Quantcast

Vladimir Putin's Next Move

If Vladimir Putin invades Poland, I’ll eat my hat.

It’s not going to happen.

Even so, American ground troops are being deployed there as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. This is the West telling him STOP. He’s not going to invade a European Union or NATO state either way, but we’d end up sending a crazy-weak signal if all we did was collectively shrug.

Ukraine still isn’t in NATO, however, and probably never will be, so it’s still vulnerable. Putin can slice it and dice it all over again. The US won’t physically stop him for the same reason he won’t invade Poland. Nobody wants to blow up the world, especially not over this.

So Ukraine’s vulnerable. Pro-Russian militiamen are occupying dozens of government buildings, city halls, and police stations in the eastern part of the country where many ethnic Russians live. It’s hard to say for sure if Putin is egging these people on or if they’re acting on their own, envious of their cousins in Crimea who got to go “home” without moving. Either way, they’re serving Putin’s agenda.

By annexing Crimea, he proved to the world that he’s willing to mutilate Ukraine when it displeases him, which it very much did when it cast off his vassal, Viktor Yanukovych, in February.

He doesn’t need, and probably doesn’t want, to do it again. What he needs in Ukraine now is leverage, and the best way to get it is to hang another potential Russian invasion over Kiev like a Sword of Damocles.

Putin could take Eastern Ukraine, but it would do him no good. It’s the poorest part of the country and would turn into an instantaneous money pit for him, akin to the United States annexing Tijuana in Northern Mexico. He can’t possibly want that, not if he has any sense.

He’d lose all his leverage over Kiev. Even an unspoken threat of invasion, occupation, and annexation is enough to make Ukraine act with tremendous caution toward Moscow, but if Putin pulls the trigger, Kiev would have nothing left to lose.

And the odds that Ukraine, shorn of nearly all its ethnic Russians, would ever again elect a president who’s soft on Moscow would be virtually nil. Ukraine would slip from Putin’s sphere of influence so utterly that the only way he’d be able to get it back into his orbit would be by invading and conquering the whole country.

Never mind the price he’d pay internationally for that kind of stunt; invading and occupying the largest country in Europe would require more than a half-million troops and God-only-knows how much money. And for what purpose? Ukraine poses no national security threat whatsoever to Russia.

Still, a fight broke out with a pro-Russian militia in the far-eastern city of Sloyvansk yesterday, leaving at least three militiamen dead. The mayor is asking Putin to send peacekeepers, something the militiamen would almost certainly welcome. This sort of thing could easily get out of hand, especially if the pro-Russian militias decide to wreak as much havoc as possible to draw Putin in even if he’d rather stay home. Wars break out all the time that aren’t wanted or planned for.

It’s no big deal that Poland is asking for American ground troops. That’s just predictable, and prudent, geopolitical posturing. If Ukraine asks, though, that would be the time to start getting nervous.

To Embargo or Not

It's impossible to visit and write about Cuba without mentioning the US embargo, so I wrote a piece about it for the print edition of World Affairs. It's available online now. Here's the first part.

Aside from the Arab boycott against Israel, American sanctions against Cuba have lasted longer than any other embargo in the modern era.

The sanctions were imposed in stages in the early 1960s after Fidel Castro began economic warfare against the United States by nationalizing private US property on the island. Cuban communism survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, so in 1993 the purpose of the embargo was modified by the Cuban Democracy Act, stating that it will not be lifted unless and until the government in Havana respects the “internationally accepted standards of human rights” and “democratic values.”

For years now, the embargo has appeared to me as outdated as it has been ineffective. The Chinese government, while less repressive nowadays than Cuba’s, likewise defies internationally accepted standards of human rights, yet it’s one of America’s biggest trading partners. And the embargo against Cuba gives the Castro regime the excuse it desperately needs for its citizens’ economic misery. As ever, it is all the fault of the Yanquis. Cuba’s people are poor not thanks to communism but because of America.

After spending a few weeks in Cuba in October and November, however, I came home feeling less certain that the embargo was an anachronism. The ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his less ideological brother Raúl a few years ago, and the regime finally realizes what has been obvious to everyone else for what seems like forever: communism is an epic failure. Change is at last on the horizon for the island, and there’s a chance that maybe—just maybe—the embargo might help it finally arrive.

