Putin and Venezuela: What Russia Risks

Vladimir Putin and Nicolas Maduro

by Mark N. Katz

Putin must find it not just annoying, but confusing. With Trump bent on pulling back from international engagement by disparaging NATO and announcing his intentions to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, a popular, democratic revolution appears to be on the verge of ousting an anti-American authoritarian government with longstanding ties to Moscow. Putin, though, does not regard these events as popular or democratic, but as orchestrated by the United States to replace a pro-Moscow regime with a pro-Washington one.

As Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy detailed in their 2015 book, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, Putin sees the United States behind the democratic revolutions that occurred in Eastern Europe in 1989, Georgia in 2003, and Ukraine in 2004 and 2013-14. Putin famously blamed the demonstrations against him in 2011-12 in Russia on a signal given by Hillary Clinton. He sees what is happening in Venezuela as yet another such effort.

The problem, of course, is that he is wrong both about democratic revolutions in general and the one being attempted in Venezuela now. Whatever role the United States and other states may have played in helping these uprisings, their impetus is domestic. The authoritarian government’s own incompetence, corruption, and misrule are what have led much of the population to become fed up and demand change.

It is not at all clear whether the present political crisis in Venezuela will end either with the downfall of President Nicolas Maduro and the victory of democracy or the regime’s violent repression of the democratic opposition. However, Putin’s refusal to understand that the ongoing Venezuelan regime crisis is mainly of its own doing and not that of the United States or other external powers means that he either does not appreciate or is downplaying the risks of Moscow’s continuing to support Maduro.

The Venezuelan opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, has not only attempted to reach out to the Venezuelan military but also to the Maduro regime’s foreign supporters, China and Russia. China, which has lent $50-60 billion to Caracas and has become increasingly worried about whether it will be repaid, has expressed its opposition to external (i.e., U.S.) intervention. But it has also pragmatically signaled its willingness to work with both sides in Venezuela. Even if China is not happy with the opposition taking power, Beijing wants to be able to work with it to preserve China’s economic interests. By contrast, Russia, which has lent about $17 billion to Venezuela that it also wants repaid, has come out strongly in favor of Maduro.

Should the opposition prevail, then, it is far more likely to cooperate with China than with Russia. But even if the Maduro regime prevails, this could prove to be a problem for Russia. Although Maduro may be able to crush his opponents—with some Russian support—he is not going to be able to reverse the sharp deterioration in Venezuela’s economy. Putin very much wants a return on Moscow’s investments in Venezuela. But he may instead have to spend more scarce resources to keep Maduro in power over a population increasingly resentful not just of his rule but of the foreign powers supporting it. Moscow’s relations with Beijing may also be negatively affected if a Maduro regime that is increasingly dependent on Moscow is unable to make good on what Venezuela owes China.

It is still not clear whether the Trump administration will adopt a deft approach to the current crisis in Venezuela—which it hasn’t shown anywhere else—that allows for a peaceful democratic transition, or whether it pursues a ham-fistedly belligerent policy that enables Maduro to rally nationalist sentiment against an American threat. The United States may not even have much of any impact on the internal drama playing out in Venezuela.

Although China appears to be hedging its bets on the outcome in order to work with either side, Putin is doubling down on its support for the Maduro regime. If Maduro falls, Russia’s ties with the new democratic government will be at risk. Even if Maduro prevails, however, Putin is going to have to expend Russian resources to keep Venezuelan’s weak regime in power, which will continue to remain vulnerable.

Neither scenario is in Russia’s interests.

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Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at www.marknkatz.com

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6 Comments

  1. The situation ressembles Libya and Syria but the ISIS is missing but Columbia’s
    role ressembles Turkey’s in Syria.
    I believe that Russia will encourage the military to stand with Maduro thus forcing the US and its European allies to threat and intervene militarily. (Chaos or Guaido’s elimination may trigger that intervention). As the UN will not allow this intervention, we will get a Libyan style situation with an illegal war. The Western population is generally reluctant about a war and invasion with the Neocon warmongers are delighted. If the Western intervention takes place anyway like in Libya, the Venezuelian population will probably rally around Maduro and the West will find itself in another long term military quagmire. If it does not intervene, it will have to find a replacement to Guaido and that is not easy. They will have demonize Maduro but would be impotent to make any regime change. We may end up like in Egypt with a military government
    In my view, this is the only winning strategy for Russia.

  2. A democratic revolution?

    On what planet is this guy living?

    This is nothing more than the overthrow of a government we don’t like. If the international polling is accurate, most Venezuelans do not want Maduro overthrown. They don’t want a Yanqui invasion. And they don’t want to live under the sanctions that the US is imposing. Most had never heard of this Guaido until quite recently.

    This is regime change pure and simple and another violation of international law just like Iraq and Syria.

    Granted, the Chavez-Maduro government is corrupt, but then it is Latin America, so what do you expect? And the two should have spent a lot more time figuring out how to ensure the long-term revenue stream from energy instead of spending it like drunken sailors while oil prices were going steadily upward as they did from the time Chavez was first elected until the global financial crisis of 2008. But that kind of behavior is typical leftist miscalculation.

    In any case, whatever the shortcomings of Chavez-Maduro, there is no excuse for what is in effect a reimposition of the Monroe Doctrine/Roosevelt Corollary that is transpiring now. Essentially, the US is battening down the hatches as it gears up for the the world-historical struggle with China, and any Western Hemisphere government that is not 100% on the right side of that emerging conflict will be eliminated. And then, of course, there’s the oil.

    This article appears to be nothing more than neocon shilling. I am quite surprised to see it at Lobelog.

  3. As a professor and researcher of Russia and ME politics, Mark Katz’s Head is in the sand! Do you live on this planet or you’re checking on it from the Mars once in the while? Since when the attempted coup’s have become ”promotion of democracy”?
    What do you know about the history of Russia, ME and South America? May be nothing and you’re trying to learn about them from the commentators! Please don’t be a mic for the neocons because the neocons have caused enough problems around this planet!

  4. Wrong big time. Venezuela is wracked with self made problems but they are exacerbated mightily by the USA, and currently the USA is doing everything in it’s power to bring Maduro to his knees. How does this sort of writer sneak into Lobelog?

  5. Lol Mark Katz is still sore that the Russo Iranian support of Assad won back Syria’s control of the Levant.
    I’d like to read his current opinion on Iran’s control of the region, that is if he’s not going to write another fictional piece like this “democracy at gunpoint” for Venezuela. Last year he wanted Putin to be the liaison of Iran and Israel, not acknowledging that Israelis have always been out of control pushing for more western wars in the region.

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