In an attempt to demonstrate control of power in Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro attempted to cut off diplomatic relations with the US. In an attempt to demonstrate his lack of control, the US announced late yesterday that Maduro can’t order our diplomats expelled. Now no one’s sure what’s going on, least of all our embassy in Caracas:

A defiant Maduro responded by announcing a break in “diplomatic and political relations” with the United States, ordering American diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours.

The high-stakes move set up a looming diplomatic crisis. Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader now recognized by Washington as Venezuela’s interim president, called on diplomats to remain. In a statement late Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated the Trump administration would not heed Maduro’s demand and called on the Venezuelan armed forces to refrain from endangering American personnel or face “appropriate actions.”

“The United States does not recognize the Maduro regime as the government of Venezuela,” the statement said. “Accordingly the United States does not consider former president Nicolas Maduro to have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the United States or to declare our diplomats persona non grata.”

Earlier in the day, Trump was asked if military force was being considered. “We’re not considering anything, but all options on the table,” he said. “All options, always, all options are on the table.”

Russia responded to that statement this morning, warning of the consequences of military intervention on behalf of their client Maduro:

Russia on Thursday warned the United States not to intervene militarily in Venezuela, saying such a move would trigger a catastrophic scenario, the Interfax news agency cited the deputy foreign minister as saying. …

Interfax cited Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, as saying Moscow would stand with Venezuela to protect its sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in its domestic affairs.

Funny how the Russians have rediscovered that principle. How are their troops doing in Ukraine these days? Warm? Comfy? Shoot down any commercial airliners recently? That’s not to say that a military intervention in Venezuela is desirable, of course, merely to point out the cynical hypocrisy of Russia in this declaration.

For the moment, it’s business as usual at the US embassy, kinda-sorta:

On Thursday, the scene outside U.S. Embassy in Caracas, normally abuzz with visa applicants, was eerily quiet, with embassy guards firmly preventing most access. The embassy issued a bulletin calling on staff to keep their children home from school, confine themselves to two neighborhoods in the capital and avoid any public demonstrations.

The embassy said it would remain open for U.S. citizens needing “emergency services,” but canceled most visa appointments for Venezuelans. People leaving the embassy early Thursday said the situation inside appeared normal. …

Yet the decision by Washington to defy Maduro and keep U.S. Embassy staff in Caracas effectively turned them into pawns in what is now an unpredictable international crisis. It is happening at a time when Guaidó, the new leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, is challenging the government’s deadly security apparatus by declaring himself interim president.

“This highlights the enormous risks of having parallel governments,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. “The situation has put the U.S. and the embassy staff in a very difficult position. If the diplomats do not leave, they could face considerable danger. Yes, it could get ugly. And yet, if they do leave, that would deflate Guaidó.”

Maduro would have to be insane to accost US diplomats at this point. That would be an act of war, and about the only way that Trump could justify a military intervention. It would have a lot more legal standing than, say, Ronald Reagan’s rout of the Cubans in Grenada or George H.W. Bush’s seizure of Panama strongman Manuel Noriega. With the military torn between its personal loyalty to Maduro and a popular uprising that they might have to put down by force, the last thing they need are Yanquis arriving by the boatload and planeload.

It’s the last thing we need, too. We already have a long enough and controversial enough history of military and political interventions in Latin America without staging a coup in Caracas. The decision to recognize Guaidó was an aggressive political move, for which we fortunately have allies in South and Central America to alleviate accusations of American imperialism. Those allies would likely evaporate when the first division of Marines hits the shores. They have long memories in the southern hemisphere, to which we do not need to add. And yet it’s undeniable that Trump has raised the odds of just such an intervention, even if they remain relatively low still.

The big question remains what the military will ultimately decide. Thus far they are offering pro forma support for Maduro, but they’re not moving against Guaidó yet either, although they accused him today of staging a “coup.” That position is not tenable for anything more than the short term. The crowds in the streets continue to grow and will generate even more momentum the longer they last. At some point, Maduro will have to order the military to seize Guaidó and his supporters in the national assembly and to push everyone off the streets. When that happens, the generals have to decide which side is more likely to have the authority put them up against the wall when the dust settles, even if their rank and file follow orders to attack Venezuelans in the streets. In that calculus, a handful of American diplomats makes little difference.