In Castrospeak, when something is said not to happen, it likely will. The island produces very little and has little money to spend on imports. As of last week, eggs, chicken and pork are being rationed, as the country struggles to cope with shortages of staple foods. If the situation persists, the regime may face real protest for the first time since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Russia might prefer to concentrate its efforts on saving Cuba, rather than focusing on it and Venezuela simultaneously.
.. Three reasons are generally cited to explain Russia’s growing involvement in Venezuela.
- First, to protect and perhaps one day recover the more than 60 billion dollars different Venezuelan entities owe various Russian banks and companies. A post-Maduro government may not recognize these debts, many of which were not approved by Venezuela’s National Assembly.
- Second, Mr. Putin is picking his nose at the United States by being a nuisance in its backyard, in a tit-for-tat response to what Moscow considers NATO’s interference in Eastern European affairs.
Lastly, and perhaps crucially, Russia hopes to project power in a region the American government considers its sphere of influence. Russia has maintained close ties with Havana for 60 years, dating back to when Nikita Khrushchev was leader of the Soviet Union. By extending loans to Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador, Mr. Putin is trying to expand Russia’s influence in the region.
Washington has a strong hand to play, but it must do so wisely. If in fact Mr. Trump wants to do away with both governments in Cuba and Venezuela, or if he is really after regime change only in Cuba, this will lead to failure and invariably anger the country’s democratic partners in Latin America and Europe. With the exceptions of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Uruguay and Mexico, the region wants Mr. Maduro out. But it will not support Mr. Trump in any effort to dislodge the Cuban dictatorship.
Instead, Mr. Trump should continue to press Cuba to join its efforts to remove Mr. Maduro. The country can play a crucial role by affording him a safe haven and by participating in the transitional arrangements that would ensure a democratic transition: freeing all political prisoners and allowing all opposition leaders to run for office in free, fair and internationally supervised elections, re-establishing freedom of the press and association, gradually and peacefully reducing its footprint in Venezuela. Mr. Trump should engage Russia to persuade the Cubans to do so. And he should remember that after all, there is no carrot and stick approach without a carrot.
“I had a very good talk with President Putin — probably over an hour,” Trump said. “And we talked about many things. Venezuela was one of the topics. And he is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela.”
The Russian Embassy in Washington said in a statement on its Facebook page that Trump, not Putin, had initiated the call and that the two spoke for 90 minutes, not an hour. The statement said Putin “underscored that only the Venezuelans themselves have the right to determine the future of their country, whereas outside interference in the country’s internal affairs and attempts to change the government in Caracas by force undermine prospects for a political settlement of the crisis.”
.. Lavrov will have the opportunity to point out the rhetorical disparity to Pompeo personally. On Monday, the Russian official will travel to Finland, where he is to meet with the U.S. secretary of state. Pompeo said on “This Week” that he expected to work with Lavrov to potentially arrange a second meeting between Trump and Putin. Their first summit was in Helsinki in July. Pompeo also said he had not seen “the full context” of Trump’s remarks asserting that Putin does not intend to get involved in Venezuela.
You’ve got to give Vladimir Putin his due: The man knows how to play a weak hand well.
With relatively little investment, the Russian leader is expanding his toehold in the Western Hemisphere and potentially getting access to giant oil and uranium supplies by backing a dictator in Venezuela.
With relatively little investment, he has expanded his base of operations in the Middle East by propping up a dictator in Syria and by trying to send some sophisticated Russian military equipment into Turkey. (For the latter effort, he’d actually turn a profit.)
And with relatively little investment, and little notice from a distracted international community, he has kept up a low-level war against those fighting a Russian takeover in eastern Ukraine, holding on to a bargaining chip he might find useful someday.
He does all this while overseeing an economy roughly the size of South Korea’s, which produces little or nothing the world wants to buy, outside of oil and military gear.
It’s an audacious strategy—and it is working. Never was that more clear than last week, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Boltoncited Russian support as the only reason Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro remained in his country in the face of an organized uprising by his opponents and elements of his own military.
.. In short, Mr. Putin appears to recognize the moment he is in, and what to do about it. After almost two decades of a focus on combating terrorism and Islamic extremism, the world is evolving into a new era of big-power competition. The U.S. and China are the two big competitors now, of course, but Mr. Putin is making sure Russia is the third.
His problem is that Russia doesn’t have the economic might of the U.S. and China. So he brings to the table what he can, which is basically the ability to make trouble and thereby insert himself into the global mix.
Thus, Russia became an early world leader in the 21st-century tool of unconventional combat—cyber warfare. The Kremlin combined that skill with its traditional willingness to engage in the dark arts of covert action to interfere with the 2016 election in the U.S., as well as other elections in the West.
As the U.S. tries to maintain economic pressure on North Korea, Russia provides just enough economic relief to Pyongyang to ensure that Moscow has to be a player in how the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program plays out.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin is wedging himself into the space between East and West by offering to sell Russia’s S-400 air-defense system to Turkey, which happens to be a member of the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization. After members of Congress declared that Turkey couldn’t both buy the American-made F-35 jet fighter and have a Russian air-defense system geared toward shooting down that same jet, Russia stepped up and said it also would sell its own jet fighters to Turkey instead.