Venezuelan Spring

More than words are at work. Last week the Bank of England blocked Mr. Maduro from withdrawing $1.2 billion in gold reserves. On Friday the U.S. gave Mr. Guaidó control of Venezuelan government accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and other U.S.-insured banks.

.. Venezuelans have made numerous attempts since 2002 to restore the liberties lost when Chávez used his majority backing to dissolve civil rights and a free press. But they were never able to persuade the military high command, infiltrated by Cuba, to break ranks with the dictator. If this time is different it’s because Mr. Maduro can no longer guarantee the interests of the top brass.

Mr. Guaidó is rumored to be backed by Venezuela’s military rank-and-file and midlevel officers. There are also reports that some commanders of detachments around the country no longer support Mr. Maduro.

The regime is unleashing repression and the international community wants to avoid more bloodshed. The U.S. has offered the military high command safe passage out of the country, and if international efforts to cut financial channels for the leadership are successful, many may find it an attractive option.

.. On Jan. 10 Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia FreelandwarnedMr. Maduro that he would not be recognized: “We call on him to immediately cede power to the democratically-elected National Assembly until new elections are held, which must include the participation of all political actors and follow the release of all political prisoners in Venezuela.”

.. Mr. Maduro says this is a U.S. conspiracy. But as a member of Canada’s Liberal Party and the lead negotiator of the bitter rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Ms. Freeland is hardly a Trump administration lackey.

The tyrant isn’t entirely alone. Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Hezbollah stand with him. Havana runs the counterintelligence network charged with controlling the Venezuelan armed forces and brownshirts. Reuters reported Friday that Russia has flown an unspecified number of paramilitary contractors into the country. A new asymmetric war can’t be ruled out.

The New Iron Curtain: Russian Missile Defense Challenges U.S. Air Power

The S-400 antiaircraft system hasn’t been tested in battle, but its growing deployment threatens America’s aerial dominance

North from Syria, along the borders of Eastern Europe and rounding the Arctic Circle to the east, Russia has built a ring of air defenses that threaten the reach of the U.S. military, forcing Washington to rethink its place as the world’s undisputed air power.

Russia’s S-400 antiaircraft missile system, a nettlesome and potentially deadly aerial shield, is changing the calculus of the U.S. and its allies in potential hot spots, beginning with its deployment in Syria.

Radar employed by the S-400, which Russia claims can detect the latest stealth aircraft, casts a net around western Syria that stretches from Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea to Israel.

Proliferation of the S-400 system demonstrates how Russia is also investing heavily in traditional military firepower.

.. “We have to understand that the period of U.S. absolute dominance of the air is over,” said Elbridge Colby, the director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan defense think tank.

The Pentagon acknowledged that S-400 batteries in Syria have forced adjustments to coalition air operations, but it contended the U.S. in general still maintains freedom of movement in the air. “We can continue to operate where we need to be,” a U.S. defense official said.

.. Russia is “fielding military capabilities designed to deny America access in times of crisis and to contest our ability to operate freely,” a report said. “They are contesting our geopolitical advantages.”

A bipartisan commission established by Congress to evaluate President Trump’s defense strategy echoed those fears in a paper released in November. Russia, the commission concluded, was “seeking regional hegemony and the means to project power globally.”

.. Moscow isn’t eager to confront U.S. forces head-on: Russia has a military budget about a 10th the size of the Pentagon’s. Despite Russia’s intervention in Syria and invasion of Crimea, its air force and navy capabilities fall far short of the U.S. and China’s military.

In Syria, more Russian army personnel have been killed in plane crashes than enemy fire, according to official data. Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is being overhauled. In October, a crane fell on the vessel, causing serious, possibly irreparable damage to the carrier.

The S-400’s guided missiles are intended to give Russian President Vladimir Putin a lethal threat against Western military intervention should a crisis erupt on Russia’s European borders, in the Middle East or North Korea.

The presence of the S-400 in Syria has been an effective sales tool, drawing interest among both American foes and allies. Purchases by China and India, as well as prospective deals with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have raised alarms among officials in Washington and at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

By selling the S-400 to other countries, Russia spreads the cost of limiting U.S. forces.

Russia doesn’t want military superiority, but it has ended the superiority of the West or the U.S.,” said Sergey Karaganov, a foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Putin. “Now, the West can no longer use force indiscriminately.

.. The Pentagon said Russian measures have yet to change America’s position.

The U.S. remains the pre-eminent military power in the world and continues to strengthen relationships with NATO allies and partners to maintain our strategic advantage,” said Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman. “The U.S. and our allies have quite a few measures at our disposal to ensure the balances of power remain in our favor.

.. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. used its air superiority against foreign governments considered a threat. Afghanistan, Iraq and then Libya fell into the crosshairs.

In 2010, Mr. Putin announced a plan in to modernize Russia’s military, saying his nation would spend the equivalent of $650 billion over a decade. The plan included replacement and upgrades of aging Soviet antiaircraft and antiship defenses.

.. Russia’s preoccupation with defense is a product of its history, spanning past invasions by Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in the War of 1812 to Nazi troops during World War II.

The Russian military is configured very differently from expeditionary powers like the United States,” said Michael Kofman, a research scientist at CNA, a nonprofit research group in Arlington, Va. “It’s not meant to mirror powers like the United States, it’s meant to counter them.”

Buyers of the S-400 face possible U.S. sanctions under a 2017 law that penalizes allies that do business with the Russian defense industry.

China received an S-400 shipment last year, and its Equipment Development Department, which oversaw the purchase, was sanctioned in September.

India agreed in October to a $5 billion-plus deal for the S-400 antiaircraft system. It hopes to evade sanctions, saying that as a U.S. security partner it can counterbalance China’s growing power. It is unclear whether Saudi Arabia’s deal with Russia will be completed because of likely U.S. pressure.

The Pentagon has objected to Turkey’s planned S-400 purchase, saying it would give Russia too close a view of NATO operations. Antiaircraft missile systems typically receive data from satellites as well as aircraft to detect attacks. Integration of the S-400 system on Turkish bases also would give Russia insight into radar-evading F-35 combat jets, U.S. officials said.

.. The S-400 hasn’t been tested in battle but on paper it outperforms the comparable U.S.-made Patriot system. Sales to China and India, along with prospective deals with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have raised alarms in the West.

.. Turkish officials said they need the antiaircraft system to shield the southern border with Syria. Washington installed U.S.-operated Patriot missiles in southern Turkey in 2013, after Syrian armed forces shot down a Turkish jet fighter killing two. The systems were removed in 2015 when the U.S. saw the threat from Syria fading.

The U.S. has since offered to sell Turkey its Patriot missile defense systems, and an American delegation was in Ankara last week to hash out the details. Still, Turkey said, it had no intentions of giving up the S-400 purchase.

.. The basic S-400 unit has four launchers carried on a wheeled transport vehicle. It takes about eight minutes to push the 33-foot launching tubes into a vertical position, initiate tracking radar and lock onto targets.

.. The bulk of Russia’s S-400s are deployed along the country’s western border; S-400 divisions also defend the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Several divisions are positioned on four of Russia’s Arctic territories. As polar ice gives way to global warming, both Washington and Moscow see the far north as a new frontier for Arctic sea travel, potentially connecting Asia and Europe, as well as a spot for energy exploration.

Washington accuses Moscow of violating the Cold War-era Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, saying the Russian 9M729 missile could fly at a range prohibited by the agreement. Russia says the missile doesn’t violate the agreement.

.. Looking ahead, Almaz-Antey, the Russian arms maker that builds the antiaircraft defense systems, is designing a more advanced S-500 model to counter next-generation hypersonic and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Guatemala’s president tries to shut down anti-corruption group investigating him

Last year, Morales tried to expel the head of CICIG, Colombian prosecutor Iván Velásquez, but the Consitutional Court blocked the move.

Over the past week, the conflict has flared up again. On Friday, Morales said he would not renew CICIG’s mandate, which expires next year. The same day, Guatemalan military vehicles stood guard outside CICIG’s offices and descended on a central plaza. On Tuesday, Morales ordered that Velásquez, who has led CICIG since 2013, not be allowed back in Guatemala.

. On Tuesday, Morales ordered that Velásquez, who has led CICIG since 2013, not be allowed back in Guatemala.

.. While Velásquez remains in the United States, the work of CICIG continues, said a spokesman, Matias Ponce. The organization, which has about 200 staff members, is also waiting for the Guatemalan government to renew work visas of CICIG’s foreign staff, he said.

Apart from blocking Velásquez’s entrance into Guatemala, the Morales government this year removed 25 police personnel assigned to guard CICIG, cutting its security force in half.

Morales has argued that CICIG, as a foreign body that receives U.S. funding, constitutes a violation of Guatemalan sovereignty and that Guatemala’s own judicial institutions should be handling such graft cases.

CICIG works in conjunction with the Guatemalan attorney general’s office in building corruption cases.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres last week, Morales said CICIG has had more than “sufficient” time over the course of its mandate to achieve its goals.

