Venezuela, the most oil-rich state on earth, is becoming the new theater – the first one being Syria – for the rivalry between the US and Russia. Several analysts and scholars perceive the modern geopolitical conflict between Washington and Moscow as the new Cold War; however, as a matter of fact, the first one never ended – only the players have changed.
The world saw Russia supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the US backing the rebels in Syria, and in Venezuela, it is no different. Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared his support for socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whereas US President Donald Trump has announced he will back the self-proclaimed rebel president, Juan Guaido.
The new confrontation between the major powers began recently when Guaido crowned himself as the new president, after which the world found itself divided over which leader to support. Currently, Guaido is being backed by the US, Canada, Colombia, and the EU while Russia, Iran, China, Syria, as well as Mexico, Cuba, and Turkey are supporting Maduro. The US and Russia are leading their fronts since they both have the dominant interests in the Latin American country.
The Trump administration is using sanctions and an economic blockade to isolate the Venezuelan regime led by Maduro, alongside supporting the rebel leader Guaido. But despite all this, Maduro still holds the supreme power, mainly due to the uncluttered Russian support which has complicated American efforts to foster regime change in Venezuela.
The interesting point to note here is that regardless of the sanctions, the US is still Venezuela’s number one purchaser of oil. However, all the transactions will only be transferred to the US-recognized President Guaido, not Maduro.
Russia has several reasons to back the socialist regime. Maduro has been one of the few world leaders to openly support Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and Syria. However, the most important reason is Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, which enjoys deep-rooted ties with Maduro’s government.
In December 2016, Rosneft bought 50% stakes in Citgo, a US-based oil company owned by Venezuelan energy firm PDVSA. The firm had offered Citgo as collateral to settle debts with Rosneft worth $1.5 billion, which essentially gave strategic access to Russia in Latin America, once a stronghold of the US.
The Russian fuel giant Rosneft at present imports around 225,000 barrels of Venezuelan crude oil per day, which is around 13% of Venezuela’s total exports, according to the latest trade reports from PDVSA.
In December 2018, Russian bombers took part in joint exercises with Venezuela, which caused severe concerns for American security experts since they were capable of transporting nuclear bombs. According to former US assistant secretary of defense Derek Chollet, “Russia is clearly trying to send a clear message to the United States, that they can play in our backyard.”
The US has also opened the option of military intervention to solve the Venezuelan crisis, which has been strongly criticized by Russia. While the possibilities of any military intervention from the American side is very dim, the Kremlin won’t lose the chance to counter the Pentagon once again.
Many political commentators in Russian media argued that the situation in Venezuela resembles the “Ukrainian Maidan,” when vehement protests in the country led to the ousting of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich, and the people later elected Western-backed Petro Poroshenko as the new president.
According to Rouvinski, “Russia wants to at least have a symbolic involvement in Latin America as payback for US intervention in the near-abroad, especially Ukraine.”
Apart from Russian support, Maduro also has support from the Venezuelan army, which is seen as vital for him to sustain his socialist regime. The longevity of Maduro’s regime also depends on whether he can get more economic aid from global allies like China and Iran.
As Venezuela owes around $80 billion to Russia, any sudden regime change will strongly hit the fluctuating economy of the Eurasian power.
Venezuela has indeed turned out to be the new theatre for major powers to continue their geopolitical rivalry. The leadership in Venezuela is now a battle of prestige between Moscow and Washington.
The US imposed an economic blockade on Cuba that lasted for almost 60 years, but it was not able to bring down Fidel Castro’s regime. Then it toppled Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi but that turned into nightmares for both Iraq and Libya, as these once-rich oil-producing countries became politically and economically destabilized.
Only time will tell what will happen to Venezuela.