Has Nicolas Maduro begun to fold? Faced with the prospect of the shutdown of his oil exports and growing unrest in the streets, he called on Russia to mediate the dispute. It’s the first sign that Maduro may have given up on using force to regain control of the country:

Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled president, told Russian state media he’s ready to negotiate with the country’s opposition and claimed he’s in talks to set up international mediation to help resolve the crisis.

In an interview late Wednesday with the Russian state news agency, RIA Novosti, Maduro said his foreign minister was in negotiations with several countries and that the question of international mediation could be resolved in the “coming hours.”

“I am ready to sit at the negotiating table with the opposition, so that we can talk for the good of Venezuela, for peace and its future,” Maduro said.

This came immediately after the US upped the ante considerably on Maduro, diplomatically and financially. Two days ago, the Trump administration levied new sanctions on PDVSA, whose exports require refining by US facilities. John Bolton made it clear what the US intends:

On Monday, the Trump administration upped the pressure on Maduro, slapping new sanctions on the state-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PdVSA.

President Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton the sanctions amounted to, “$7 billion in assets blocked today, over $11 billion in lost export proceeds over the next year.” Mnuchin said the U.S. would “continue to use economic, diplomatic tools to support the Venezuelan people’s efforts to restore their economy.”

The Trump administration said the sanctions were aimed at blocking Maduro from using the country’s oil wealth to keep propping up his regime and going after his opponents. The Treasury Department said the sanctions would be lifted if and when Guaidó assumes control of the government.

On the diplomatic side, Donald Trump’s sudden desire for US interventionism in Venezuela intensified today in a call to opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the first since Trump recognized him as the legitimate president. Guaidó revealed the conversation in an interview with CNN yesterday, but the White House confirmed it today — and insisted that the US will continue to support Guaidó against “former dictator Nicolas Maduro”:

U.S. President Donald Trump and Venezuela’s self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido agreed during a Wednesday phone call to maintain regular contact amid planned protests in coming days, according to a White House spokeswoman.

Trump spoke with Guiado “to reinforce President Trump’s strong support for Venezuela’s fight to regain its democracy,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement. Washington has recognized Guaido, an opposition leader and head of Venezuela’s national assembly, as the president of the country.

In an interview with CNN that aired on Tuesday, Guaido said he had spoken with Trump a number of times. When asked about a possible military option in Venezuela, Guaido said all options were on the table, CNN said.

They are? Given Trump’s rhetoric over the last four years about unnecessary military interventions, even to the point of questioning NATO expansion in the Balkans and the Baltic states, that would be very surprising. The White House issued its own readout of the call this morning, which contains no mention of a military intervention. Instead, it sticks to more ambiguous pledges of “strong support for Venezuela’s fight to regain its democracy”:

Not only would there be very little appetite for yet another Yanqui intervention among our Latin American allies, there wouldn’t be much appetite here at home, either. The only way such support would materialize would be if Maduro ordered an attack on our embassy or our diplomats, who have thus far remained in Venezuela despite an expulsion order from Maduro. If Maduro ordered such an action, it’s not entirely clear that the military would back him up, either. That could force the military to switch sides as a means to keep from going to war.

Still, the prospect appears to have spooked Maduro. What will it cost him to get Russia to back him up? The Venezuelan national assembly thinks it might be 20 tons of gold from the nation’s treasury, a charge which Russia denies:

Venezuela’s opposition-controlled parliament, sidelined by the Maduro regime, said in a tweet that they received information from the Bank of Venezuela that a plane from Moscow arrived to Caracas to “extract at least 20 tons of gold” – 20 per cent of the bank’s holdings.

“We are demanding the Bank [to reveal] details of what is happening. That gold does not belong to Calixto Ortega, [head of the Bank]. It belongs to the Venezuelan people,” the tweet read. …

On Monday, Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that an empty passenger plane departed from Moscow to Caracas.

The Boeing 777, with space for some 400 passengers and belonging to Russia’s Nordwind Airlines, was parked by a private corner of the airport after flying direct from Moscow, according to flight tracking data and Reuters photos.

It was the first time it had made the route, the data showed.

Russia wouldn’t go to all that trouble for a mere $840 million in gold. The diplomatic and financial headaches would outweigh any profit, and if the gold was the mission it would have already flown home. A more likely use for the plane might be to get Maduro the hell out of Caracas. Maybe he’d bring along some gold from the reserves, but the cargo weight would probably be put to better use with family, friends, cronies, and others who might need asylum in Moscow when this story is finished.

If it’s gotten that bad, it would explain Maduro’s sudden interest in dialogue. And it might be evidence that Guaidó would be better off waiting for the protests to swell a little more to see just how anxious Maduro is to stick around for them.