Russia’s Venezuela motives: It’s about the US, not Maduro.

Why We Wrote This

Historically, when Washington and Moscow have butted heads over a power struggle in a third-party nation, it’s been in a Cold War context. But the core issue over their divide on Venezuela today is simpler: staking out turf.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (r.) and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza shake hands after their joint news conference following talks in Moscow on May 5.

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With the attempted overthrow of Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro thwarted, Russia seems to have “won” its proxy fight with the United States in Venezuela. But while the geopolitical debate over Venezuela might seem to have shades of the Cold War, for Russia it's really over a simpler matter: the issue of “meddling” in other peoples’ regions.

The U.S. has demanded that Russia stop getting involved in the Western Hemisphere in places like Venezuela. The Russians counter that the U.S. needs to end its two-decade-old binge of regime-change operations, which includes supporting anti-Moscow revolutions in Russia’s own backyard. But otherwise, who rules in Venezuela is of no special interest to Russia, experts say.

“The relationship that emerged between Russia and Venezuela was an accident. It was mainly the initiative of Hugo Chávez, who was seeking counterbalances to his country’s dependence on the U.S.,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of foreign policy journal Russia in Global Affairs. “Since Chávez died, and his successor has not proven so adept or popular, many in Moscow have been worried about our heavy investments in a potentially unstable regime.”

Many of the hallmarks of a classic great power rivalry between Russia and the United States are on display in Venezuela’s ongoing crisis: competing proxy forces on the ground, diplomatic finger-pointing, and starkly divergent visions of world order.

But while it may look and sound like a Cold War standoff, for Russia it is really about the simpler issue of establishing rules for competing big powers in a post-Cold War world.

In Venezuela, and between the U.S. and Russia generally, there is no sharp ideological divide over world-shaping doctrines like communism versus capitalism. The substantial stake Russia has accumulated in Venezuela over the past two decades has much to do with geopolitical and economic opportunities, but Russian affinity for former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez’ Bolivarian Socialism has no part in it.

Rather, the issue coming to a head amid Venezuela’s crisis is this: The U.S. demands that Russia stop meddling in the Western Hemisphere, or at least stop aiding regimes that are at odds with the U.S. National security adviser John Bolton recently went so far as to invoke the 19th-century Monroe Doctrine to justify that. The Russians counter that the U.S. needs to end its two-decade-old binge of regime-change operations, which includes supporting anti-Moscow revolutions in Russia’s own backyard.

Otherwise, who rules in Venezuela is of no special interest to Russia, experts say.

“The relationship that emerged between Russia and Venezuela was an accident. It was mainly the initiative of Hugo Chávez, who was seeking counterbalances to his country’s dependence on the U.S.,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Of course this was enthusiastically supported in Moscow. But it should be pointed out that at that time, the early 2000s, Chávez was rich and could pay for Russian arms and advice. Since Chávez died, and his successor has not proven so adept or popular, many in Moscow have been worried about our heavy investments in a potentially unstable regime.”

Russia’s financial exposure in Venezuela is huge, including at least $17 billion in loans to purchase Russian weaponry and develop Venezuela’s oil industry. Most of those debts remain outstanding, and any new Venezuelan government might refuse to pay them back. Russia’s state oil company, Rosneft, is heavily invested in Venezuela’s PDVSA oil firm, which could also be in doubt after a regime change.

In one strange wrinkle, Rosneft took a nearly 50% stake in Citgo, the Venezuelan-owned, U.S.-based refiner and gas station operator, as collateral for a loan to PDSVA. That could create a national security dilemma for the U.S. if Russia tried to take ownership.

Regime change presently seems off the table, after several days of intense diplomacy that saw Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meet with his U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo in Finland (and with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza in Moscow for consultations). Russian analysts say they deeply doubt that the U.S. is planning a military intervention of Venezuela in the style of the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989-90. And, even if that happened, Russia would be unwilling to do much to oppose it.

Analysts say there are no Russian troops in Venezuela, but there have long been Russian military advisers with the Venezuelan army, and private contractors may also be operating there.

“There are Russian military personnel in Venezuela, but not very many of them,” says Vladimir Borodaev, an expert with Moscow State University. “They are mainly there to teach the Venezuelans how to operate the Russian air defense systems they bought. They don’t have any special role or influence.”

Two Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers visited Venezuela last December amid a burst of media attention and official condemnation in Washington, but experts say it was just a public relations exercise, and the planes soon returned home.

Cuba and China also have major stakes in any Venezuelan outcome. The U.S. often seems to conflate that with Russian support for the government of Nicolás Maduro, especially Cuba’s involvement, but Russian analysts say Cuba has its own separate relationship with Venezuela, and there is little coordination with Russia.

“Even in Soviet times Cuba pursued an independent policy in Latin America,” says Mr. Borodaev. “They pretty much do what they want, and probably keep big secrets from us.”

At the heart of the political dispute between Moscow and Washington over Venezuela is the issue of “meddling” in other peoples’ regions. Andrey Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the Russian Foreign Ministry, says the U.S. is flouting its own principles of liberal world order when it demands that Russia stop supporting Mr. Maduro’s government.

“The traditional liberal position, supported by all U.S. presidents before Donald Trump, renounced all ‘spheres of influence’ and held that sovereign nations should make their own choices,” he says. “That’s the view behind NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, and U.S. claims that Russia’s strategic interests in places like Ukraine and Georgia are irrelevant. So, if we are talking about universal rules, those should apply to everyone, shouldn’t they?”

Ironically, Mr. Bolton’s reference to the Monroe Doctrine could provide a diplomatic opening to Moscow, which still clings to the idea of a Russian-led sphere of influence in its own former-Soviet region.

“This citing of the Monroe Doctrine is something quite intriguing, and it would be warmly welcomed in Moscow if we thought the Americans took it seriously,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “We could talk in that language with them. Of course, it’s funny that they say it, but nobody here thinks they mean it.”

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