*

“I fully support the embargo and the travel ban,” Cuban exile Valentin Prieto says, “and am on record calling for it to be tightened and given some real teeth instead of allowing it to remain the paper tiger it is. The United States of America is the bastion of democracy and liberty in the world. Not only should we not have normal relations with repressive regimes, it is our moral obligation to ensure, by whatever means possible save for military action, that we in no way promote, fund, assist, ignore, or legitimize said repressive regimes.”

Professor Alfred Cuzán at the University of West Florida offers a counterpoint. “One argument in support of keeping the embargo,” he says, “is that it gives the United States leverage to force the Castros to make liberalizing changes. I think that argument has some merit. And Cuba did confiscate and expropriate American property. But I don’t think the embargo is effective. The regime can still get whatever it wants from Canada, from Europe, and so on. The US embargo is something of a myth.”

He has a point. The United States is Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner after Venezuela, China, Spain, and Brazil. Cuba gets more of its products from the United States even now than from Canada or Mexico. Sanctions are still in place—Cuba cannot buy everything, and it must pay in cash—but the embargo is hardly absolute.

The United States, however, purchases nothing from Cuba. Americans are for the most part prohibited by US law from traveling there. You can’t just buy a plane ticket to Havana and hang out on the beach. You have to go illegally through Mexico or book an expensive people-to-people tour through the mere handful of travel agents licensed to arrange such trips by the US Treasury Department. Journalists like me are exempt from these regulations, but I am still not allowed to buy Cuban rum or cigars and bring them back with me.

The embargo does harm the Cuban economy—after all, that’s the point—but the bankrupt communist system inflicts far more damage, and in any case the decision to break off economic relations was made not by the United States but by Fidel Castro.

“Cuba is ninety miles across the Florida Straits,” said Professor Cuzán, “and was increasingly integrated in the American market for a hundred years. Then Castro severed economic and commercial ties completely and shifted the entire economy toward the Soviet Union. That was insane. Then he tried to forge cultural ties with the Soviet Union and force Cubans to learn Russian. It was a crazy project and it ruined the country.”

Cuba isn’t yoked to Moscow any longer, now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, but its economic system is still mostly communist. The government owns all major industries, including what in normal countries are small businesses like restaurants and bars, so the majority of Cubans work for the state. Salaries are capped at twenty dollars a month and supplemented with a ration card.

I asked a Cuban woman what she gets on that card. “Rice, beans, bread, eggs, cooking oil, and two pounds of chicken every couple of months. We used to get soap and detergent, but not anymore.”

Doctor and hospital visits are free, but Cuba never has enough medicine. I had to bring a whole bag full of supplies with me because even the simplest items like Band-Aids and antibiotics aren’t always available. Patients have to bring their own drugs, their own sheets, and even their own iodine—if they can find it—to the hospital with them.

Cuba is constantly short on food too. I was told in October that potatoes won’t be available again until January. That can’t be a result of the embargo. Cuba is a tropical island with excellent soil and a year-round growing season perfectly capable of producing its own potatoes. But the potato shortage is no surprise. I saw shockingly little agriculture in the countryside. Most fields are fallow. Those that still produce food are minuscule. Cows look like leather-wrapped skeletons. We have more and better agriculture in the Eastern Oregon desert, where the soil is poor, where only six inches of rain falls every year, and where the winters are long and shatteringly cold.

I heard no end of horror stories about soap shortages, both before and after I got there. A journalist friend of mine who visits Cuba semi-regularly brings little bars of hotel soap with him and hands them out to his interview subjects.

“They break down in tears when I give them soap,” he told me. “How often does that happen?” I said. “A hundred percent of the time,” he said.

Read the rest!

Vietnam is Funded

I’ve raised the money I need to get to Vietnam later this spring. Thanks so much to everybody who pitched in on Kickstarter.

I owe everyone a personal thank-you, but I should wait until the 30-day period ends to make sure I don’t miss anyone.

Your regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly.

We’re at 70 Percent. Let’s Get to 100.

I’ve raised around 70 percent of the money I need to get to Vietnam later this spring, but I won’t get any of it unless the project is 100 percent funded.

I’d like to get this wrapped up as soon as possible so I can plan my trip properly and get the prep work taken care of. I’ve already started that process, but I don’t want to move ahead at full speed until I know for sure I can go.

So if you haven’t pitched in yet, let’s get this done.

The toughest part about completing a successful Kickstarter campaign is getting the word out. I can reach lots of people with my blog, Twitter, and Facebook, but it will help if I can reach even more. There are thousands of people out there who would pledge a little money if they knew this project existed.

