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Stealth Conflict in Venezuela Pits Russian 'Democratic Fraud' against American 'Hybrid War'

Venezuela is Trump’s first new foreign "war," the only major conflict he did not inherit from the Obama administration. "War" is in quotes because no military forces are likely to be involved. This is the peculiar characteristic of what appears to be an American version of "hybrid war" using only sanctions, diplomacy, information operations, and proxies.

Why it has evolved is easy to explain. A new Cold Hybrid War has been raging for some time, though its existence has been played down for years to preserve the fiction of a Global World Order. Some of its most intense chapters are now coming to light. Bill Gertz writes about "one of three Chinese espionage-related cases in recent months as part of a Trump administration crackdown on Beijing's intelligence operations" — the rollup of the CIA agent network.

Former CIA operations officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee pleaded guilty on Wednesday to conspiracy to commit espionage for China in a case linked to the loss of numerous recruited CIA spies in China. ...

Lee was recruited by the Chinese Ministry of State Security during a 2010 meeting in Shenzhen, China. At the meeting, two MSS officers offered him money in exchange for secrets. The MSS officers told Lee "they had prepared a gift of $100,000 cash and that they would take care of him ‘for life' in exchange for his cooperation" ...

Around the same time in 2010, the CIA began losing large numbers of recruited agents in China many of whom were arrested, imprisoned or executed in one of the worst intelligence failures in the agency's history.

For the most part, the Russian and Chinese onslaught involved disinformation, espionage, and proxies. It started quietly with the August 2007 territorial claim marked by the planting of a titanium Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole. In April 2008, it expanded to the Kremlin's support of separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to undermine Georgia; by August, Russia had invaded the Georgian republic. In January of 2009, Gazprom cut off gas supplies to the Ukraine.

Nothing big enough to start WW3 but significant enough to permit Putin's steady advance.

July 2009 saw President Obama try to make a new start with Medvedev on his first official visit to Moscow. But in October of 2011 Russian and China took Assad's part at the Security Council, presaging Moscow's return to the Middle East. By the 2012 presidential campaign, even Gov. Romney could see the what was happening, but Obama and the press laughed him into silence to preserve the official line: "The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years."

The pose was rudely shattered in June 20, 2013, when Edward Snowden ran off with a trove of NSA secrets and fled to Moscow. Then in February 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine -- or at least Russian speakers known as Green Men did. In July 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine with the loss of nearly 300 lives. By September 2015, Putin had deployed forces to Syria.

Even with good press, Obama's reset was falling apart. Worse was happening undisclosed in the shadows at the time. China was stealing 21.5 million government personnel records in 2014-2015 from the Office of Personnel Management. China took "SF-86 data as well as clearance adjudication information" in addition to 5.6 million fingerprint records. The CIA's China network, as already mentioned, was being liquidated.

Nor were the Americas immune. In Venezuela, Russia sold $4 billion in arms to Chavez and military advisors to Maduro, in addition to deploying 15,000 Cuban security personnel. Yet until the Mueller investigation, the issue of great power subversion was flown largely below the public radar. Before Hillary's loss in 2016, there was "nothing to see here." Even then the Mueller inquiry's field of view was no wider than a straw.

Yet it is through the lens of great power rivalry that two questions about Venezuela must be answered. Is it an innovative U.S. pushback against long-running Russian hybrid warfare? More importantly, does the new strategy have a chance of succeeding or is it destined to become Trump's Bay of Pigs?

The avoidance of military force may make it hard for the Left to lock on to the Venezuela strategy but comes at the price of letting Putin use low-intensity force like the colectivos and Cubans while the U.S. cannot. This weakness was memorably expressed in the Maltese Falcon:

Kasper Gutman : Well, sir, there are other means of persuasion besides killing and threatening to kill.

Sam Spade : Yes, that's... that's true. But, there're none of them any good unless the threat of death is behind them.

But the nonmilitary approach also has its strengths. The emphasis on using proxy groups and economic sanctions may mean Venezuela is the first "war" where America is spending less than its foe. Putin and Maduro’s defensive tactics are self-devastating. They have to burn the village in order to hold it. This asymmetry in resource expenditure may alter the value of time in America's favor. In old thinking, a "coup" had to be over in a few hours. But perhaps in the new paradigm, Maduro's opposition can just hang on like a pitbull til the Bolivarian leg comes off. The Venezuelan economy is not going anywhere.

However, Russian hybrid warfare has not been resting on its laurels. It too has been evolving. Miguel Latouche notes the Russians and Cubans have perfected the art of democratic fraud to mask real dictatorship. The Venezuelan strongman was only cosmetically elected and Juan Guaido is arguably the legitimate president of Venezuela.

Fewer than half of Venezuela’s registered voters participated in the South American country’s May 20 election, punishing a government they don’t support by simply not voting. ... Certainly Venezuela’s was not a competitive election. Many believe Maduro’s re-election constitutes a fraud against democratic principles. Nearly  50 countries worldwide – including the United States and almost every Latin American nation – have declared  Venezuela’s election results illegitimate. ... Only Russia, China, Cuba and 13 other nations have  recognized the election results. ...

But Maduro is not alone in the world ... the regime’s relationships with the authoritarian governments of RussiaChina, Turkey, Bolivia and Cuba – all of which congratulated Maduro on his win – are strong.

These countries’ leaders practice a new kind of authoritarianism. In the 21st century, dictatorships do not necessarily take on the classic form – that of Mao, Lenin or the Latin American military juntas of the 1970s and 1980s.

Instead, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the like often maintain a democratic facade. They hold elections – but they do so under corrupt conditions, ensuring that they and their parties stay in power. ... The military – potentially the only domestic force that could destabilize him – seems to be under control. Maduro recently imprisoned a former general, Rodríguez Torres, whom he accused of conspiring against his regime.

How much company Maduro has in the world is shown by how outlets like CNN and the Nation still call anti-Maduro protests a coup. The Nation says "foreign outlets ... reported that a widespread uprising was underway, even though Juan Guaidó’s coup attempt had little support." The same stealth coating on Maduro allowed Rep. Ilhan Omar to say the U.S. "helped lead the devastation in Venezuela" and was bullying the Maduro regime. Russia was nowhere to be seen except in the Trump campaign.

The new warfare relies as much on perception as bombs and bullets. History has yet to show who will eventually win Venezuela. But it marks the first time American hybrid warfare has crossed swords with its Russian counterpart since the unmarked fall of the Rule-based World Order.

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