NATO and Russian negotiators made a probably last-ditch effort to salvage the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty and failed miserably. NATO reiterated a US demand that Russia destroy its 9M729 cruise missile, which it says violates the treaty, and Russia continued to deny that it violates the treaty and reject the demand for its destruction. The Trump administration wants out of the treaty for reasons that don’t really have anything to do with this particular Russian missile, so all these negotiations are really just exercises in pointless face-saving.
Meanwhile, the Russian government on Friday said it is “deeply concerned” by Donald Trump’s Star Wars 2.0 plan. It probably shouldn’t be. Washington’s decision to throw billions of dollars at yet another massive defense project that won’t work, instead of spending it on anything that might tangibly improve the lives of American citizens, is at best irrelevant to Moscow and probably works to its advantage.
Ukrainian authorities say they’re seeing an increase in cyber attacks against elections officials and computer systems ahead of March’s presidential election. They are, naturally, blaming Russia. There’s probably something to this, but if you told me that President Petro Poroshenko is setting up a justification for challenging the results of an election he’s likely to lose, I wouldn’t be surprised by that either.
Hundreds of people reportedly demonstrated in Vienna on Friday against Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s government, and in particular against his far-right/neo-Nazi Freedom Party coalition partner. The protests were organized to counter an annual Freedom Party event in the capital.
GREECE/REPUBLIC OF NORTH MACEDONIA
The Greek parliament on Friday narrowly, 153-146, approved the deal that will change the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia in return for Greece’s agreement to drop its objections to North Macedonia’s membership in NATO and the European Union. Greece will now ratify Macedonia’s entry into NATO, and at that point the new name (already approved by the Macedonian parliament) will come into effect. Polling shows that a wide majority of Greeks, at least 60 percent and in some surveys more than 70 percent, opposed the deal and any use of the name “Macedonia” by the former Yugoslav state, and there may be serious political consequences for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras over this whole business.
For the time being, at least, Nicolás Maduro doesn’t seem to be in much danger of losing power:
When Juan Guaidó stood before tens of thousands of supporters in Caracas, constitution in hand, and took the oath declaring himself interim president, many Venezuelans thought that President Nicolás Maduro, widely regarded as a dictator, could finally be ousted from the presidential palace. Attendees at the rally could barely contain their joy as the wiry freshman leader of Venezuela’s once-toothless opposition spoke. They broke down in tears and embraced loved ones, singing “Down with chains!” as the national anthem’s rousing lyrics go.
“Guaidó did what he had to do,” said Carlos Martínez, 41, who had come to watch the young leader speak.
Just moments later, the White House announced that the United States would recognize Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader, at least until free and fair elections could be held. This was followed by similar declarations from a dozen Latin American countries—with the notable exception of Mexico—as well as Canada. Over the course of the day, Venezuela’s reliable allies Russia, China, Cuba, Bolivia, and Turkey reiterated their backing for Maduro, but still the jubilant atmosphere in Caracas reached fever pitch.
That optimism, for now at least, seems premature.
The main reason Maduro’s position seems safe is that the Venezuelan military has remained behind him. But that could change. Maduro has done an effective job of seeding the upper ranks of the Venezuelan military with loyalists and then looking the other way as they enriched themselves. He’s also strengthened the military’s counterintelligence unit for the purpose of finding and rooting out potentially disloyal officers. But mid and lower rank officers, to say nothing of the military rank and file, are being hit as hard by Venezuela’s economic collapse as most civilians, and so the possibility that they will eventually turn on Maduro cannot be discounted. Self-declared president Juan Guaidó (who was apparently encouraged to declare himself president by Mike Pence) has been calling on the military to support him, as has the US because who doesn’t love a good military coup, but so far to no effect. However, Maduro’s publicly expressed willingness to hold talks with Guaidó may partly reflect his concerns about keeping the military’s loyalty if this situation drags on.
Maduro can also rely on the “private” Russian mercenaries who are reportedly in Venezuela serving as his bodyguards. Russia has invested a lot of money and energy in propping Maduro up and, as the rare Russian ally in the Western Hemisphere, they have every reason to try to shepherd him through these current difficulties. Guaidó has likewise tried to reach out to both Russia and China to encourage them to drop their support for Maduro, but so far all he’s gotten is an offer from Russia to mediate talks with Maduro. Guaidó has rejected the idea of holding such talks. Guaidó is also considering the idea of approaching the International Monetary Fund to help finance his attempted coup, which is kind of batshit but might work if the US can exert enough influence over the IMF.