A new Web site called Kickdriver will allow me to reward those of you who have blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts of your own if you tell your friends and followers what I’m up to. You can collect rewards from my past Kickstarter projects and even get complimentary electronic copies of my books that are for sale commercially.

It's easy. If you’re interested, sign up at Kickdriver and let’s get this done for our mutual benefit.

Most important, though, please pitch in if you haven’t already.

Thanks, everybody!

I Need a Kickstarter Boost

My Kickstarter project is 54 percent funded and I will only get money if it’s 100 percent funded.

Help me out, folks. You need me out of the office just as much as I need to get out of the office, but I can’t do it without resources. The journalism industry used to cover travel expenses, but that’s a thing of the past.

Vladimir Putin and the Zombie Apocalypse

I’m on the Ricochet podcast again this week. James Lileks, Peter Robinson, and Rob Long interviewed me about Vladimir Putin’s general malfeasance and my new book, Resurrection: A Zombie Novel, which is still selling well and getting great reviews.

I come in at 18:15.

Botching North Africa

The United States government is putting another alliance at risk—this time with Morocco, which is a little like screwing up Canada. The White House is partly to blame, but the main culprit here is the State Department, the one institution that should be the least likely to drop the ball diplomatically since managing diplomatic relations is its job. 

Morocco’s main foreign policy problem is its Cold War with next-door Algeria which backs the Polisario—a communist guerilla army hatched by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Moammar Qaddafi. The Polisario claims the Western Sahara region in the south of Morocco, vacated by Spanish imperialists the same week its long-time dictator General Franco finally died in 1975. Most Americans have never heard of the Western Sahara, but wrapping up this holdover conflict from the Cold War is at the top of Morocco’s agenda, and there’s no excuse for the State Department—and especially its diplomats in Morocco—to blow it off like everyone stateside.

Yet State is blowing it off. And State is straining the US relationship with Morocco not only with its flippant attitude that the Sahara doesn’t matter but also with its nonsense-on-stilts belief that North Africa is some kind of Arab-Muslim Las Vegas, that was happens there stays there. On the contrary, the region is a conduit for guns, drugs, and human trafficking into Europe. It’s also an incubator for terrorists with a global outlook and global ambitions.

Libya is on the verge of disintegrating into a failed militia state like Somalia. In 2012 Al Qaeda-linked terrorist seized power in Northern Mali and posed a big enough threat that France saw little choice but to invade. Egypt is a darker and more sinister place today than it was when Hosni Mubarak ran it. Algeria’s Syrian-style civil war never did fully wind down and could mushroom again at any moment. All this is happening in a region so close to Europe that from one point—in and around Tangier in Morocco—you can see Europe.

Tunisia is doing sort of okay, but it’s tiny. Morocco is effectively the only stable place in North Africa. It’s also our only true ally.

Morocco has been allied with the United States for more than 200 years—longer than Canada. Morocco has never done anything bad to America. The United States has never done anything bad to Morocco. It was the first country to recognize our independence from Britain. It sat out the North African Barbary wars, the US Marine Corps' first major foreign engagement. It was a close ally of the United States throughout the Cold War, and it works more closely with Washington against the scourge of Islamist terrorism than any other nation in the Arab world with the possible exception of Jordan. The Bush administration upgraded Morocco to a Major Non-NATO Ally alongside Israel and Japan, and the Obama administration upgraded the alliance yet again with the Strategic Dialogue.

Western Sahara is not America’s most important problem in that region, but it is the most important problem for Morocco, partly because Rabat sees it as a threat to the nation’s territorial integrity, but also because—like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—it prevents other states in the region from working together on the kinds of problems that concern the United States and Europe directly.

Most Americans don’t know a disputed territory called Western Sahara even exists. Fewer still understand it. Partly that’s because the Western Sahara conflict isn’t exploding like Syria, and partly it’s because the Sahrawis aren’t suffering in ways that make headlines. Those who actually live in Western Sahara are doing just fine. The Moroccans have invested huge amounts of money to make it livable. They’ve done a good enough job that the coastal city of Dakhla is a hot spot for tourists from Europe. But the tens of thousands of Sahrawis who live in the Polisario’s refugee camps in Algeria—which are really more like concentration camps—have been held hostage for almost as long as I’ve been alive.

