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Is Putin Next?

Here are a few trick questions. Who was elected democratically—Viktor Yanukovych or Vladimir Putin? Who violated his country’s Constitution? Who enjoyed popular legitimacy? Whose rule was unstable?

The answer to the first question—Who was elected democratically?—is obvious. That was Yanukovych, back on February 7, 2010, in elections that were roundly considered to be fair and free. Putin, in contrast, was elected democratically in 2000, semi-democratically in 2004, and non-democratically in 2012.

Here are excerpts from three Final Reports of the Election Observation Missions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR):

Russian election of March 26, 2000:

Let's Go to Vietnam

I’m finished writing about Cuba, but you are not yet finished reading about Cuba. Two of my essays haven’t been published online yet except in the e-book which has been privately distributed to those who backed my fundraising project on Kickstarter. (Those essays will appear here eventually, but I sold them to magazine editors and can’t publish them anywhere else in advance. One of them has, however, appeared in the print version of World Affairs, so you can always pick up a hardcopy if you didn’t back my Kickstarter project and want to read it right now.)

In the meantime, it’s time to raise travel expenses again, so I’ve just launched a new Kickstarter project. (Why Vietnam? Keep reading.)

I’m not asking for donations. I’m asking for funding and will give something back in return, just as I did for those who supported my last project.  

Check out the new project page for all the details. With Kickstarter, you can see how much money I need and how much I’ve raised. I won’t get any money at all unless the entire project is funded, so please make sure I don’t come up short. You and I both need me out of my office, but alas traveling costs money. There’s a promo video on the Kickstarter page you can watch, but here’s the text.

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The Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago. Just two short years later, the Soviet Empire collapsed. Yet communist parties still rule five nations—North Korea, Cuba, China, Laos, and Vietnam.

I intend to visit them all. I’ll have enough material for another book at the end. Cuba was first. Next is Vietnam.

The United States lost the war there, but won the argument. Vietnam is still ruled by the Communist Party, but it junked Marxist economics and leapt with both feet into the global economy. The country is eradicating extreme poverty faster than almost any other in history. And its people are enthusiastically friendly to Americans—surprising considering our history in the 60s and 70s.

The Vietnam War is a wound in the American psyche. Even though I’m too young to remember it, I feel it a little bit too. But the Vietnamese seem to have moved past it.

Why?

Is it because they realize we were right about Ho Chi Minh, Mao, and the Soviet Union from the beginning? Or is it not that at all? Perhaps there something in the Vietnamese national psyche—tragically lacking in some parts of the world—that lends itself to reconciliation with former enemies. Maybe it’s simply because most Vietnamese are too young to remember the war, or because they were more wounded by the war with each other. The Vietnamese themselves might not even know. But I’m going to try to find out.

Vietnam’s citizens no longer live in a vast prison state like the Cubans, but is that enough? Is the country taking the same path Taiwan and South Korea did earlier, or will it stagnate like Belarus, Europe’s last total dictatorship? Will Vietnam one day join the United States as a major non-NATO ally like Japan, or will it plod along as a smaller and non-imperial version of China? Is Vietnam’s government blazing a path out of totalitarianism and toward democracy, or will the country explode all over again?

I don’t know, but either way, Vietnam should provide a dramatic contrast to Castro’s hard-line police state. My first-person narrative dispatches from Middle Eastern countries at war and in the throes of revolution garnered me three blogging awards and a book prize from the Washington Institute. But I still work as a freelancer. I don’t have a salary, let alone a travel expense account.

That’s where you come in. Fund my next trip—to Vietnam this spring—so I can produce a brand-new batch of first-person narrative dispatches. You can follow along as I publish them on my blog. And at the end of the project, I’ll publish all my material as a dispatch pack—including full-color photographs—that you can read on your iPad, your Kindle, or any other tablet or reading device. And if you don’t have a tablet or reading device, you can read them on your computer. Generous backers will receive public thank-yous from me, on my blog, and in the dispatch pack when it’s published.

I’m not asking you for donations. I’m asking you to participate and will give you something back in return. Let’s go to Vietnam.

'Experts' on Ukraine

An astoundingly large amount of nonsense has been written about Ukraine ever since it came to occupy center stage in the public mind. That’s not surprising: most people in most countries barely knew the place existed or assumed it was “really” Russia. The number of Ukraine specialists outside of Ukraine is probably no greater than a few hundred in the entire world. Their expertise was of little interest to people who had no interest in or use for the country.

Spring Is Here: 2014

It was a strange winter. The Americans kept it all, leaving us Europeans with the floods and the flu. A nice man from Scotland bought winter tires I no longer had any need for. It took four days for the tires to get from London to Perth but at least we could both observe their progress from one depot to another on a tracking app. Then it did not snow all winter and I felt like a cheat.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, despite the lack of snow, were a great success. Many people had feared about security and did not go, but it all went off without a hitch, thanks undoubtedly to the vast numbers of security personnel on the spot. Now that the games are over, they have apparently moved to Crimea.

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.

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