Presidents Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and Vladimir Putin of Russia meeting in Brasilia, July 2014.
Presidents Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and Vladimir Putin of Russia meeting in Brasilia, July 2014.

Leveraging Venezuela: How Russia Sees Its Interests in US Backyard

June 03, 2019
Paul Saunders

President Donald Trump has long considered himself an expert in seeing, creating and using leverage. In his 1987 book with journalist Tony Schwartz, “The Art of the Deal,” the future president stated that “the best thing you can do is deal from strength” and that leverage, which he defines as “having something the other guy wants” or, “better yet, needs,” is “the biggest strength you can have.” The bad news for Trump is that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, understands leverage quite well himself and is continuously searching for leverage relative to the United States, which the Kremlin demonstrably considers to be its greatest foreign policy challenge. Putin’s recent support for Venezuela’s damaged President Nicolas Maduro falls squarely in this category.

Of course, Moscow has many reasons to try to prevent the fall of the Maduro regime—amassing leverage is not the only one. Russia’s principal interest in Venezuela is most likely economic; reports suggest that the state-controlled energy firm Rosneft has up to $20 billion in assets (investments and loans) at stake there and that Venezuela owes the Russian government another $3.1 billion. Other companies, including the state technology firm Rostec and Kalashnikov, the well-known Russian arms manufacturer, are also said to have facilities in Venezuela, and Rostec is reportedly withdrawing hundreds of defense advisers due to the Maduro regime’s lack of cash. While these Russian investments may well have been politically driven—and some Russian energy executives say as much about Rosneft’s presence—today’s Kremlin officials probably seek and expect greater financial returns than their Soviet-era predecessors, who often wrote off investment and loans in client states as a part of their Cold War competition with the United States.

Beyond this, Russia’s leaders probably also welcome the opportunity to position themselves as reliable (and successful) defenders of their allies and partners from American pressure—as in Syria—and to demonstrate their nation’s global military and economic reach. And Putin and others have long sought to justify Russia’s “privileged interests” and assertive conduct in their neighborhood with charges that the U.S. behaves the same way in the Western hemisphere. That said, this did not prevent Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov from denouncing the “notorious Monroe Doctrine” and U.S. “political reshuffling” in Latin America in a recent meeting with Venezuela’s foreign minister.

Still, Americans should not overestimate either Russia’s interests in Venezuela or its capabilities there. Following Russia’s swift annexation of Crimea, its far bloodier and far less successful support for dwindling separatist forces in eastern Ukraine and its similarly bloody but more politically effective intervention in Syria, some appear to view Venezuela as a potential new Ukraine or Syria. It isn’t.

Ukraine shares a border with Russia’s heartland regions and, as a result, Moscow sees an existential threat to its national interests in Ukraine’s potential NATO membership or the possible deployment of U.S. or NATO forces there, not to mention having a close if troubled historical relationship and deep cultural ties. This is evident in statements by Putin and other Russian leaders, notably in Putin’s speech to a joint session of Russia’s parliament calling for Crimea’s formal incorporation into the Russian Federation. It is also evident in Russia’s official national security documents, including Russia’s military doctrine and foreign policy concept, each of which spells out the importance that Russia assigns to its neighbors in its national security and foreign policy. And it is evident in the costs and risks that Putin has been willing to shoulder, including an unknown number of Russian casualties as well as substantial U.S. and European Union economic sanctions (notwithstanding their failure to compel Russia’s withdrawal), significant damage to Russia’s relationships with Washington and many European capitals and unattractive energy deals with Beijing that Moscow was unwilling to accept before the sanctions.

Moscow did not and does not have existential interests at stake in Syria. Russia has had important national security interests there, however, especially in combatting terrorism. In fact, in justifying Russia’s September 2015 military intervention, Putin told an American television interviewer that “there are more than 2,000 militants in Syria from the former Soviet Union. So instead of waiting for them to return back home we should help President al-Assad fight them there, in Syria. This is the main incentive that impels us to help President al-Assad.” This was the same strategic logic that former U.S. President George W. Bush applied in describing his war on terrorism: “We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America.” The Kremlin also had an interest in supporting its ally Bashar al-Assad and demonstrating its resolve in doing so relative to Washington’s.