It would be a relatively easy problem to wrap up if the United States prioritized it. There is no chance the Moroccans will ever cede territory to a gang of thugs sponsored by Castro, nor is there any chance the Polisario will force out Morocco. Rabat will no sooner “withdraw” from the Sahara than Washington will “withdraw” from Alaska and hand it over to Russia. So there’s no point, really, in pretending that the outcome is open to question. It isn’t.

But Morocco is not asking the United States to resolve it right now. Nor is Morocco asking for money. It’s only asking the United States for technical assistance and training for local government and civil society groups so the Western Sahara can govern itself and to help out with private foreign investment so the Sahrawis can wean themselves off the welfare state that exists now. The United States is good at these things. And it’s the kind of help that doesn’t make American taxpayers groan after pouring so much money into the sinkholes of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet the State Department refuses to do it even though it has been the policy of the White House during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Congress recently asked State to do it, and it still refused to do anything. So last year Congress passed a law, embedded in the appropriations bill, requiring the State Department do to it, and State is still dragging its feet, despite a joint statement from President Obama and King Mohamed VI last November where they embraced a “shared commitment to improve the lives of the people of Western Sahara.”

This is partly the fault of the White House. President Obama sent an ambassador there—Minneapolis lawyer and businessman Samuel Kaplan—who had no diplomatic experience and knew nothing of Morocco or Africa. American presidents have been rewarding their friends and backers with ambassador posts for decades. This is no way for a superpower to behave, especially in unstable, dangerous, and bottomlessly complex parts of the world where the US has precious few friends. It screams unseriousness. But at least the White House and the Congress are aware that this is getting ridiculous. The question at this point is, what are they going to do about it?

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.

---

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

Russia's Occupation Reeks of the Soviet Days

How would you like to be ruled by a gangster named “Goblin” who was “elected” by a parliament under the eyes of masked militiamen? That’s what Crimeans are getting.

SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE—Strip away the propaganda from the chaos in Crimea, and this much is certain: last Thursday morning a political farce played out here in the regional capital.

It started with anonymous gunmen storming parliament house in a bloodless pre-dawn raid. By sunrise, the Russian flag was flying high above an occupied government house.

Lawmakers were summoned, stripped of their cellphones as they entered the chamber. The Crimean media was banished. Then, behind closed doors, Crimea’s government was dismissed and a new one formed, with Sergey Akysonov, head of the Russian Unity party, installed as Crimea’s new premier.

It if was a crime, it was just the beginning. Akysonov’s ascent to power at the point of a gun presaged all that has happened since — the announcement of a referendum on Crimean independence and the slow, methodical fanning out of Russian forces throughout the peninsula, ostensibly to protect Russians here from a threat no one can seem to find.

But here’s the most interesting bit: Aksyonov’s sudden rise as Moscow’s crucial point man in Crimea has revived simmering allegations of an underworld past going back to the lawless 1990s, when Akysonov is said to have gone by the street name “Goblin,” a lieutenant in the Crimean crime syndicate Salem.

Years ago I assumed if Russian troops were to one day show up in Crimea that they’d be welcome by many locals as liberators. But I wasn’t counting on masked militias or “Goblin.”

Maybe a lot of these people are sufficiently spooked by what’s going on in Kiev and by hysterical claims that Russians are about to be persecuted by mobs of Ukrainian fascists. But they’re going to wake up to “Goblin” sooner or later and there’s reason to believe they aren’t going to like it—and not just because I wouldn’t like it. (Imagine—just try—if something like this happened in the United States.) Goblin’s party won a paltry four percent of the vote when it stood for election.

If Crimea wants to join Russia, this is the political science they should expect. At least they’ll know what they’re in for. 

Pity the Vassals of Moscow

“Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” — George F. Kennan, America’s ambassador to the Soviet Union

Russia is justifying its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula by saying the ethnic Russians who live there are threatened by a nascent fascist regime in Kiev. The habits of Soviet propagandists die hard. What’s really going on here is simple. Vladimir Putin, like most Russian leaders before him, feels he must shove his weight around the “near abroad” to maximize his power and influence in the thin buffer between him and the West. Now that he’s without his vassal—mini-Putin, Viktor Yanukovych, is on the run—Moscow has to do the grunt work itself.

Russia has long been a paranoid land power. It’s huge, mostly flat, and wide open to invasion. Just to name a few examples, it was invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century, Napoleon in the 19th, Nazi Germany in the 20th, and has been recently squeezed by NATO expansion in the former Soviet bloc. These events seared themselves into the Russian psyche. They breathe better with buffer states.

