Venezuela: In US-Russia collision, echoes of Syria

Why We Wrote This

Respect the legitimate government or defend the people? Now in Venezuela, the U.S. and Russia again have come down on opposing sides of an issue that pits international law against human rights.

Natacha Pisarenko/AP
A Chinese airplane that brought aid from China, an ally of the government of President Nicolás Maduro, is framed by the fuselage of a Russian airplane at the Simón Bolívar International Airport in Maiquetía, near Caracas, Venezuela, on March 29.

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A big-power tussle is playing out in Venezuela, and the actors are following a time-tested script. Once again the United States is positioned on the side of the oppressed people and is insisting that the authoritarian leader – in this case President Nicolás Maduro – must go. Russia has dispatched military personnel to Caracas, claiming as it did years ago with Syria that it is acting at the invitation of the legitimate government.

“The U.S. sees a government that is undermining human rights, oppressing its own people, and is causing regional problems, and Russia says on the contrary, ‘We don’t care what governments do at home, that’s their business, but we don’t want the United States going in and pressuring for a change of governments,’” says Christopher Miller at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Even if the U.S. position seems ethical, it’s Russia that has international law on its side, some diplomatic experts say. “You cannot intervene in a country without its permission,” says Michael Doyle at Columbia University. Still, Mr. Maduro’s government has been declared illegitimate as a result of deeply flawed elections. “That raises the question,” says Professor Doyle, “Who is the legitimate government in Venezuela?”

Back in 2014 when Russia was first putting boots on the ground in Syria, Moscow justified its military intervention by noting it was acting both in support and at the invitation of the besieged government of Bashar al-Assad.

The United States, on the other hand, had already declared that President Assad had to go and that it was acting in the Syrian conflict in support of the democratic aspirations of the oppressed Syrian people.

Fast forward to 2019 and we see the same big-power tussle playing out in Venezuela.

Once again the U.S. is positioned on the side of the oppressed people and is again insisting that the authoritarian leader – in this case President Nicolás Maduro – must go. Russia, on the other, has dispatched military personnel to Caracas, claiming as it did with Syria that it is acting in support and at the invitation of the legitimate government of Mr. Maduro.

In Venezuela as in Syria, the two global powers are acting in support of the principles they have consistently upheld – or some cynics would say used – in recent years in response to regional upheavals.

“You have a similar dynamic at play in these cases where the U.S. sees a government that is undermining human rights, oppressing its own people, and is causing regional problems, and Russia says on the contrary, ‘We don’t care what governments do at home, that’s their business, but we don’t want the United States going in and pressuring for a change of governments,’” says Christopher Miller, a professor of international history at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

“For Russia, it doesn’t matter if dictators are in charge; what matters is that they consider them the legitimate government,” he adds. “And if they are the legitimate government, outsiders should not be acting to undermine them.”

Russia has taken this position in opposition to the U.S. approach as far back as the Iraq war and the NATO intervention in Libya, Professor Miller says. But it has resurfaced in the Western Hemisphere in Venezuela, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has dispatched as many as 200 military personnel to bolster Mr. Maduro’s hold on power.

Pavel Golovkin/AP
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (r.) and Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez leave a joint news conference following their talks in Moscow on March 1.

President Donald Trump stated categorically at a White House press encounter last week that the Russian troops must leave Venezuela. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reportedly told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call last week that Russia acted to foil a coup that the U.S. was organizing against Mr. Maduro and that the Russian military personnel would stay put as long as Mr. Maduro remains under outside pressure.

As a further sign of Russia’s deepening commitment to keeping Mr. Maduro afloat, the Russian state-run oil giant Rosneft is now acting to facilitate Venezuela’s export of crude oil by providing the chemical diluents, or thinners, necessary to make Venezuela’s particularly thick crude exportable. Until now those chemical diluents had been imported from the U.S.

As Russia acts to shore up Mr. Maduro, it broadly has the force of international norms on its side, some diplomatic experts say.

“The standard international-law view of the matter is that you cannot intervene in a country without its permission,” says Michael Doyle, an expert in international law and humanitarian intervention at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York. “What is legal is to intervene at the invitation of the government.”

Clash of values

Thus the United States has legally placed counterterrorism forces in a number of African countries in recent years and maintains military bases in countries from Europe to Asia because in each case it is there at the invitation of the government.

“Based on that, one would say that the fact the government of Maduro has invited Russian troops is within the normal right of any sovereign government,” Professor Doyle says.

At its core, international experts say, the tussle between the two global powers is really a clash of values, with the U.S. on the side of individuals’ rights and Russia upholding the traditional authority of sovereign governments.

“Russia is quite open that values like human rights shouldn’t play a big role in how you relate with neighbors. It should be state to state,” Professor Miller says.

Adds Professor Doyle, “If you did the most basic evaluation of this battle over interventions in Venezuela, you’d probably have to say that under international law Russia is in the better legal territory but not so good ethical territory.”

In any case, the Venezuela case is “not so cut and dried,” Professor Doyle adds, because the U.S. and more than 50 other countries – including most of Venezuela’s neighbors and most of Washington’s staunchest Western allies – have declared Mr. Maduro illegitimate as a result of deeply flawed elections that gave him a second mandate. In his place the U.S. and the other countries have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

“That raises the question who is the legitimate government in Venezuela? Who is the legitimate authority?” Professor Doyle says.

Responsibility to protect

Another wrinkle in the U.S.-Russia tussle over Venezuela is that in recent years the international community has increasingly recognized another principle – the so-called responsibility to protect, often abbreviated to R2P – as another international norm governing intervention.

The new doctrine, formally adopted by the United Nations in 2005, basically states that governments have responsibilities toward their own populations and opens the door to legitimate outside intervention in the case of derelict governments either not safeguarding or acting against their own people’s well-being.

“So if Maduro is engaging in violence against his own people or is failing to provide basic needs, as Venezuela’s severe humanitarian crisis would seem to suggest, then he could be subject to R2P,” Professor Doyle says.

But once again, Russia could be expected to stand in the way. “It’s pretty safe to assume Russia wouldn’t let that happen,” he adds. “They would veto any action along those lines in the [United Nations] Security Council.”

The Fletcher School’s Professor Miller says the standoff between the U.S. and Russia on intervention in internal conflicts goes back for some time, but he says it has gained prominence in recent years “as Russia’s desire to contradict the United States and take the other side has intensified.”

But he and other experts say Russia’s determination to act globally on its position can be traced to the Ukraine conflict, when the U.S. and Western European powers intervened diplomatically in 2014 when it appeared that the government in power was going to use force against anti-government protesters. Eventually the pro-Russia government fled amidst political upheaval and was replaced by a pro-Western government.

“Vladimir Putin is giving the United States a taste of its own medicine by supporting Maduro, and it probably goes back to the way things unfolded in the Ukraine,” Professor Doyle says. “He wants the U.S. to feel what it’s like to have its backyard intruded into.”

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