Editor’s Note: Brian Fonseca is director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University’s (FIU’s) Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. David J. Kramer is a senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy at FIU and a former US State Department official. Frank O. Mora is director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, a professor of politics and international relations at FIU, and a former Defense Department official. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
Many governments, led by the US, have recognized National Assembly speaker Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela. Russia, among others, is sticking with strongman President Nicolas Maduro. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has a tendency to support brutal, like-minded authoritarian leaders around the world, betting on Maduro is not a surprise.
Putin has much to gain from this move: Venezuela under Maduro gives him an opportunity to flex Russia’s muscles and needle the US in the Western Hemisphere, while affording economic inroads for Russia.
But there are limits to how far Putin will go, and the US shouldn’t get too worked up by what Russia’s power move amounts to: a bluff.
Sometimes Putin’s bets on authoritarian leaders turn out well, others not so. Putin’s military intervention in Syria in September 2015 proved decisive in saving the murderous Bashar al-Assad and keeping him in power to this day. Putin’s backing for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych ended with Yanukovych fleeing power in 2014 and Ukraine more pro-Western than ever, albeit at great cost because of Putin’s ensuing invasion.
Moscow relishes opportunities to challenge the US. Doing so in support of a dictator less than 1,500 miles away from Miami is especially enticing for Putin. Given Putin’s belief that the West has meddled in Russia’s neighborhood in Georgia and Ukraine, he sees Venezuela as an opportunity to return the favor to the United States.
Russian support for Venezuela comes in the form of public messaging aimed at chipping away American credibility. At the UN Security Council on Saturday where Venezuela was the focus of debate, Russia’s representative, Vasily Nebenzya, blasted the US for trying “to engineer a coup d’etat in Venezuela.”
“If anything represents a threat to peace and security,” Nebenzya stated, “it is the shameless and aggressive actions of the United States and their allies to oust a legitimately elected President of Venezuela.”
Similar warnings have come from other Russian officials, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denouncing the US’ “destructive policy” on Venezuela for recognizing Guaido over Maduro. Following a phone call between Maduro and Putin, the Kremlin complained about “destructive outside interference.” In a claim rich with hypocrisy given Putin’s violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of neighboring Georgia and Ukraine, the Kremlin statement went on to warn that the US and others “grossly trample fundamental norms of international law.”
Rhetoric is not the only means by which Putin has supported Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Over the past decade, the Kremlin has sent Caracas billions of dollars – estimates range from $17 billion to $25 billion – to prop up Maduro’s (and before that, Chavez’s) regime. Rosneft’s head and Putin ally Igor Sechin has paid numerous visits to Caracas as a show of Russian support for Maduro. Rosneft has claimed sizable stakes in Venezuelan gas and oil fields. Still, recent US oil sanctions against Venezuela have already caused pause among Russian energy firms. Russia’s Lukoil reportedly suspended contracts with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela as a result.
The Venezuelan military, whose support has been vital to Maduro, has strong ties to the Russian military. Two Russian nuclear-capable, long-range Russian bombers flew to Venezuela in December, and arms sales from Russia to Venezuela have been steady. More recently, around 400 Russian contractors landed in Venezuela to provide personal protection for Maduro, Reuters reported.
Despite this support, Venezuela is not Syria, where Russia had a long-standing base and was in a position with nearby forces to intervene in that conflict. Russia’s ability to project power in a serious way in Venezuela, a country thousands of miles away from Moscow, is virtually non-existent. Accordingly, while Russia can come to Maduro’s support in the UN, Russia should not be hyped into a decisive player on the ground in Venezuela.
Moreover, Russia faces weaknesses at home. Its economy is stagnant, and the government last year decided for financial reasons to increase the age for pension eligibility in an extremely unpopular move. How then can the Kremlin justify sending billions of dollars to prop up Maduro? Putin’s disapproval rating has climbed to levels unseen since before his invasion of Ukraine, according to polling from the Levada Center – and while 34% disapproval would be good enough for any Western leader, those are historically weak numbers for Putin, in a country where polling is difficult and citizens might be afraid to tell a stranger they don’t like Putin. A reckless military adventure and possible loss of Russian lives in far-away Venezuela won’t help Putin’s ratings.
Russia opposition activist Alexei Navalny recently tweeted that Venezuela’s revolution means that billions of dollars “of our money that was invested over there will disappear.” In a few months, Navalny predicted, Maduro may wind up seeking refuge in Moscow.
With Russia propping up his opponent, how can Guaido best handle the situation?
To avoid unnecessary problems with Moscow, Guaido should indicate that he will review all deals with outside powers, including with Russia, to ensure they serve the interests of the Venezuelan people, not a corrupt ruling class. By stating respect for investments and rule of law, Guaido would remove any automatic nullification of deals signed with Russia – unless those deals were done for the sole benefit of Maduro and those around him.
The US should not overreact to Putin’s bluff. Instead,Washington should focus on working with the international community to maintain and shore up support for democracy in Venezuela.
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The Russian government is not alone in sticking with Maduro, but Putin’s support for his Venezuelan counterpart is but the latest example of his standing by a murderous ruler who has destroyed his country for the sole purpose of staying in power and robbing it blind. The two have much in common.