn’t a communist, but he is a product of the Soviet Union—he worked counter-intelligence in the KGB and spied on foreigners and diplomats in Saint Petersburg—and his view of Russia’s neighbors is no different now than it was then.

So when Ukraine could no longer tolerate being Putin’s vassal and overthrew his proxy Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine instantly moved into the “enemy” column and is being treated accordingly.

But it isn’t just that simple. Putin has a strategy. And it’s working.

What he most fears is that Ukraine might join NATO, removing yet another buffer state between himself and the West and kiboshing his plans for the Eurasian Union, a euphemism for a 21st century Russian empire. (Does anyone seriously believe Kazakhstan will be an equal partner with Moscow?)

Keeping his former Ukrainian vassal out of NATO will be easy now even if a militant anti-Russian firebrand comes to power in Kiev. The Crimean referendum—whether it was free and fair or rigged is no matter—creates a disputed territory conflict that will never be resolved in Ukraine’s favor. It will freeze and fester indefinitely. There isn’t a chance that NATO would accept a member that has a disputed territory conflict with Russia. No chance at all. Ukraine is as isolated as it could possibly be from the West without getting re-absorbed into Russia entirely.

Putin did the same thing to Georgia in 2008 when he lopped off the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and he did it for the same reason.

A similar dynamic fell into his lap in Moldova, the poor and battered country east of Romania. The far eastern Slavic region of (Latin) Moldova declared independence after the Soviet period and calls itself Transnistria.

The world does not recognize the existence of a state called Transnistria, which is perhaps just as well. It’s still basically Soviet. The hammer and sickle are right there on the flag. Its first president, Igor Smirnov, groomed himself into a dead-ringer for Vladimir Lenin.

Putin couldn’t care less about what happens in Transnistria, but he keeps Russian troops there because they ensure Moldova stays out of NATO.

That’s not one, not two, but three times Russia has pulled this stunt since the end of the Cold War. Putin is doing it to Ukraine because it worked in Moldova and Georgia.

There is no exit plan. Russia is not going to pull out of these countries, nor will anyone force Russia out. It’s not worth a world war—not even close.

That’s where we are. Where to next? Well, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova could cede the scraps to Russia and join NATO as rump states, if NATO will have them. There’s not much else they can do. Because protesting and sanctions and diplomatic hand-wringing will have no effect whatsoever.

Thousands of Russians Protest Putin’s Aggression in Ukraine

On Saturday, between 50,000 and 80,000 people marched through the streets and boulevards of downtown Moscow to protest Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine and his illegal annexation of Crimea. Carrying Russian and Ukrainian flags and posters reading “For your freedom and ours,” “For Ukraine and Russia without Putin,” “Ukraine, forgive us,” and “Russia is us, not Putin!” the participants of the country’s largest opposition demonstration since the peak of the protest movement in 2011–2012 marched from Pushkin Square to Andrei Sakharov Avenue.

In Kyiv, members of the Ukrainian Parliament began their session with a standing ovation to the tens of thousands of Muscovites who went to the streets to say “No” to Putin’s actions.

Michelle Obama’s ‘Non-Political’ Trip to China

With her mother and two daughters, Michelle Obama will travel to Beijing and two other Chinese cities beginning Wednesday. It will be just her third solo trip outside the US. Even before she leaves Washington, the first lady is being criticized for going easy on China’s Communist Party, but in surprising ways her visit could be just what America needs to deal with an unfriendly Chinese leadership.

During her week in China, Obama will focus almost exclusively on one of her primary interests. “I make it a priority to talk to young people about the power of education to help them achieve their aspirations,” she said this month. “That message of cultural exchange is the focus of all of my international travel.”  This emphasis will, to the greatest extent possible, allow her to avoid the troublesome issues now plaguing Sino-US ties. As the Washington Post noted, “Obama’s effort to avoid controversy will be particularly pronounced.”

Spain Remembers Terrorist Attack

Ten years ago last week, a busy commuter morning at Madrid’s Atocha rail station was shattered by a series of synchronized explosions on four crowded commuter trains claiming 191 lives and injuring 1,500 people. The prime minister at the time, José María Aznar, immediately declared that “everything points to ETA,” the Basque separatist terror group.

Within hours investigators had found strong indications that the attackers were not Basques, but Islamic militants possibly with al-Qaeda affiliations; the government, however, continued to insist on ETA’s involvement. While no group claimed responsibility, the Socialist opposition spread the word that the attack was in retaliation for Spain’s military involvement in the Iraq War.