Whether we and the Ukrainians like it or not, Ukraine is still a buffer state within Moscow’s sphere of influence. The US has little more leverage there than Russia has in Canada. And since ethnic Russians outnumber ethnic Ukrainians in the Crimea by more than two-to-one, a Russian invasion of that part of the country is a bit like a French invasion of Quebec—troublesome indeed, and infuriating to the capital, but different from, say, a North Korean invasion of Quebec. That’s why Russia could take it without firing a shot and why nobody shot at the Russians.

Plenty of Crimeans are unhappy about it, of course. A fourth are ethnic Ukrainians, an eighth are Tatars, and one would have to be a truly obnoxious determinist to suggest every Russian on the peninsula is thrilled being occupied by a foreign army just because they speak the same language.

Ukrainians elsewhere in the country (especially outside the ethnically Russian east) are mobilizing for war.

The fact that Crimea has a large Russian population and is pro-Russian politically is no excuse for Putin to lop it off Ukraine. If the reason why is not obvious, ask yourself how you’d feel if the Mexican government seized San Antonio, Texas, and said, hey, it has a Hispanic majority, so it’s ours now. Or if the United States conquered and annexed Toronto and said, hey, we’re all English-speaking North Americans here with a common ancestry, so what’s the big deal?

That's basically what Russia is doing.

And that was Adolf Hitler’s justification for taking the German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in the run-up to World War II. Putin is not Hitler, but he’s pulling the same kind of stunt and expecting to get away with it for exactly the same reason. Nobody wants to blow up the world over this sort of thing.

It’s possible that Russia might take even Kiev if Putin thinks the response to seizing Crimea is sufficiently supine. I doubt it, personally, but I don’t know that he won’t. No one can know that.

He wouldn’t get much out of it, aside from a violent migraine, that he isn’t already getting by invading Crimea. Ukraine can’t fend off a full-blown Russian invasion, but it can make an invasion bloody and expensive. And what would Russians back home think? Ukrainians aren’t their enemies. There is little hatred between these two closely-related peoples.

Bullies drunk on power do reckless and unpredictable things sometimes, though, so the possibility of an all-out invasion—even if the odds are against it—can’t be ruled out.

So now what? The US and NATO are not going to declare war on Russia over Crimea or even Kiev, but that doesn’t mean Putin can just barge in wherever he wants. It goes without saying that the invasion of a European Union or NATO country is over the line and would be resisted with force. Putin surely knows that already. Everybody in Russia knows that.

What Putin does not necessarily know is whether or not the red line is closer to Moscow.

Kiev is almost certainly on Putin’s side of the red line, but no one has actually said that, so it’s ambiguous, as it should be. Ambiguity lends itself to restraint. Russian leaders tend more toward paranoia than American leaders at the best of times. And the expansion of NATO frightened the Russians as much as the expansion of the Warsaw Pact would have alarmed Americans had the Soviets won the Cold War.

So the last thing the West should do is tell Putin where the red line is located exactly. Want to prevent an explosion in far-eastern Europe? Let him think he’s in danger of crossing it now. Otherwise he may sense a green light from the West to swallow whatever he wants on his side of the EU. Let him see a yellow light, at least, if a red light is asking for too much.

There are various ways to signal a yellow if not a red. Retired Admiral James Stavridis shared a few ideas in Foreign Policy magazine. Michael Barone has more. Parking destroyers in the Black Sea off Yalta might be a good place to start. The US sent ships to that region when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. The Russians didn’t withdraw from occupied Abkhazia or South Ossetia, but at least they stopped where they were, withdrew from Gori, and left the capital Tbilisi alone.

It ought to go without saying that it’s not okay for nations to forcibly move other peoples’ borders around because they feel like it, but taking the long view, there may be an upside to all this. Ukraine shorn of its Russian-majority regions would become more pro-European as a matter of simple math. Most of Ukraine’s die-hard pro-Russians won’t participate in Ukrainian elections if they’re no longer part of the Ukrainian polity. And the fools who voted for the pro-Russian Yanukovych solely because the previous government was perceived as corrupt likely won't make that mistake again any time soon, not after getting invaded and dismembered by Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine could end up permanently divvied up in the future, with the Russian regions annexed by Moscow, either formally or de-facto, while the rest of the country, which naturally tilts more to the West, admitted to the European Union and NATO.

