Russian criticism of the US-led move to replace Venezuelan President Maduro crystallized into a veto of a US draft resolution at the UN Security Council (February 28), calling for restoration of democracy, fresh elections and recognition of self-proclaimed interim President Guaidó. The resolution got the requisite nine votes for, but the Russian (and Chinese) veto sank it. South Africa also voted against the resolution and three members abstained. Russia’s counter draft resolution, calling for a dialogue between the Government and the opposition, obviously had no chance of success – it got four votes for, seven against and four abstentions – with only the minor consolation of weaning away two members from the “US camp” – Equatorial Guinea, which supported and Kuwait, which abstained. A telephone conversation ensued between FM Lavrov and Secretary Pompeo on March 2, at which FM Lavrov (as per Russian MFA’s account) accused the US of interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country.
As the impasse continued, with the number of countries recognizing the new Venezuelan government stuck at 54, consultations were held between Russian Deputy FM Ryabkov and US Special Representative Abrams in Rome (March 19), at which representatives of the two National Security Councils were also reported to have participated. As per Russia’s MFA, a “candid and substantive exchange of views revealed a number of fundamental differences in the assessment of the causes and origins” of the Venezuelan crisis.
A qualitatively new situation emerged with news, initially that a contingent of the Russian private military company, Wagner Group, was in Caracas for Presidential security; and then that a 100-strong Russian military task force had arrived in two military aircraft. Secretary Pompeo telephoned FM Lavrov to tell him that the US and regional countries “will not stand idly by, as Russia exacerbates tensions in Venezuela”. In turn, FM Lavrov reportedly termed US “attempts to organise a coup d’etat” in Venezuela as “blatant interference” in its domestic affairs. As for the justification for Russia’s military intervention, it was claimed to be at the request of the legitimate Venezuelan government and consistent with a 2001 bilateral military cooperation agreement; therefore, not requiring any further approval by the Venezuelan National Assembly (which it would not have got).
The war of words escalated, with President Trump declaring that the US would consider “all options” to get Russia to leave Venezuela. NSA Bolton cautioned against “actors external to the Western Hemisphere” deploying military assets in Venezuela. Other Administration officials threatened strong diplomatic actions, including sanctions. The Russian responses were dismissive. MFA accused the US of behaving like a "cowboy in the Louvre," undermining international order. In response to NSA Bolton’s caution, he was advised to look at a world map: Chukotka in the Russian Fareast is in the Western Hemisphere and not too distant from the US. As for sanctions, the MFA spokesperson declared that Russia was used to escalating sanctions and more would not make much difference, adding that when sanctions were imposed on Rosneft, the company continued to make profits, while American companies, which were forced to sever links with it, suffered. This last point is significant: since virtually every kind of sanction has already been imposed on Russia, it is difficult to see how more pain can be administered through additional sanctions. Moreover, some of the sanctions have hurt Western companies; in some cases, transferring their business to China.
There is much speculation about Russian motivations and intentions. A Russian military analyst (Pavel Felgenhauer, Eurasian Daily Monitor, January 31) has reported that the head of the Russian task force is of senior military rank – a former Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and a veteran of the Afghanistan and Chechen wars. According to him, this indicates that his mission could be to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Maduro government and security establishment and to draw up a list of measures required to ensure regime survival. Felgenhauer points out that the Russian entry into Syria in 2015 was preceded by similar high-level missions. However, it is difficult to assume that Russia has the political, economic or military stamina to sustain such an out of area operation, an ocean away and in a country where it does not have major strategic interests. Venezuela is, in every respect, different from Syria.
The US Special Representative for Venezuela let slip at a media conference that one of the tasks of the Russian force was to fix the damage to Venezuela’s S-300 air defence system, which had been damaged in the external cyberattack that had taken down a large part of the country’s power supply. He made an interesting distinction between Chinese and Russian interests in Venezuela: the former, he said, is essentially seeking to protect its loans and investments in the country, while the latter sees it as an area of geopolitical challenge to the United States (this ignores the fact that Rosneft has also significant investments in the Venezuelan oil industry). China should be pleased with this US assessment.
March 30, 2019