Three days after the bombing, the country went to the polls in a (previously scheduled) national election, and Aznar’s Popular Party lost to the Socialists. The new prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, promptly announced the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq—despite strong efforts by the Bush administration to dissuade him.

Thanks for Reading, and for Buying

Right out of the gate sales of my new novel are strong enough that Amazon is listing it in the top-100 in Post-Apocalyptic Science-Fiction and the top-ten Hot New Releases. All kinds of people who have never heard of me before are seeing my book now. A percentage of them will find my other books as well as this blog.

Thanks to everyone who bought their copy right away. This wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Those of you who haven’t bought your copy yet—I’ll take it as a personal favor to me if you buy it right now and push me up the ranks even higher. Greater visibility in online bookstores creates a positive feedback loop that drives sales ever higher. That’s how best-sellers are made.

Thanks again and enjoy the book!

(It's different from my others, I know, but hey, we all contain multitudes.)

Moscow Braces for Protests Against Ukraine Aggression

You can keep tightening the screws up to a point—but eventually the wood will crack. Too many dictators have found this out the hard way: first pressure on society becomes unbearable, then the regime comes to a precipitous finale. Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych was just the latest in a series.

Putin’s Terrifying Warmongering

On March 8th, some 15,000 women and children lined the roads of Crimea, and Kherson Province to its north, in protest against Russian President Valdimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian women didn’t come out in force just because it happened to be International Women’s Day. They were also responding to Putin’s threat to implicate them and their children in further acts of war against Ukraine.

Putin had put the women—and the world—on alert at his March 4th press conference, where he declared that he was “not worried” by the prospect of war with Ukraine and that, were he to decide to attack, he intended to use women and children as a shield for Russian troops.

Here’s how the official Kremlin website translated Putin’s terrifying exchange with a Russian-speaking woman journalist:

QUESTION: […] Are you concerned that a war could break out?

In Memoriam

We mourn the loss of Joel Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and frequent contributor to World Affairs.

NATO's 90s Expansion Enlarged Zone of Stability

Fifteen years ago, on March 12, 1999, in Independence, Missouri, the first three post-communist countries, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, joined the Atlantic Alliance. Three years later they were joined by Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

At the time, the idea of NATO enlargement found not only many supporters but quite a few detractors. Some felt the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were not ready, politically and economically, to join and contribute to the allied operations. Some were concerned about the costs of enlargement at a time when most member countries started drawing the peace dividend. Most, however, feared antagonizing Russia at a time it was struggling on its way to democracy and market economy.

Kissinger Misunderstands Ukraine

When a renowned American statesman such as Henry Kissinger exhibits alarming ignorance about Ukraine, you’ve got to worry. In a March 5th op-ed in the Washington Post, Kissinger got just about everything wrong, even though, remarkably, his prescriptions for resolving the Russo-Ukrainian standoff still managed to be worthy of consideration.

Consider this passage:

The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then. Some of the most important battles for Russian freedom, starting with the Battle of Poltava in 1709, were fought on Ukrainian soil.

Maduro's Cancelled Visit to Inauguration in Chile

A last-minute cancelation of a highly politicized visit to Chile this week by President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s authoritarian populist leader, showed that Latin America is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the Venezuelan regime’s violent repression of protesters demanding political rights and economic reforms. The conflicts in Venezuela, where more than 20 have died in a month of protests, was circumstantially transferred to Chile by the inauguration this week of President Michelle Bachelet, a moderate socialist, which drew a large gathering of international dignitaries, including the presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil, plus US Vice President Joe Biden. Maduro had also announced he would join the celebration, seeing this as an opportunity to rally Latin American support for his embattled regime, but at the last minute he discovered that his Chilean hosts saw otherwise. Bachelet’s “New Majority” coalition of Socialists and Christian Democrats split over giving Maduro a platform to rally support for the Bolivarian regime.

New Book Release

Next month will mark my ten-year anniversary as a full-time journalist, but I’ve been writing fiction twice as long, for twenty years. During all that time I intended to one day write a book set in a post-apocalyptic landscape and I’ve finally done it.

This one is a zombie novel called Resurrection.

But as Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic said of The Walking Dead, “Zombie movies aren't about zombies; they're about how humans react to zombies.”

That’s right. 

The zombie apocalypse is just a way to blow up the world in a story. The real story of Resurrection is about how humans struggle to behave as civilized people after civilization has been annihilated. Would you be able to it? It might be harder than you think.

This subject isn’t as far afield from what I usually write about as it may appear at first glace. First of all, let’s not forget that Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University, wrote a highly regarded book called Theories of International Politics and Zombies. Princeton University Press published it.

