Two military planes carrying around 100 Russian servicemen arrived in Caracas last week, sparking concerns in Washington that Moscow is bolstering its support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Facing growing U.S. criticism, including White House national security adviser John Bolton’s claim that recent Russian action constitutes a “direct threat to security in the region,” Russia has stated that the deployment is legal and does not imperil the region’s precarious balance of power.
In a conference call with CNN reporters, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov attempted to allay U.S. fears concerning Russian meddling. Peskov characterized Russia’s relationship with Venezuela as “longstanding, highly developed and mutually beneficial,” and stated that Russia does “not interfere in the domestic affairs of Venezuela.”
Similarly, according to CNN, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has asserted that the presence of Russian ‘specialists’ in Venezuela is “in accordance with the provisions of the bilateral intergovernmental agreement on military-technical cooperation,” and that military personnel will remain in Venezuela “for as long as needed, and as long as the government of Venezuela needs them.”
Skeptical of Russian motives and keen on protecting U.S. interests in Venezuela, President Donald Trump told Russia “to get out.” According to CBS News, Russia’s Foreign Ministry retorted that the U.S. should get out of Syria first.
While Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisted that Venezuela will not become “another Syria,” for Moscow, the U.S.-Russia proxy war in Syria serves as a dark reminder of what may happen should tensions escalate between the U.S. and Russia in Venezuela.
Debilitated by political strife, Venezuela serves as yet another geopolitical battleground for the U.S. and Russia, who, for the time being, are hashing things out in a battle of rhetoric and power plays. Tensions between the two countries were sparked earlier this year when the U.S., along with dozens of other countries, backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president. In the face of international opposition, Russia has remained staunch in its support for Maduro.
The Syria comparison goes only so far — to Russia, the outcome of the Venezuelan crisis is not nearly as important as the Syrian civil war. It is unlikely that Putin will expend as many resources and commit as many troops to Venezuela as he did Syria. However, Russia remains economically and geopolitically invested in Venezuela. Russia has spent decades investing in Venezuelan oil, and according to CBS News, “owns two lucrative gas fields just off the Venezuelan coast, through the state-backed oil giant Rosneft.” Venezuela’s copious oil reserves have surely not evaded the searching eyes of the oil-hungry U.S. either.
Venezuela is also a major purchaser of Russian military equipment. According to CBS News, Moscow has earned $11.4 billion selling military equipment to Caracas and has loaned “at least $2 billion to Caracas to enable Venezuela to buy the Russian military equipment, and Venezuela still owes Russia six billion of a total $17 billion worth of loans handed out since 2006.” Unlikely to cut its losses, Russia will not soon pack up and move out of Venezuela.
While Russia is a major trading partner for Venezuela, the South American nation, according to CBS News, accounts for only 0.01 percent of Russia’s foreign trade turnover. Russian involvement, then, is largely motivated by geopolitical concerns. In terms of energy production and proximity to the U.S., Venezuela is a geopolitically significant country for Russia. Meddling in the nation’s affairs allows Putin to flex his political muscles, further establishing Russia as a power to counter the U.S.’ own.
In an interview with CBS News, foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov said “The strategy to confront the U.S., wherever it can be done at a reasonable cost, is grounded in the Kremlin’s idea of a new world in which the U.S. doesn’t have the freedom to overthrow regimes anymore, because Russia is there to stop it.”
Unwilling as ever to back down from Russian provocations, the Washington will continue to butt heads with Moscow over the Venezuelan crisis. And as the U.S. is fundamentally motivated by similar geopolitical and economic factors, it is unlikely that the U.S. can be counted on to serve as a moral actor in this political conflict and crisis.