Pro-Russia demonstrations in Crimea

Radio Free Europe posted this video of pro-Russia demonstrations in Kerch, in eastern Crimea.

Crimea is likely to be a flashpoint for political tension in the coming weeks, as the Ukrainian government begins to try to reintegrate the country and decide on a future direction. First, Crimea has close historical ties to Russia and used to be part of the Russian Federation in the decade following World War II. Second, Crimea’s population is majority Russian rather than Ukrainian, and has the strongest concentration of Russians of any province in Ukraine. Finally and perhaps most critical for politics outside of Ukraine, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based at the excellent harbor at Sevastopol, through several long-term leasing agreements that Russia signed with Ukraine since the 1990s. Sevastopol Harbor and the Black Sea Fleet are strategic assets for Russia, and questions about the future of the fleet will have the full attention of Russia’s government and military.

Ukraine update, February 22

The Atlantic published a pretty good explainer, on the situation in Ukraine as of Feb 22. Protesters control Kyiv, and the Ukrainian parliament voted to free former opposition leader Yulia Tymochenko, who gave a public speech last night. Protesters also stormed former President Yanukovich’s private compound outside of Kyiv, and photos of the opulence of his compound are likely to confirm the serious accusations of corruption against the former leader. Reports say that government security forces have abandoned the capitol, and the violence is at an end, for now.

Meanwhile, Yanukovich seems to have fled to Kharkiv, in friendlier territory in the east of the country. He has not left Ukraine however, and he gave a defiant speech overnight accusing the opposition and Western governments of staging a coup. While protesters in Kyiv and western Ukraine (especially in Lviv) are celebrating, Radio Free Europe is reporting pro-Russian demonstrations in some cities in Eastern Ukraine.

The Atlantic story has some good demographic and voting maps showing the East-West divide in Ukraine. None of the serious players are talking about secession or formal Balkanization – yet. The fate of Crimea, with the Russian Black Fleet base at Sevastopol, will be particularly fraught. It is far too early to make predictions about the future of Ukraine right now.

Independence Square in flames

I am saddened to see Kiev’s Independence Square in flames. I was there researching this book in 2005, the year after the Orange Revolution. The revolution succeeded, Yushchenko was new in office, and there was such a sense of newness, and vitality, and optimism then. There is potential for great danger in Ukraine, as continued violence or the risk of breakup of Ukraine will certainly bring Russia, the United States and the European Union even more deeply into the political situation.

The Ukrainians have walked a hard road since independence. They deserve a government as noble as their people.

Image from Washington Post, February 18, 2014

Robert Gates in Seattle

Robert Gates, former Defense Secretary and CIA Director just spoke in Seattle on February 13, 2014. He spoke at length about his dedication to the men and women he led during his tenure as Defense Secretary. He also described what he called the militarization of US foreign policy over the past few administrations. He said, “American Presidents, when faced with a tough problem abroad, are too quick to reach for a gun.”

Because the US military is so much more capable than most of our adversaries, Gates said that it has become too seductive to reach for a simple military solution, rather than do the hard and uncertain work of diplomacy or accept compromises. In response to a question about whether the US was overextended by its security commitments, he said it would be a mistake to withdraw from the world and particularly the Middle East, but that military force should always be an American president’s last resort. He invoked Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. After ending the Korean war, and despite the arms race, the Suez Crisis, and revolutions in Hungary, Cuba and elsewhere, not a single US soldier was killed in action while Eisenhower was in the White House. According to Gates, most wars are started by civilians, and the biggest doves inhabit the Pentagon.

Not related, but funny, Gates also remarked that a television camera seems to have the same effect on a member of Congress that the full moon has on a werewolf…

Bob Gates on Meet the Press

Robert Gates on Meet the Press, Jan 19, 2014

Robert Gates on Meet the Press, Jan 19, 2014

Did anyone catch Robert Gates wearing a neck brace on Meet the Press today? I knew he made a lot of people hopping mad with the disclosures in his book. But yikes, that must have been some negative reaction from the critics!

The Bid for Kurdistan, 2013

A scene in Winter Republic has the protagonist Thomas Kozak getting information from a source about a Western major contractor called Global Special Engineering Services (a name I made up, but whose profile could describe lots of companies with names we know). GSES seems to be involved in mysterious military construction projects Thomas has discovered underway across Crimea. In that scene, Thomas’s source mentions to other GSES projects in ‘Kurdistan,’ rather than calling the region Kurdish Iraq or just northern Iraq. I was trying to make a point that Kurdish Iraq had become so autonomous by 2007 (the time of the book), that people working there routinely referred to it as an independent Kurdistan.

Now Stratfor reports that Kurdish local authorities sidestepped the central government in Baghdad and teamed with international investors to build an pipeline that will supply Turkey with Kurdish oil. An audacious move, and the fact that investors put their money behind it means that at least some people are confident that Kurdish autonomy will survive the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

A cooperative Ankara, a weak Damascus, a preoccupied Tehran, an overwhelmed Baghdad and a host of anxious investors formed the ingredients for an audacious pipeline project. It began furtively in 2012 as a natural gas pipeline designed to feed the domestic Kurdish market. When the pipeline quietly skirted past the power plant it was supposed to feed, underwent a conversion to transport oil and began heading northward to Turkey, the secret was out: Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government were working to circumvent Baghdad and independently export Kurdish energy.