That’s a best-case scenario rather than a likely scenario. Ukraine in its current borders, though, surely won’t be admitted to the European Union or NATO, at least not before the Russian Federation liberalizes dramatically, because too many people in its political class are volunteer tools of Moscow.

Russian civilization was born more than a thousand years ago in Kiev in the medieval state of Kievan Rus. If that city ever gives the finger to Moscow once and for all and joins the EU and NATO, that would be something to see. It’s why Russia cares more about Ukraine than the West does and will probably get what it wants.

No one in charge of the fate of that country is asking what the Ukrainians want. They should, but they aren’t and they won’t. Such is the fate of the vassals of Moscow.

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Was Easy to Predict

So Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. I’m surprised that anyone is surprised. I’m hardly an expert on Ukrainian history or politics, but I’ve been there, and I’ve been to the Crimea, and this was just obvious. It was obvious to me even before Viktor Yanukovych became president.

I drove down there from Kiev in late 2009 with my friend Sean LaFreniere and wrote about it in my book, Where the West Ends.

The photograph on the book's cover, by the way, was taken in the Crimea.

Here’s a brief excerpt of what I wrote then.

Night fell before we reached the Crimea. Sean and I were both too tired to drive, so we pulled into a gas station to buy cans of Red Bull. CDs were on sale next to the soda and chips. Sean grabbed a couple at random, plus Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The dramatic intro, O Fortuna, seemed like the appropriate thing to listen to when arriving in the one part of Ukraine everyone knew might one day, through either war or secession, be reunited with Russia.

Crimea is in Ukraine, but it isn’t Ukrainian. This part of the country really is Russian. By this point I had learned the alphabet well enough that I could read, so I knew the gigantic words “Автономной Республики Крым” announced to all visitors at the border that Crimea is an autonomous republic.

Crimea has its own flag. It hosts the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet. It defiantly refuses to place itself within the Ukrainian time zone. Though it’s dead south of Kiev, it uses the more easterly Moscow time zone instead. It doesn’t have its own national anthem, but I heard the Russian national anthem playing loudly on the boardwalk of Yalta.

This is a town that is long past its prime. It’s undoubtedly a nicer place now than it was during the communist era, but, unlike Odessa, it’s provincial and tacky. Only a Russian could travel thousands of miles to vacation there without feeling a little let down and that’s only because Yalta is Russian and warm. Ukrainians go there because it’s nearby and warm.

Only a fourth of its citizens are ethnic Ukrainians. Less than a sixth are Crimean Tatars. Most of the rest are Russians. The government in Kiev has been trying for years to teach everyone in the country the Ukrainian language, but in Crimea it’s meeting the stiffest resistance.

One thing the peninsula has going for it, however, aside from an agreeable climate, is its spectacular scenery. While most of Ukraine is flatter than Iowa, the steep craggy Crimean Mountains shoot straight up out of the Black Sea, which shimmers in sun-drenched glory year-round. Even though Yalta is significantly north of the Mediterranean, the climate, at least for a narrow little band near the beach, is startlingly subtropical. It’s one of the only places in the world where a native Russian-speaking population can grow palm trees. It’s not only the language, but the political autonomy, and the general Russian-ness that set Crimea apart from Ukraine. It’s also those mountains and the trees and the moderate sea breeze.

Sean and I hadn’t booked a hotel, so we checked out a few places at random. The first was prohibitively expensive. The second, a chopped up former apartment building that must have been beautiful in its heyday, reeked of piss.

A third place was cheap, adequately clean, and had a large room with two beds, so we took it.

A Russian communist-era movie played on the TV. I couldn’t understand the dialogue, but it was at least passively propagandistic. The main characters, scientists in white lab coats, worked in a sparkling clean high-tech facility, the kind of place science fiction writers of the 1950s imagined were in our future. The movie portrayed an entirely staged idealized version of an advanced communist utopia without gulags, without long lines for potatoes, and without the NKVD. Ukrainians don’t need communist-produced re-runs. They, like the rest of us, need a serious film about Stalinism for a mass audience, a Schindler’s List of the Soviet Union.

In the morning we strolled the boardwalk. The weather was unseasonably cold, almost freezing even though it was only early November, but the sunshine and the palm trees gave the illusion of warmth. Yalta isn’t exactly Miami, but Crimeans really do enjoy a charmed climate, especially compared with the climate Russians suffer in everywhere else.