While Syria is far from Russia’s borders, it is close enough that the Russian military can conduct long-term operations there—barely. Anton Lavrov, a defense analyst with Moscow’s highly respected Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, has said that “Syria pushed Russian logistics to its limits” and that Russia “does not have the ability to sustain forces far from the border.” To do so in Syria, Russia had to buy tired Black Sea merchant ships for use as transports. More important, Russian leaders required confidence that the United States would not seek to contest their intervention. After former President Barack Obama’s highly visible 2013 decision to abandon consideration of a major U.S. military role in Syria by asking the Congress to approve it despite weak support, and despite his earlier threats to act if Syria used chemical weapons, they had it.

But for Russia Venezuela is fundamentally different from either Ukraine or Syria; Moscow has few if any meaningful security interests in Venezuela. In fact, Latin America and the Caribbean basin are second-to-last among Russia’s regional priorities (ahead of sub-Saharan Africa) in the Russian government’s official foreign policy concept, which presents a single paragraph with anodyne calls for improved relationships. For comparison, the document has 10 quite specific paragraphs on the former Soviet region and Russia’s objectives there. No less important, even if Russia had significant security interests in Venezuela, it would lack the tools to defend them, especially in a location that flips the geographic advantages that Moscow enjoys in competing with the United States in Europe or even the Middle East.

Kremlin officials may enjoy poking the United States in its backyard, particularly if they think the marginal cost is low, but have little to lose in Venezuela other than Rosneft’s billions. On one hand, that isn’t inconsequential—$20 billion is real money for Rosneft, which claimed about $5 billion in profits and about $200 billion in total assets in its 2017 annual report. On the other hand, however, it is not obvious that Rosneft can avoid losses in a Venezuela that Maduro continues to mismanage. Conversely, it wouldn’t be easy for a new Venezuelan government, led by opposition leader Juan Guaido or someone else, to seize all the company’s assets and forswear loans—among other things, the global energy firm BP owns 19.75 percent of Rosneft, and BP shareholders would likely fight such steps. Prior to his failed attempt to force Maduro from office, Guaido himself minimized Russian support for Maduro, which he said has been limited to “statements” and “respectful participation of Russia in regards to watching the fate of our country”—a comment that suggests a wise effort to avoid alienating the Kremlin. So Moscow is probably not choosing between $20 billion and nothing.

Russia’s conduct in Venezuela does have one thing in common with its intervention in Syria: The Kremlin appears in part to be trying to force open bilateral dialogue with the United States following America’s post-Ukraine disengagement. Four years after Moscow’s intervention in Syria, U.S.-Russia dialogue remains weak and—in the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election—has few prospects to improve, despite Kremlin and perhaps White House aspirations to the contrary.

From this perspective, Russia’s dispatch of about a hundred military specialists to Venezuela and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claim that Moscow persuaded Maduro not to flee his country each give the Kremlin a little more leverage in dealing with the Trump administration. In fact, the troop move is not unlike Russia’s past dispatch of nuclear-capable bombers to visit Venezuela, a similar effort to get Washington’s attention and secure leverage. With that in mind, U.S. statements that over-dramatize events in Venezuela or create an impression that it is important in U.S. domestic politics may inflate Russian views of the leverage that Moscow’s modest role in shaping Venezuela’s fate might provide. Before the recent meeting between Pompeo and Lavrov, at least one Russian analyst argued that Russian officials have come to think their leverage in Venezuela might encourage Washington to make concessions on Ukraine.  

The Trump administration is quite unlikely to respond to such logic, however—Moscow’s involvement in Venezuela is ultimately more irritating than threatening for a superpower like the United States and U.S. officials seem to believe (rightly or wrongly) that Maduro is doomed. His government’s apparent willingness to negotiate with the opposition in Norway will probably reinforce that view. The real danger in Venezuela is not another Ukraine or Syria, but that Moscow will overestimate the leverage it may be able to gain there, underestimate the Trump administration’s willingness to confront Russia and thereby provoke a needless conflict. Nevertheless, Rostec’s withdrawal of Russian military advisers suggests that someone in Moscow has taken a sober view of the situation.


Paul J. Saunders

Paul J. Saunders is a senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest and a member of the Russia Matters editorial board.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.