Post-Pandemic Storm Clouds are Gathering Now

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Both at home and abroad the shape of the post-pandemic world is gradually coming into focus. Geopolitically, this translates to a wave of unforeseen change likely to be in the cards for the later months of 2020 and stretching into early 2022 perhaps. How large, and encompassing this wave will be remains to be seen. A host of variables are going to influence the form, and power of what is to come.

China appears to have a difficult road in front of it as global opinion turns against Beijing and its handling of the pandemic. Suspicion, and mistrust of China and its intentions are nothing new. But the fact that China might’ve been complicit in knowingly transmitting COVID-19 to areas beyond its national borders is making the world take notice, and question just what China’s long-term political, economic, and military goals are. It would also appear that a major move is coming soon concerning Hong Kong. I’ll touch on that more either over the weekend or next week.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin is coming to terms with the reality that his rule will not last forever, and the vast majority of foreign adventures that Russia has engaged in over the last fifteen years have ended badly for his country. Ukraine is a shining example of how Russia’s ambitions have collided head-on with reality. Nothing has been gained after six years of low-intensity conflict between Russian-supported proxy groups and the Ukrainian military. It is true that Crimea has been annexed, but the move has not yet produced any strategic advantage for Russia or its plans for the region. In short, Russia is going to have to make a move somewhere in the near future to jumpstart its long term geopolitical plans. How Moscow moves in Libya, and Syria over the summer could tell a lot about what is to come.

For the United States, a potential crisis is brewing close to home. A group of Iranian tankers is currently in the Atlantic and heading west. These ships, carrying gasoline and related products, are on a course for Venezuela where they will be offloaded as part of a cash-for-oil/gas deal currently in place between Tehran and Caracas. Earlier this week, the US announced it is deploying warships, and maritime patrol aircraft to the Caribbean as the ships grown nearer. In response, Venezuela announced its warships will escort the tankers to Venezuelan ports. The US is wary of these recent moves given it has stringent economic sanctions in place against both nations. There’s growing concern in Iran and Venezuela that the US will attempt to interdict the tankers while they are in the Atlantic and by early next week it will be clear if a confrontation is likely or not.

Iran Warns US Against Interfering With its Tankers

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Iran is growing concerned about the prospect of potential US actions and measures over an Iranian fuel shipment to Venezuela. Yesterday, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif lodged a complaint with the United Nations warning against the movement of US warships to the Caribbean as Iranian tankers carrying gasoline and other products approach the region. The shipment is part of a larger deal struck between Iran and Venezuela, two nations which the US has imposed oil export sanctions on. Iran also transmitted a warning against any US threat against the Iranian ships, sending the message through the Swiss embassy in Tehran which handles US interests in Iran. On Saturday, Iran’s Fars News reported it had received information that US warships are in the Caribbean for a ‘possible confrontation with Iran’s tankers.’

Iran’s shipment comes as Venezuela is struggling with a major gas shortage. Although US sanctions have strangled Venezuela’s economy, the government of Nicolas Maduro has stubbornly refused to make any concessions to Washington which might ease the restrictions somewhat. Iran is dealing with US sanctions itself and Venezuela is one of the few nations willing to accept Iranian shipments. The formula is simple: Venezuela needs the gasoline, and Iran desperately needs money. The fact that Iran is willing to risk a major US response to this attempt to undermine sanctions speaks volumes of the Islamic Republic’s present condition. The combination of US economic sanctions, domestic unrest, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have created a perfect storm of sorts, and the future looks bleak, and uncertain for the Tehran regime.

At present, the tankers carrying Iranian products are presently in the Mediterranean and moving west towards the Strait of Gibraltar. It will be some time before they exit the Med, cross the Atlantic, and are prepared to enter the Caribbean. Iran’s behavior in the coming days should offer some indications about Tehran’s plans regarding the shipment to Venezuela.