.. “For some time now, there have been efforts to derail anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala and continued attacks against the commission and the commissioner,” said Adriana Beltrán, a Guatemala expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. Morales’s actions, she said, are “his attempt to protect himself, given the continuing probe against him.”

.. CICIG works in conjunction with the Guatemalan attorney general’s office in building corruption cases.

.. CICIG was set up in 2006 to bolster Guatemala’s weak judicial institutions. At the time, impunity was rampant in the country, and murders were hardly ever solved. The group, composed of investigators from around the world, used sophisticated investigative techniques, wiretapping and examination of financial records to pursue high-profile crimes. Its work became a model and inspiration in Latin America, where corruption often goes unpunished.

But CICIG has also been polarizing. Critics see it as overzealous and manipulated for political reasons. Earlier this year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) put on hold $6 million in State Department funding to CICIG, saying he was concerned that Russia had “manipulated” the group into pushing for the prosecution of a Russian family in Guatemala.

CICIG’s investigation against Morales had also been gaining steam. Last month, Velásquez, along with Guatemalan Attorney General María Consuelo Porras, asked the nation’s Congress to strip Morales of his immunity from prosecution. A congressional commission has been formed to weigh the request.

Donald Trump Is Bad for Israel

As usual, the president makes his predecessors look better.

Suppose you’re the type of smart conservative reluctantly inclined to give Donald Trump a pass for his boorish behavior and ideological heresies because you like the way the economy is going and appreciate the tough tone of his foreign policy, especially when it comes to Islamic fundamentalism.

These last few weeks haven’t exactly validated your faith in the man, have they?

.. The president has abruptly undermined Israel’s security following a phone call with an Islamist strongman in Turkey. So much for the idea, common on the right, that this is the most pro-Israel administration ever.

.. Contrary to the invidious myth that neoconservatives always put Israel first, the reasons for staying in Syria have everything to do with core U.S. interests. Among them: Keeping ISIS beaten, keeping faith with the Kurds, maintaining leverage in Syria and preventing Russia and Iran from consolidating their grip on the Levant.

.. Powers that maintain a reputation as reliable allies and formidable foes tend to enhance their power. Powers that behave as Trump’s America has squander it.

.. But leave that aside and consider the Trump presidency from a purely Israeli standpoint. Are Israelis better off now that the U.S. Embassy is in Jerusalem? Not materially. The move was mostly a matter of symbolism, albeit of an overdue and useful sort. Are Israelis safer from Iran now that the U.S. is no longer in the Iran deal and sanctions are back in force? Only marginally. Sanctions are a tool of strategy, not a strategy unto themselves.

.. What Israel most needs from the U.S. today is what it needed at its birth in 1948: an America committed to defending the liberal-international order against totalitarian enemies, as opposed to one that conducts a purely transactional foreign policy based on the needs of the moment or the whims of a president.

.. From that, everything follows. It means that the U.S. should not

  • sell out small nations — whether it was Israel in 1973 or Kuwait in 1990 — for the sake of currying favor with larger ones. It means we should
  • resist interloping foreign aggressors, whether it was the
    • Soviets in Egypt in the 1960s, or the
    • Russians and Iranians in Syria in this decade. It means we should
  • oppose militant religious fundamentalism, whether it is
    • Wahhabis in Riyadh or Khomeinists in Tehran or Muslim Brothers in Cairo and Ankara. It means we should
  • advocate
    • human rights,
    • civil liberties, and
    • democratic institutions, in that order.

Trump has stood all of this on its head.

He shows no interest in pushing Russia out of Syria. He has neither articulated nor pursued any coherent strategy for pushing Iran out of Syria. He has all but invited Turkey to interfere in Syria. He has done nothing to prevent Iran from continuing to arm Hezbollah. He shows no regard for the Kurds. His fatuous response to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi is that we’re getting a lot of money from the Saudis.

He speaks with no authority on subjects like press freedom or religious liberty because he assails both at home. His still-secret peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians will have the rare effect of uniting Israelis and Palestinians in their rejection of it

.. If you think the gravest immediate threat to Israel is jihadist Hezbollah backed by fundamentalist Iran backed by cynical Russia, the answer is no.

.. If you think the gravest middle-term threat is the continued Islamization of Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan — gradually transforming the country into a technologically competent Sunni version of Iran — the answer is no.

.. If you think that another grave threat to Israel is the inability to preserve at least a vision of a future Palestinian state — one that pursues good governance and peace with its neighbors while rejecting kleptocracy and terrorism — the answer is no.

And if you think that the ultimate long-term threat to Israel is the resurgence of isolationism in the U.S. and a return to the geopolitics of every nation for itself, the answer is more emphatically no.