What Happened This Week:
Following Russia’s recent decision to send 100 or so “advisors” (read: soldiers) alongside military equipment to prop up the Maduro regime in Venezuela, White House officials have repeatedly warned Moscow to stop interfering in Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo kept up the drumbeat this week, declaring in a speech that “the Russians have got to leave Venezuela.” The last time anyone checked, they were still there.
Why It Matters:
This is not the first time Moscow has sent a contingent of “advisors” abroad—back in 2015, Moscow dispatched a group of personnel to prop up Bashar Assad in Syria. That decision meant that any resolution to the Syria conflict would ultimately run through Moscow. And it did. Washington has no desire to see the same thing happen in Venezuela. The worry is that as Washington and Moscow pursue their respective geopolitical aims in Venezuela, bombastic rhetoric could tip into actual violence.
For Washington, Venezuela is currently the only issue where it’s leading a global response to a pressing international issue… and other countries are actually following its lead. Its support of interim president and head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly Juan Guaido was quick and decisive, opening the door for more than 50 countries to support Venezuela’s parallel government. (It also helps that Guaido is the first legitimate alternative to Maduro that Venezuela’s fractured opposition has been willing to rally around.) Aside from the points scored for leading the international charge, Venezuela has important domestic implications for US politics as well—the largest number of Venezuelans living in the US reside in the swing state of Florida, and Venezuela is a proxy issue for Cuban-American voters as well. More broadly, Venezuela has been repeatedly held up by Trump as proof of the failures of socialism, a political ideology he frequently tags his Democratic opponents with. And while the Mueller investigation is complete and Trump has claimed exoneration, any story that involves Russia remains a politically sensitive topic for his administration. Finally, Venezuela still has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, so what happens in the country’s politics has a real impact on global energy markets, yet one more thing keeping the US closely engaged.
For Russia, its continued presence in Venezuela falls broadly along two lines, the economic and the geopolitical. On the economic front, Russia has spent decades investing in Venezuela and Venezuelan oil—Venezuela’s economic desperation allowed Russian oil giant Rosneft to snap up prime assets (like half of Citgo) on the cheap. But now oil prices have dropped dramatically, Maduro is proving to be a political liability, and a significant amount of Russia’s oil revenues are dependent on Venezuela’s shoddy oil infrastructure. Yet Russia can’t just cut its losses and move on—Moscow is owed more than $6 billion from Caracas; state-champion Rosneft is owed $3 billion or so. Russia needs to make sure it gets that money, whether from Maduro or whoever follows him.
On the geopolitical front, Putin has spent the better part of two decades cultivating a relationship with Venezuela’s leadership in order to ensure good relations with a geopolitically significant country (both in terms of energy production and in proximity to the US). The current political crisis is also an opportunity for Russia to show its ability to project force on the other side of the globe—the mark of a true global power—as well as to demonstrate to other embattled global leaders that Russia takes its long-standing alliances seriously.
What Happens Next:
Rhetoric aside, Russia just isn’t committed to shaping the outcome in Venezuela the way it was in Syria. First off, changing the outcome in Venezuela is nowhere near as impressive as doing the same in Syria was. Secondly, the Trump administration is much more invested in the outcome in Venezuela than it ever was in Syria (a military engagement Trump uses to rail against his predecessor). Third, the average Russian doesn’t care all that much about a Latin American country half a world away when they have so many more pressing problems to deal with back home—a new survey released by Russia’s own state statistics agency says that 80% of Russian households struggle “to make ends meet.” That makes Venezuela a questionable place for Putin expend so much political capital.
In other words, Putin’s not willing to let Maduro’s sinking political ship drag Russia down with it. At this point, it would require a Herculean effort by any foreign power to salvage a Maduro presidency… and it’s an open question whether Russia even has the financial resources to do that even if it wanted to. But make no mistake—the move to send in military contingent, even if a small one, is intended by Moscow as a clear sign that Russia fully intends to have a say in Venezuela’s future… no matter how that future ends up working out for Maduro himself. But having a say in a country’s future is very different than dictating that future.
The Key Quote That Sums It All Up:
“They shouldn’t worry about our deployments in Venezuela, they should focus on their withdrawal from Syria”—Russia foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov. How false equivalencies are done in geopolitics.
The One Thing to Read About It:
In this week’s TIME magazine, read Simon Shuster’s very good analysis of how Putin’s network of influence and power has spread across the globe.
The One Major Misconception About It:
That Russia is once again punching above its weight, geopolitically-speaking. Russia knows that putting some boots in Venezuela will grab headlines, but doesn’t change much on the ground. Syria was in large part a military-fueled crisis, where simply committing troops and resources moved the needle in Moscow’s favor, especially when no other world power showed near the same resolve. Venezuela is a completely different beast; this is not a power move by Moscow, but a move to preserve power.
The One Thing to Say About It at a Drinks Party:
Putin is great at geopolitical tactics (short-term), not so much about geopolitical strategy (long-term). But in a situation as chaotic and fluid as Venezuela, being a good tactician may just be enough to get what he wants… provided he doesn’t overreach and accepts his limited ability to drive the overall outcome.