Major power confrontations in this hemisphere have been a rarity. Not since the Soviets marched to Fidel Castro’s rescue in 1960 and Moscow intervened in Nicaragua in the 70’s has a foreign power intervened militarily in this hemisphere to directly counter U.S. strategic interests – until two months ago.
- The off-loading of two plane-loads of Russian soldiers (“military-technical cooperation,” as Moscow characterized the move) in Caracas, Venezuela in March dramatically changed the geopolitical landscape. As with Putin’s intervention in Syria in 2013, at minimal cost, Russia has positioned itself as a power-broker in a region long considered under unquestioned U.S. influence.
- And as with Russia’s interference with U.S. national elections in 2016 - a “swing for the fences” attempt to undermine U.S. political legitimacy - there has been virtually no diplomatic or economic consequence for Moscow.
- Or, as former U.S. Ambassador to India Bob Blackwill perhaps better said, the measures we DID take “are far too small to be proportional to Moscow’s many destabilizing actions.”
The Venezuelan crisis is unfolding rapidly. The key to ousting Maduro and putting Venezuela on a path to stability and economic growth is, of course, the military and the umbrella of security forces surrounding the president. But with first Cuban, and now Russian, security forces decisively committed to the protection of Maduro, breaking the security grip around the president has become immeasurably more difficult.
- The rationale for the Cuban grip is not hard to figure: since the inauguration of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, in 1999, Cuba has relied on Venezuela’s petroleum largesse to prop up its pathetically weak economy. It’s existential for Havana. The 20,000 Cubans intermingled with Venezuela’s army and increasingly calling the shots is Cuba’s payback.
- Russia’s story is different; Russian state survival isn’t at stake. Rosneft, Russia’s state-controlled oil company, may be losing hundreds of millions in its failed investments in Venezuela’s oil industry; but that’s not the point; projecting Russian influence in the U.S. back yard, and undermining U.S. interests when much of the region has tilted the U.S. way, is the point.
- With Russian troops on the ground in Caracas and elsewhere, options for Trump’s national team are now sharply constrained.
The collapse of authoritarian regimes can go fast, once cracks appear: East Germany, The Philippines under Marcos, Egypt and Tunisia during the “Arab Spring,” all stand out as examples. But dictatorial repression can also provide endurance, as the Iranian regime illustrates.
- Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations recently wrote that the Venezuelan army has yet to face its “Tiananmen or Tahrir Square moment.” If bloodshed in the coming days forces that moment, O’Neil writes, that “may be the most decisive question for the longevity of the Maduro regime.”
Bottom Line: those betting on Maduro a few months ago were counseled to “take the under.” That’s still the recommendation. The full impact of the deep Trump sanctions announced in January on Venezuela’s petroleum sector will be felt this month.
- But the Putin move - and the increasingly obvious intensity of the Cuban security forces to protect Maduro - suggest a lengthening of the “over-under” timeline.