As the pipeline construction progressed, Kurdish peshmerga forces continued spreading beyond formal Kurdistan Regional Government boundaries in disputed areas and held their ground against demoralized Iraqi army forces. And in the name of guarding against a real and persistent jihadist threat, Kurdish forces built deep, wide ditches around the city of Arbil and are now building one around the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, marking the outer bounds of a slowly expanding Kurdish sphere of influence.

Autonomy may not lead to eventual statehood. The idea of a sovereign Kurdistan has been anathema to Iraq and Iran, and the US is unlikely to support the idea. Turkey’s softening stance is interesting though, and Turkey holds the strongest cards in the region. As Stratfor points out though, the biggest obstacle to Kurdish independence may be fissures within the Kurdish community itself.

Letter from Kurdistan is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

Russian missile cruiser Moskva sent to Syrian waters

Missile cruiser Moskva at Sevastopol, 2005

Several news sources are reporting that Russia is sending the missile cruiser Moskva to the waters off Syria, as the US seems to be preparing for some kind of military action. Moskva is a large but aging Cold War-era ship with substantial anti-ship and anti-air capabilities. Right now she is the most powerful naval asset in the Black Sea. I don’t think her presence off Syria is anything more than a political gesture, but theoretically she could use her long range air search radars to detect incoming American cruise missiles and alert Syrian defenses that trouble was on the way.

I photographed Moskva when I was in Sevastopol in 2005. It felt strange to dip my feet in the harbor, while on the other side of the bay, the ship rested quietly at anchor. She got a short cameo toward the end of Winter Republic.

The Greatest Threat

In a CSIS panel on May 14, Bob Schieffer said he asked former Defense Secretary Robert Gates about the dangers facing the United States. He said, “When I asked [Gates] what he thought was the greatest threat to our national security, he said he thought it was the US government’s inability to come together and find compromise for the various problems that we face today.”

Those are sobering words, coming from the person who was appointed by President Bush to run the military in the middle of two wars, and who continued to do so under President Obama. I feel like it’s a cliché to say I’m sick of the shrill hysterics of Congress and their utter failure to govern over the last few years. I’m hoping that sane voices will eventually begin to counter the tantrum tactics.


I’ve had the new My Bloody Valentine album on heavy rotation. It has some magnificent and beautiful moments, which expand on the lush distortions of their 1991 album, ‘Loveless.’ Their fluid cascade of warbling sound on tracks like “who sees you” or “wonder 2″ can seem like the received transmission of some kind of perfect and radiant form, its signal refracted and attenuated by the passage from the ideal world to our base one, then distorted again by our own flawed and limited ability to perceive. You can still sense the contour of the form through all the layers of compounded error, but its precise shape–the real thing itself–remains unknowable.

So I guess it’s a lot like life.

When I was writing the ‘Kombinat Null’ scenes in Winter Republic, I imagined the music to sound something like this. At one point Saveliy, the Kombinat’s leader, tries to explain to Thomas: “Reality at its most basic level is so simple and yet so, so complex, each of its elements so discrete, so… fine… that we can’t perceive the deeper elements that drive reality except as a kind of white noise. But white noise implies randomness, and I don’t believe the world can be driven by only randomness. Not completely. The patterns must not be… directed… from outside, but interdependent, directed by an internal process. A process of moiré. It is like this sound we have created here tonight… not white noise, but a series of feedback loops.”

Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

Against the Day is Thomas Pynchon at his best; complicated, meandering, prurient, sometimes intentionally dumb, often laugh-out-loud funny. The book is real labor, and you never know if you’re fully understanding all the nuances of the text. The complexity and sheer scale of it guarantees moments when you find yourself struggling to remember characters and plot points. But then, sudden and unexpected, emerge moments of shocking clarity, moments of incandescence almost too beautiful to bear.

Like the moment Kit discovers Lake Baikal while wandering Central Asia…
“He had gazed into pure, small mountain lakes in Colorado, unsoiled by mine tailings or town waste, and was not surprised by the perfect clarity which had more than once taken him to the verge of losing himself, to the dizzying possibility of falling into another order of things. But this was like looking into the heart of the Earth itself as it was before there were eyes of any kind to look at it… In some way he was certain of but had not quite worked through, it was another of those locations like Mount Kailash, or Tengri Khan, parts of a  superterrestrial order included provisionally in this lower, broken one. He felt swept now by a violent certitude. He had after all taken the wrong path, allowed the day’s trivialities to engage him—simply had not worked hard enough to deserve to see this…”

The book follows a similar pacing and voice as Gravity’s Rainbow, with frantic excursions into side journeys that are never neatly concluded, and a cast of dozens of walk-on characters with charming Pynchonian names like Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin and the Reverend Lube Carnal. Indeed, (and this is hard for me to write), Against the Day feels like a more evolved and even more accomplished evolutionary cousin to Gravity’s Rainbow.

I was giddy when I realized the plot was about to include the 1908 Tunguska Event. Pynchon is the perfect author to describe the cosmic awe and sense of cosmic malevolence of that event. Reading that section came with a feeling of revelation, as if I had been waiting thirty years for Pynchon to describe Tunguska and only just then realized it.

The hardest part about the book is that, like Gravity’s Rainbow, it demands another reading. I feel like you could continue reading it indefinitely, with each pass drawing asymptotically closer to full understanding. But life is busy, and too short.

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