Second, I’ve spent more time than I ever expected in parts of the world where civilization has been strained to the breaking point. Such strain does extraordinary things—sometimes extraordinarily bad things—to people who are otherwise perfectly capable of decent behavior. Just look at how violent Syria became after that switch got flipped. Four years ago it was one of the safest countries on earth you could visit, and now it’s the last place you should go.

No country is immune if it gets slammed hard enough, including the United States. How would Americans act after a civilization-ending event? That’s where this book is set and what it’s about.

It’s currently available for 18.99 in trade paperback and just 5.99 for the Kindle.

Early reviews (so far in the form of blurbs from other authors) are fantastic.

If you plan on buying this book, I’d like to humbly ask that you do it right away. When sales of new books are strong enough, Amazon.com lists them under “Hot New Releases,” driving sales up dramatically for the first month. This happened with my third book, Where the West Ends, thanks to you all and I’d love to repeat the experience. But Amazon will do nothing to boost this book or any other if it doesn’t first generate momentum on its own.

Here’s the description:

From prize-winning author Michael J. Totten

Welcome to a world turned to ashes.

Annie Starling is missing her memory of the last eight weeks--the most devastating in history. It started in Russia and went global in a matter of days, the most virulent virus the world has ever known. It's stripping its victims of every last thing that makes them human. And that's just the beginning. The other survivors are no less dangerous than the infected.

She meets Lane, who stops at nothing to assert power and control over everybody who's left; Kyle, who dreams of building a new world upon the ruins of the old; Hughes, who lost the ability to feel after burying his family; and Parker, who threatens to tear himself and his companions apart.

And when her memories finally return, Annie discovers a terrifying secret that could change everything--but she can't tell a soul what it is.

Praise for Resurrection

”For fans of World War Z and The Walking Dead, Michael J. Totten's Resurrection is the novel you've been waiting for.” -- Scott William Carter, author of Ghost Detective

”In the tradition of The Walking Dead, Michael J. Totten delivers a must-read with Resurrection. Action packed with a wicked twist, this is one book I couldn't put down.” --Annie Reed, author of The Patient Z Files

Resurrection dragged me in from the first page, with fast-paced, suspense-filled action and multi-layered and totally believable characters. Painting a vivid and gritty picture of a post-apocalyptic Northwest, Totten puts us into the minds and emotional struggles of a group of mismatched survivors forced to band together for protection even when they're on the verge or ripping each other apart. He also wrote one of the scariest passages I've read in any horror or suspense story...so be warned if you're afraid of the dark, or water, or both.” - JC Andrijeski, author of Rook

It’s currently available for 18.99 in trade paperback and just 5.99 for the Kindle.

Post-script: As of this moment, it's ranked in Amazon's top-100 for post-apocalyptic science-fiction. Keep buying copies and let's see if we can get it into the top-10.

Post-post-script: We did it! Thanks in part to everyone here, Amazon is listing the book at #11 in Hot New Releases.

A New Vision for Middle East Peace?

The prize could be great: a stable, prosperous Middle East with a sovereign and viable Palestinian state living in peace alongside a secure Israel at the heart of it.

—British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking in advance of his first trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority

After Jerusalem on Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron will travel to Bethlehem on Thursday to meet with Palestinian leaders including PA President Mahmoud Abbas. He will, of course, express Britain’s long-standing support for the establishment of a Palestinian state. But he is also expected to take the opportunity to unveil a plan to aid the development of Palestinian businesses. Britain’s close relations to the Gulf and Cameron’s own repeated trips there mean the prime minister is well placed to help the Palestinians realize the promise of future prosperity.

Replace Failed Diplomacy with Sanctions on North Korea

“Some dialogue is better than none, and better early than late,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at his press conference on Saturday in Beijing, talking about China’s hopes for denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

These remarks seem to be directed against the US for not wanting to resume the long-stalled six-party talks. Beijing has been trying to jumpstart the discussions, begun in August 2003, after North Korea abandoned them in April 2009. Russia, Japan, and South Korea are participants along with China, North Korea, and the US.

The Obama administration had tried hard to come to terms with Kim Jong Un, who took over as leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the death of his father in December 2011. In early 2012, Washington had even reached an interim arrangement, termed the Leap Day Deal because it was announced on February 29th. In return for 240,000 tons of food aid, the North promised to stop work on a uranium-enrichment facility in Yongbyon, suspend nuclear and missile tests, and permit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back into the country.

Interviewed on the Ricochet Podcast

James Lileks and Peter Robinson interviewed me earlier today on the Ricochet podcast about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. You can listen here. I come in during the last 20 minutes or so.

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