Venezuela Rising on the International Agenda

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Over the summer as tensions in the Middle East have dominated the attention of the world, Venezuela fell between the cracks of the international agenda. On Wednesday, President Trump moved to remedy this at the UN General Assembly. In a meeting with Latin American leaders who do not recognize Nicolas Maduro as the rightful leader of Venezuela, Trump reaffirmed the US commitment to Venezuela and pushed back against perceptions that US concern about the political unrest, and economic distress in that country has waned. The US, and nearly sixty other nations around the world support opposition leader Juan Guaido and consider him to be the rightful leader of Venezuela. Unfortunately, Guaido’s international status was hurt somewhat by the abortive coup the opposition launched in the spring, which accomplished nothing. Maduro remains in power, bolstered largely by Cuban, and to a far lesser extent, Russian support.

Meanwhile, as the meeting at the UN played out, Nicolas Maduro was in Moscow for discussions with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Russia has been a strong supporter of Maduro and his government, providing generous loans, and assistance for Venezuela’s military, and petroleum industry. There’s little chance of the two leaders coming to an agreement on additional loans or material support in this meeting. However, Maduro will return to Russia for another meeting with Putin early next month during the Valdai Club meeting in Sochi.

Venezuelan Government and Opposition Hold Talks in Norway

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Representatives of the Nicolas Maduro regime, and the opposition led by Juan Guaido met today in Norway to conduct negotiations aimed at ending the political crisis, and economic struggle that have crippled Venezuela and pushed it to the edge of ruin. The talks are being held in Oslo and were brokered by a group of Norwegian government officials, and private citizens. Although the talks are a positive development, the two sides remain far apart on most issues. Guaido, and the opposition continue to insist Maduro was illegally elected last year and should step down until new elections are held. Maduro, for his part, regards Guaido as a US lackey who’s motivation is to seize power and turn Venezuela into a puppet-state controlled by Washington.

The opposition’s agreement to send a delegation to the negotiations suggests its current position has been weakened considerably by the failed military uprising orchestrated by Guaido and other opposition leaders last month. If progress is made in Norway, it could help the opposition regain at least some of the leverage it lost from the failed uprising. After the failed uprising, the government has increased pressure on Guaido and his allies. A number of high-ranking opposition leaders have been stripped of their parliamentary immunity, and charged with rebellion. Many of these men are now holed up in foreign embassies around Caracas, fearful of arrest if they leave.

Despite the government’s attempt at a crackdown, it cannot change the situation from the stalemate it is at current.  Maduro is receiving assistance from Cuba, China, and Russia, however, it is nowhere near the amount needed to bring Venezuela out of the economic and political cauldron it is in now. US sanctions are beginning to hurt more now, and another wave is coming soon. The negotiations in Norway offer the government an attempt to buy some time, but little more.

Guaido’s Costly Error

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A month ago Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido seemed to be perched on the edge of a major victory that would eject Nicolas Maduro, and his corrupt regime from power. He had almost single-handedly molded the opposition into a viable counterweight to Maduro.  He had earned the unfettered support of the Venezuelan people, and the international community. Guaido’s star was rising and Maduro’s hold on power was growing more tenuous. Momentum was clearly on the side of the opposition, and the nightmare of Maduro seemed close to coming to an end.

But then Guaido overestimated the level of support the opposition had garnered from the military. He then launched an ill-fated ‘military uprising’ against Maduro, and shortly thereafter, everything came crashing down.

To be fair, an uprising was being prepared by the opposition, and significant military support was expected. More time was needed before it would be ready though. Guaido disregarded this crucial fact and launched the uprising early, basing his decision on reports that Maduro was planning to arrest the opposition leadership in a matter of hours. The military supporters balked and nearly all senior officers withheld their support. As a result, the uprising was stillborn.

Two weeks after the ill-fated uprising, many opposition leaders have sought asylum in foreign embassies around Caracas. Anti-Maduro protests are drawing less and less participants in the streets as the government crackdown shifts into high gear. In a surprise move over the weekend, Guaido has asked Washington for a direct relationship with the US military. This is officially intended to help increase the pressure on Maduro. Unofficially, it’s an act of desperation. The very idea of a foreign leader having close relations with the US military is alien. Even though the Trump administration fully supports Guaido, the president is not about to order US Southern Command to take orders from him as they would from Trump.

Guaido dropped the ball when he prematurely began the uprising and now the opposition is reeling as he attempts to recover.

Whether he can or not is another matter entirely.