At the north end of the boardwalk stood an angry-looking statue of Vladimir Lenin. I had the feeling he was still up there not because he was a communist, but because he was Russian. Communism is as dead in Yalta these days as it is in Warsaw. Just a few hundred feet away, and comically in the direct line of sight of Lenin’s sculpted furious face, was a McDonald’s.

For dinner we found a place with translated menus. Yalta just barely gets enough Western tourists once in a while that it occurred to a few restaurant managers to have a handful of menus laying around in the back in other languages.

Two young college-age women a few tables away heard us speak English. They laughed. They giggled. They tittered. This went on for at least a half-hour. And they couldn’t stop staring. Sean and I were like zoo animals. An Arab, a black African, or an East Asian would have a hellish time visiting this place.

Yalta was nice in a basic sort of way, but it lacked the polish and vibrancy of Kiev and the relative cosmopolitanism of Odessa. No one should ever fly from the other side of the world just to go there. It reminded me of what Samuel Johnson once said about a bizarre volcanic basalt formation in Northern Ireland called the Giant’s Causeway. “Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see.”

*

Crimea is a de-facto independent Russian-speaking republic, but if it weren’t for Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev it would still be part of Russia. In 1954 he moved an internal Russian border around and placed Crimea in Ukraine. It didn’t seem like a fateful decision at the time, one no more significant than giving Idaho a slice of Montana. He had no idea any part of Ukraine, let alone all of it, would ever break loose from Moscow. He should have known it was possible since it had happened before, but he did not see it coming, or at any rate didn’t care, so this Russian-majority region is marooned outside of Russia.

Perhaps the only reason Russian leader Vladimir Putin hasn’t moved to “correct” Khrushchev’s mistake is because there isn’t much point. Ukraine’s current government headed up by Viktor Yanukovych was friendlier than the previous government of Viktor Yushchenko, which Putin did everything in his power (short of invasion) to smash.

Ukraine’s 2004 election was rigged. Yanukovych was declared the winner when the majority wanted the pro-Western Yushchenko instead, whom somebody almost fatally poisoned with dioxin. His face was hideously disfigured by the toxin for a while, but he slowly recovered. The results of that rigged election were reversed by the Orange Revolution, when general strikes broke out and thousands took to the streets and said no.

In 2009, Russia turned off its supply of natural gas and let Ukrainians freeze in the winter, purportedly because of a financial dispute over prices and debt. The punishment was preferable, of course, to Stalin confiscating Ukrainian food in 1921 and 1922, but the message was a familiar one: if you don’t follow dictates from Moscow, you will be punished.

The crisis likely wouldn’t have been triggered at all if Ukrainians had elected a pro-Russian government. Moscow was already cheesed off by Yushchenko’s noises about Ukrainian ascension to the European Union and NATO. The Russian media portrayed Ukraine as a traitor state over it. There wasn’t much Moscow could do to stop the likes of Lithuania and Poland from joining NATO, but it won’t likely ever let its Kievan Rus cousins leave without resistance.

These kinds of problems don’t exist between Russia and Crimea. It might mean war if they did, or if a stridently pro-Western government in Kiev expanded its writ a little too enthusiastically, but that hasn’t happened.

Moscow doesn’t actually care very much about Yalta. The city made history when Stalin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill met there at the end of World War II to agree about which parts of post-fascist Europe would be in the Western camp and which would be in the communist bloc, but it has been a backwater ever since even if it’s a slightly pleasant one nowadays.

What Moscow cares about in Crimea very much is Sevastopol. That’s where Russia’s Black Sea fleet makes its home. Neither Sean nor I dared take any photographs of it, not even discreetly from the car as we drove past. It’s not a good idea to take pictures of military installations anywhere in the world, especially not Russian military installations.

In Sevastopol, once again, I found myself forgetting I wasn’t in Russia. The overwhelming majority of people who live there are Russians. The language they speak is Russian. Actual Russian soldiers and sailors were all over the place.

When the Soviet Union cracked up and Ukraine declared independence, Russia initially refused to cede Sevastopol and Crimea at all and only later relented when it signed the Peace and Friendship treaty with Kiev. Moscow need not worry overly much. Its fleet’s lease won’t run out until 2042. And if Ukraine tries to revoke it, Russia will almost certainly seize it by force, most likely to cheers and applause by locals who would feel liberated. Ukraine barely holds onto the Crimea oblast as it is, and on even numbered days I can’t help but wonder how long even that is going to last.

Read the whole thing.


Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Michael J. Totten's blog