Trump said Putin isn’t looking to get involved in Venezuela. Two days later, Russia’s and Venezuela’s foreign ministers meet.

“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.

Putin Punches Above His Weight

Russian president’s global strategy keeps Moscow’s tentacles in enough places that the Kremlin is ensured a seat at every table that matters

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.

What is Russia’s goal in all this? Probably, in the first instance, it’s simply to keep Russia in the global game. By ensuring that Moscow’s tentacles are in enough places, Mr. Putin can win a seat at every table that matters. Thus does he maneuver to restore the global importance of Russia, which he thinks was unjustly stolen by the combination of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the West’s maneuvers to marginalize a once-great power.

Only in the second instance, most likely, is the Putin goal to gain some particular advantage or asset. Russia fishes in troubled waters. One day it may catch something that turns out to be valuable.

Venezuela may be the best current example of this strategy. Asked why Russia seems to want a beachhead in Venezuela, a senior U.S. official replies simply: “Why not?”

Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves and uranium reserves second only to Canada’s, the official notes. The world markets for oil and uranium matter greatly to Russia, whose economy is based almost entirely on such commodities, so having a hand on such big parts of the world supply can’t hurt.

And preserving a base of operations in Venezuela helps strategically in the continuing effort to keep the U.S. off balance and reactive. Russia already has plenty of influence in Cuba, but Venezuela may be a safer location for a Western Hemisphere foothold. “Cuba is too close to the U.S.,” the senior official says. “Venezuela is a better base of operations.” As noted: Why not try?

OPEC Has a New Best Friend: Russia

Putin has helped resolve conflicts within the cartel, giving the country considerable influence over oil markets

When the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries met in Vienna in December, it was in danger of imploding.

Oil prices had plunged. Member states Iran, Venezuela and Libya were refusing to cut production. Qatar had quit. And U.S. President Donald Trump was pressuring Saudi Arabia to keep prices low.

With negotiations teetering on the brink of failure, rescue came from an unlikely place—Russia, which isn’t even an OPEC member. President Vladimir Putin agreed to cut Russian oil production in league with OPEC, provided that Iran was allowed to keep pumping.

The degree of acrimony that pervaded that critical meeting, and the critical role Russia played in resolving the crisis, hasn’t previously been reported. What happened behind closed doors in December was a pivotal moment in Russia’s transformation from a nation that didn’t cooperate with OPEC at all to one that has become an indispensable partner.

Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih recently joked that he talks more with his Russian counterpart Alexander Novak than with some of his colleagues in the Saudi cabinet. “We met 12 times in 2018,” he said of Mr. Novak at a news conference in March.

At the next OPEC meeting, scheduled for May, Russia and Saudi officials will discuss whether to formalize what has been until now an temporary alliance.

For decades, the U.S. has embraced Saudi Arabia as one of its close geopolitical allies, selling it arms and encouraging its role as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. In exchange, Washington has come to expect a stable supply of oil to global markets to help damp price spikes and to prevent harm to the U.S. economy.

With its new ally in Russia, Saudi Arabia is no longer beholden only to Washington.

Under Mr. Trump, the U.S. has altered its longstanding, hands-off approach to the cartel. Mr. Trump has repeatedly tweeted for OPEC to boost output to drive oil prices down, and he has phoned the Saudi government directly asking the kingdom to open the taps.

“The United States-Saudi Arabia relationship plays a critical role in ensuring Middle East stability and maintaining maximum pressure against Iran,” said a senior Trump administration official. “The U.S.-Saudi relationship remains strong.”

The murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey last October created a fresh rift between the Saudi kingdom and the U.S.—and provided an opening for Russia to insert itself further into OPEC.

.. Oil prices had cratered in 2016 and didn’t look likely to rebound. The three men needed to orchestrate a deal to reduce crude output to lift global prices. Russia and OPEC agreed to cut production.

By the middle of last year, crude was soaring again, thanks to lower output from OPEC and Russia and renewed prospects for global economic growth. By the end of the year, however, amid a U.S.-China trade battle, the world’s economic outlook was dimming.

As the December OPEC meeting loomed, oil prices had plunged some 30% in six weeks. The Saudis needed unanimous agreement on proposed production cuts to shore up prices. Iran, already hobbled by U.S. sanctions that began in November, was reluctant to curb its output. Libya and Venezuela, with domestic troubles of their own, also were holdouts.

With the cartel about to meet in Vienna, Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor in the Persian Gulf, shocked global oil markets by announcing it was leaving OPEC. It was among a small group of member countries that felt overshadowed as the Saudi-Russia alliance grew stronger. OPEC has become “basically all about what [Prince Mohammed] and his buddy Putin want,” says a Qatari official.

.. When Mr. Falih asked Iran to join the collective production cut, Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh rejected the demand and blamed Persian Gulf countries for replacing Iran’s sanctioned oil. According to the people familiar with the conversation, he pointed his finger at Mr. Mazrouei, the Emirati minister in charge of the meeting, and said: “You are the enemy of my country.” Mr. Zanganeh then threatened to suspend Iran’s membership in OPEC, these people said. Spokesmen for the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s energy ministries couldn’t be reached for comment.

 .. Mr. Novak acknowledged that Russia would benefit from the cartel’s cuts. “We need $60 a barrel and we are under sanctions” from the U.S., OPEC officials recall him saying.When Mr. Falih re-entered the OPEC meeting room, he was beaming.

The coalition began curbing output in January. Oil prices have risen 30% since the beginning of the year, their best annual start since the early 1980s.

Saudi Arabia says it has trimmed more than it promised. Russia had pledged to curb production by 230,000 barrels a day, but in March it had slashed daily output by just 120,000 daily barrels, according to OPEC and Russian officials.

Saudi officials say Riyadh is willing to overlook Russia’s shortcomings because it needs support on the international stage. “We cannot afford to lose them,” says one Saudi official.