Partners in crime: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018. Image: kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
Venezuela’s partnership with Russia is likely to become ever closer as a result of Moscow’s growing international isolation.
In mid-February 2022, during the build-up to Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine, senior representatives from Moscow discretely travelled to the other side of the world to meet with their Venezuelan counterparts and celebrate another version of their high-level intergovernmental bilateral consultations. Held under heavy security measures in the government district in Caracas, the two countries – both currently under economic sanctions and regarded as pariahs in the democratic world – promised to embark on what President Nicolás Maduro called robust military cooperation ‘for the defence of peace, sovereignty and territorial integrity’. The Russia–Venezuela alliance is one of a handful of lifelines for Maduro in today’s challenging global circumstances, and probably the only one – together with China’s helping hand – partially capable of lessening Caracas’s downward economic spiral.
Years of anti-Western propaganda have allowed Venezuela to control and execute a disinformation campaign casting Moscow as the aggressor in the 2014 Crimea annexation and the current conflict. Venezuelan leaders, just like the Russians, believe they are the victims of outside powers (namely the US) trying to intervene and violate their sovereignty by plotting against their regime and its supporters. Given Russia’s and Venezuela’s previous record of defying global norms, the Ukrainian conflict solidifies Maduro’s populist discourse, moving Caracas closer to other autocratic regimes regionally (such as Nicaragua and Cuba) and worldwide (such as India, Turkey and Iran), ultimately aiding their efforts to establish a parallel non-liberal world order in which the Kremlin has a leading role.
Venezuela–Russia Relations: Partners Under Heavy Sanctions
Since 2008, the US government has sanctioned over 100 Venezuelans, including Maduro; meanwhile, the UK has recently imposed financial sanctions (asset freezes) on high-level individuals associated with the regime, including government officials, legislators, prosecutors and military officers accused of corruption, terrorism, drug trafficking, repression of civil society, violation of freedom of expression, and serious human rights violations including torture.
The Venezuelan government is currently not recognised by over 50 countries, who declared Maduro’s 2018 re-election illegitimate and have instead recognised political opponent Juan Guaidó’s interim government. Western industrialised states, including the UK, claim that Venezuelan hopes of a multipolar world are hollow and disjointed from current global governance efforts to protect democracy from populist and authoritarian camps. By some accounts, Venezuela is said to belong to the latter.
Nevertheless, the opposition in Venezuela has not been able to gain an advantage. Despite a harmonised solidarity movement toward Guaidó being embraced worldwide, his popularity has declined, and the opposition is said to have no cohesion or clear strategy. More importantly, Venezuelans consistently report their disregard for government and opposition alike.
It is likely that Maduro will continue to invest his little diplomatic capital in strengthening long-term cooperation with Putin, with whom he shares a common foreign policy cause
Despite the international efforts to sanction the Venezuelan regime and isolate it from the pro-democracy and pro-human rights global community, the assortment of punitive actions has partially backfired in some ways. Targeted sanctions such as those imposed by the US against the state-owned oil company PDVSA have made Maduro move his regime’s political, economic and military aspirations closer to Russia. Venezuela has welcomed Russian interests and deepened cooperation in energy, agriculture, mining, pharmaceuticals, finance and cultural aspects ever since its relationship with Washington turned sour in the early 2000s. Moscow recently helped Venezuela’s health personnel combat the coronavirus pandemic by sending their own version of the vaccine, and the two countries’ bilateral commerce increased by 12% in 2021, according to government sources.
Russia has become the number one arms exporter to Venezuela, accounting for 70% of the country’s total arms imports from 2000 to 2021, according to SIPRI’s arms transfer database. The total imports from Venezuela’s non-Western partners account for 80% if Chinese weapons are included for the same period. Venezuela’s record of Russian-made purchases includes surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles, T-72 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, automated robotic ammunition vehicles, and transport helicopters. Russia has sent military special forces units on multiple occasions to conduct operations on Venezuelan soil, ranging from cyber security experts to drone operators, after a botched paramilitary invasion against Maduro was discovered in 2020. Maduro also received extra security protection from Russian contractors during 2019 at the peak of public protests against his government.