As for the US, Mike Pompeo plans to take Guaidó’s case to the United Nations Security Council on Saturday, where Russia and China will certainly block any resolution meant to throw the council’s support behind the coup government. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, may offer a little assistance–she wants to open an investigation into Maduro’s response to this week’s events, with some accounts saying that at least 20 anti-Maduro protesters have been killed by Venezuelan security forces.
Mostly the Trump administration is trying to support Guaidó financially, but without imposing an embargo on Venezuelan oil that would hurt US consumers. Which means it’s trying to find a way to divert control of Citgo, which is majority owned by Venezuela’s state oil giant PDVSA, from Maduro’s government to Guaidó:
The Treasury Department plans to claim Venezuela’s U.S.-based international reserves and state-owned assets — including oil refiner and distributor Citgo — on behalf of the newly recognized government headed by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, removing them from the control of President Nicolás Maduro.
In a vaguely worded statement issued late Friday, Treasury said that “the United States will use its economic and diplomatic tools to ensure that commercial transactions by the Venezuelan government, including those involving its state-owned enterprises and international reserves, are consistent” with its recognition of the Guaidó government.
U.S. and officials on both sides in Venezuela made clear that the reference was to Citgo and other assets in this country.
The US could try to allow Guaidó to appoint a new board of directors for Citgo, but the company’s board is reportedly planning to fight any move in that direction in court. It is far from clear that the administration would have the legal standing to pull something like this off, and even if it did Maduro would likely just order PDVSA to stop shipping product to the US, since he wouldn’t be benefiting from those sales anymore anyway. That would cause the gas price bump that the Trump administration is trying to avoid.
Coordinating the administration’s effort to unseat Maduro is its brand new Venezuela envoy, arch-neoconservative Elliott Abrams, whose appointment by a senile president obsessed with tax cuts, putting missile defenses in space, and doing coups in Latin America signifies that we are pretty much reliving the 1980s at this point. Abrams is perhaps best known for being one of the few people actually convicted for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, though he was pardoned by George H.W. Bush, who I’m told was really just a wonderful man and president. As Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the Reagan administration, Abrams was intimately involved in such humanitarian policies as setting up death squads to kill communists throughout Central America, backing the fanatically violent Contras in Nicaragua, and, while serving on George W. Bush’s National Security Council in 2002, helping to orchestrate another Venezuelan coup attempt, in that case against Hugo Chávez. He’s really the perfect choice to be the Trump administration’s Special Venezuela Guy.
With the latest estimates suggesting that 12,000 Central American migrants have either entered or are waiting to enter Mexico in the latest caravan, the Mexican government is trying to appeal to them to remain there rather than attempting to enter the United States. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government has decided to make it easier for migrants to obtain humanitarian visas and eventually work visas while investing in public works projects that could create thousands of jobs for them. López Obrador has been trying to get the Trump administration to invest in those projects as well as in projects to create jobs in Central America so as to lessen the desire for people to attempt to get into the US. At least some of the migrants now in Mexico seem willing to stay and see what Mexico has to offer, though they may still eventually head north toward the US.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is beginning a new policy of returning asylum seekers to Mexico while their cases are moving through the US immigration system. The Mexican government has criticized this policy, especially in cases of people who may be in some danger returning to Mexico, but it is apparently going along with it.
Finally, the Project on Middle East Democracy’s Seth Binder writes that the Trump administration’s Middle East policy seems to be more concerned with domestic politics than with the Middle East:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was expected to outline the Trump administration’s grand strategy for the Middle East in his speech at the American University of Cairo earlier this month, but he did not even lay out a coherent policy. Although Pompeo touted America as “reinvigorated” and a “force for good” in the region, President Trump has shown little interest in, let alone a broad policy vision for, this part of the world. Trump’s approach in practice has focused on reversing Obama’s policies and confronting Iran, both of which play into his largest concern: appealing to his domestic political base.