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.

Russian Troops Arrive in Venezuela

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According to multiple reports, two Russian cargo aircraft have landed at Maiquetia Airport in Venezuela earlier in the weekend and disembarked 100 troops, along with senior military official General Vasily Tonkoshkurov. A limited amount of equipment was offloaded as well. At least one of the aircraft has departed the country already.

This move comes as the United States has raised pressure on Nicolas Maduro and Venezuela’s government in recent weeks. Economic sanctions unleashed by the Trump administration continue to bite the Venezuelan economy and will only get worse as time goes on. In late April a US ban on crude imports from Venezuela will go into effect. This could very well be a death blow to the Maduro government’s finances.

The arrival of Russian troops in Venezuela is a direct jab at the United States. Even though 100 troops hardly constitutes an invasion, the United States will have to respond to their presence in some way. Given that the Trump administration has repeatedly said all options remain “on the table” for dealing with Venezuela, the prospect of US military action against Maduro’s government is low for the time being. Still, the presence of Russian troops in Venezuela will alarm the US military.

This is how Russia’s intervention in Syria began. A small number of troops arriving in country, followed by a gradual, but increasing flow of additional aircraft, men, and material. A large Russian military presence in the Western Hemisphere will not be tolerated by the United States. I’ll discuss this more in the coming days. Apologies for keeping this short and not posting since Wednesday. March Madness is underway and I’ve been watching every game. Four days of round-the-clock basketball. 😊

Germany’s Defense Woes Continue

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The combat readiness of Germany’s armed forces has deteriorated significantly in recent years, and it is safe to say the German military is on the edge of a major crisis. Berlin’s efforts to remedy the situation appear to have only worsened it in some instances. Unfortunately for Germany, the problem is no longer simply only a national one. It has become a NATO matter as the consequences of a severely weakened German military will be felt most by the alliance’s three most vulnerable members to the east. The state of Germany’s armed forces is raising doubts about NATO’s ability to defend Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania against Russian aggression.

Germany’s military readiness has become so bad that its latest annual readiness report was classified for ‘security reasons.’ This has never happened before and is leading some German politicians to conclude that the true condition of the Bundeswehr is worse than believed. Another theory put forward is that the report was classified for political reasons. Specifically, to allow Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen to survive. She has been under constant fire from critics for her inability to solve the readiness issues. Keeping the German public in the dark about these matters would give von der Leyen some breathing space.

On Monday Germany’s proposed 2020 budget was made public. Military spending will increase, yet still remain below NATO’s 2% of GDP commitment for each member-state to spend on its armed forces. The Trump administration is not happy with this development, and rightfully so. Germany has been dragging its heels on reaching the 2% mark and rectifying its readiness shortfalls for quite some time now. In fact, instead of aiming for 2%, Angela Merkel’s government is just hoping to be able to reach 1.5% within three years.

Germany’s failure to live up to its NATO spending commitments, as well as its weakened military state contradict its emphatic support of the international order. Multilateralism is the cornerstone of German foreign policy, yet Berlin appears entirely comfortable not living up to the commitments it made to the NATO alliance, a multilateral institution. While this is a clear cut  geopolitical example of the pot calling the kettle back, Angela Merkel likely views it as a case of realpolitik where common sense and practicalities prevail.

Venezuela Update: 15 March, 2019

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On Thursday the last remaining US diplomats in Venezuela departed. The US flag was lowered and the embassy locked up. The embassy staff that had remained in Caracas were being removed because they had become a ‘constraint’ on US policy. There was growing concern in Washington that Venezuelan authorities would eventually target a US diplomat for harassment, or arrest. With the embassy cleared out now, it is no longer an issue. The State Department has also issued a travel advisory warning  US citizens not to travel to Venezuela now that the United States cannot offer any consular services for them in the event they need it.

Power has been restored to some parts of Venezuela but it will be a long time before normal service is restored. Large areas of the country remain without power in the aftermath of a devastating nationwide blackout. Although Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro initially blamed the power issues on a US cyberattack, though it is clear now this was not the case. Damage from  a bush fire near the Malena substation in the eastern part of the country is what brought on the power outage. The blackout spurred protests and looting around Venezuela. Over 300 people were detained by authorities.

Iran’s Position On the Yemeni Ceasefire

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Tehran’s apparent support for Thursday’s breakthrough in UN-sponsored Yemeni peace talks raises questions about the future of Iran’s involvement in the conflict. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government, and Iranian-supported Houthi rebels have agreed to end fighting in and around the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.  The Iranian foreign ministry called the ceasefire ‘promising’ and hopes that negotiations scheduled for January will bring forth a final agreement. The fact that the peace talks have made progress is surprising. For most of the four-year old conflict neither side has shown much enthusiasm for a brokered-settlement. Over the last four months that attitude has vanished, in large part due to increasing US-led international pressure on the involved parties to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Whether or not Iran’s support is sincere or purely cosmetic remains to be seen. The progress made in the peace talks, as well as Iran’s public praise for it, indicates there could be a shift in Iran’s Yemen strategy afoot. Tehran’s funding, and material support of the Houthi rebels has been vital to keeping them in the fight for this long. It is a marriage of convenience between the two more than anything else. The relationship between Iran and the Houthis is not deep. There are no historical ties that compel Tehran to support the movement. Iran’s main purpose for investing itself in the Yemeni War was to establish a firm foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, and threaten Saudi Arabia’s southern frontier, along with the vital Red Sea shipping routes. A Houthi victory would ultimately have led to the establishment of a pro-Iranian government in Yemen, and the end result would be a major victory for Tehran in the Great Game being played out between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region.

Unfortunately, the conflict has not gone in Iran’s favor. Saudi-led intervention has made a Houthi victory more unlikely as time goes on. Yemen has become a nation-state besieged by war, and enduring an almost unimaginable humanitarian crisis. Continued backing of the Houthis in the future appears more of a crapshoot for Iran, especially in light of the other major issues  the Iranian government is facing both at home and abroad. The chance of a more permanent ceasefire, or peace agreement in the near future provides Iran with an opportunity to walk away from Yemen with a respectable PR victory (provided support for the UN-sponsored talks continues) and its prestige still relatively intact.

Yemen does not hold the same significance for Iran that it did four years ago. Tehran has bigger problems to contend with. Saudi Arabia, despite the recent Khashoggi incident, has taken a hard stand against further Iranian expansion in and around the kingdom. The close relationship between the Trump administration and the Saudi royal family has enticed Riyadh to push back against Iranian adventurism, hence Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to end its intervention in Yemen.

Then there is the United States. Iran is dealing with a full court press by the Trump administration to isolate Iran from the global community. To the surprise of many Iranian leaders, the US efforts have been quite successful so far, and show no signs of easing in the future. So, it would make sense for Iran to circle its wagons and hunker down to endure the next wave of US pressure instead of overextending itself in near-hopeless foreign adventures.