Most notably, in late 2020, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Caracas and agreed to ‘counteract’ US sanctions imposed in 2017 and then again in 2019 by Donald Trump. In 2021, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Moscow did not rule out sending forces to Venezuela or Cuba if diplomacy failed with the US over Ukraine. The negotiations were botched, war ensued, yet there are no signs of extra Russian troops in the Western Hemisphere. Moscow’s desperate need for weapons and troops on the Ukrainian front means the idea of deploying any battle-ready capabilities in outlying regions is simply unrealistic. Much like Russia’s great power image and its economic reality, Venezuela’s vision of itself as compared to its political, military and geostrategic muscle (chiefly relying on its natural resources) is deeply flawed.
Defiance Brings More Instability
Venezuela’s defiance of global norms while piggybacking a war-driven Russia is having tangible security, economic and political effects in the Americas and the world.
First, it is likely that despite Washington’s desire to revamp relations with Venezuela – as demonstrated by the unprecedented March 2022 visit to Caracas by US officials to discuss resuming oil imports to help replace Russian fuel – Maduro will continue to invest his little diplomatic capital in strengthening long-term cooperation with Putin, with whom he shares a common foreign policy cause. This is much akin to other parts of the world, such as Iran, where Washington’s influence is second to Russia’s seemingly irreplaceable alliance with the Ayatollah. What is certainly a possibility is that, like many other of the Kremlin’s foreign policy priorities, extra-Eurasian commitments will wane (including big arms sales in Latin America and Africa, for instance) as a result of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia will remain a capable player in different parts of the world thanks to its previously cemented inroads, and it will still be able to facelift partnerships with regimes such as Caracas and Tehran. These countries can be expected to reciprocate and continue their support towards the Kremlin in various international fora once the Ukrainian front is appeased.
Many policy prescriptions recently mooted in the West for dealing with Venezuela are destined to disappoint because they do not consider Venezuela’s point of view or what is essential in order for the country to change its behaviour
Second, Syria, Venezuela and Russia are already responsible for the largest refugee crises since 1980, with 6.6, 5.9 and 4.5 million people displaced, respectively, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Such a track record of human insecurity will haunt them in the long term. It should prevent them from speaking credibly at many global governance institutions, leaving them with no other option than to remain excessively dependent on one another. This pairing among autocratic and rentier states reinforces ruthless leadership and promotes self-interest, as they see themselves as growing powers who can leverage the international community over energy resources.
Third, many policy prescriptions recently mooted in the West for dealing with Venezuela – such as expanding US and EU targeted sanctions, rallying countries together to pressure the Maduro regime (especially Latin American governments), or punishing Caracas on the UN General Assembly – are destined to disappoint because they do not consider Venezuela’s point of view of the current international order, or what is essential in order for the country to change its behaviour. In recent decades, Caracas’s partners in Moscow have run a foreign policy based on unilateral, corporatist and kleptocratic procedures, irrespective of global norms. Venezuela is expected to follow suit in the long run.
Whether or not Maduro is governing after 2025, the Bolivarian elite believe they are powerful and capable of maintaining their international status for years to come. For that, the leadership in Caracas hold ambitious goals that depend heavily on world events. They believe China and the US cannot advance their plans in Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific without Russia sitting at the table. They feel part and parcel of this race because two close partners and one reluctant nemesis (Washington) are defining world relations. However, because Russia has cut itself off from the West, its economy is in havoc, and it only seems to have China as a significant partner, eventually Beijing might become the more important non-Western political player in the Americas. Thus, putting Venezuela against the wall will require sufficient dissuasion to suppress the ties that currently allow it to ride the Russia–China wagon untouched.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Carlos Solar
Senior Research Fellow, Latin American Security