Venezuela’s Crisis Could Be Another Casualty of Russia’s Ukraine Invasion
Venezuela’s Crisis Could Be Another Casualty of Russia’s Ukraine Invasion

Venezuela’s Crisis Could Be Another Casualty of Russia’s Ukraine Invasion

Almost 6,500 miles separate Caracas from Kyiv, but the protracted political crisis in Venezuela, with its attendant humanitarian emergency, is not immune to spillover from the war in Ukraine. As if Venezuela’s challenges were not already sufficiently hard to resolve, the progressive build-up of geopolitical tensions over recent years has produced a fresh layer of complexity, highlighted as never before by Moscow’s threat to expand its presence in the Americas in retaliation for NATO moves in Europe. But can foreign powers, despite their deepening adversarial stance elsewhere, somehow harness their efforts to facilitate a solution in Venezuela?

In January, as the saber-rattling over Ukraine grew louder, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov pointedly refused to rule out an enhanced Russian military presence in Venezuela, as well as elsewhere around the Caribbean, in response to NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan described the threat as “bluster,” and military analysts point out that Russia has minimal capacity to project force in the Western Hemisphere. But while the Kremlin later appeared to play down the suggestion, a Feb. 16 visit by Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov to Caracas, Havana and Managua underlined the fact that the Maduro government now has a walk-on part in the Ukrainian drama.

During Borisov’s visit, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro spoke of increasing the two countries’ “powerful” military cooperation and expressed full support for Russia’s stance on Ukraine, even if he shied away from recognizing the “independence” Donetsk and Luhansk. His remarks came as tentative moves were afoot in Caracas, Washington and Bogota to restart stalled talks in Mexico City between the Maduro government and the opposition. Maduro’s swift alignment with his Russian ally was unhelpful in this regard, to say the least. Reciprocal concessions between the two sides in the Venezuelan dispute, potentially involving sanctions relief from the U.S. in exchange for moves toward the restoration of democracy by Caracas, already looked unlikely. Nevertheless, Venezuela’s seeming reluctance to echo Moscow’s position on Ukraine’s two separatist regions left the door for compromise open at least a crack.

The comments by Ryabkov and others are not the first time that Venezuela and Ukraine have been treated as somehow two sides of the same coin. In her November 2019 testimony at former U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings, his former adviser on Russia Fiona Hill noted the Russian government’s interest in “some very strange swap arrangement” involving the two countries. “Get out of our backyard, and we will get out of yours,” was how she described the message.

However bizarre that particular notion, it is clear that any serious effort to resolve the protracted crisis in Venezuela needs to take into account the global strategic interests of the major powers— and some less major ones too.

In fact, it seems quite a while since the Venezuela crisis was primarily a domestic Venezuelan issue. The mass exodus of Venezuelans from their homeland over recent years, including millions who took with them only what they could carry, has made it impossible for Latin American and Caribbean neighbors to ignore the country’s economic and social collapse. In 2019, much of the wider world took sides either for or against the “interim government” declared by opposition leader Juan Guaido. The Trump administration imposed draconian sanctions, making Washington’s acquiescence an essential part of any political settlement, even as any compromise will be difficult for U.S. President Joe Biden to deliver because of the domestic political cost he will incur if he reverses Trump’s actions.

Meanwhile, Maduro’s principal allies—Russia, China, Cuba, Iran and Turkey—helped him survive the sanctions and staked their own claims on the country’s future. For some of them, those are primarily commercial or linked to investments in oil and gas or infrastructure projects. For Cuba they are existential: Without heavily subsidized Venezuelan oil, the future of the communist government in Havana could be bleak. While they are ideologically diverse, Maduro’s main allies share a distaste for Western, liberal values and a world order dominated by Washington.

So long as these governments remain firmly behind Maduro while regarding his removal as a threat to their global reach and status, the outcome that remains at the heart of Guaido’s proposed solution—a free and fair presidential election that in all likelihood would put the present opposition leadership in power—is likely to remain a distant prospect. After all, external allies of both sides have already demonstrated their willingness and ability to render a potential agreement less likely, either by sabotaging talks—as the Trump administration did in August 2019 by introducing secondary sanctions just as a previous round of negotiations were making progress—or simply by offering their Venezuelan partners a means of sustaining the status quo, as Russia and Iran, for example, have done by facilitating Venezuela’s oil exports in defiance of U.S. sanctions.

In spite of obstacles created by outside powers, there have been some modest gains in the past year and a certain thaw in the international climate with regard to Venezuela’s crisis.

In spite of these obstacles created by outside powers, there have been some modest gains in the past year and a certain thaw in the international climate with regard to Venezuela’s crisis. The Biden administration explicitly dropped the unworkable “maximum pressure” policy adopted by Trump and has worked with the European Union and Canada to forge a more pragmatic, multilateral approach. Although Washington continues to recognize the largely fictional “interim government” led by Guaido, hindering a necessary renewal in the ranks of the anti-Maduro coalition, it has at least moved on from insistence that Maduro must stand down before any agreement can be reached. Biden has also refrained from introducing fresh sanctions, while quietly easing some existing ones. And there is a widespread acceptance on the part of the opposition and its allies that electoral participation, even under much less than perfect conditions, is preferable to abstention.

Talks facilitated by Norway that had broken down in 2019 resumed in August, albeit only for the Maduro government to suspend them two months later. While the U.S. is not directly involved, Russia—as well as the Netherlands—has a role as an “accompanying” country, and there is provision for a broader “group of friends” that would, in theory, help sustain the process if it can be restarted.

There are also signs that the deep political polarization that has afflicted Venezuela’s neighbors is receding, potentially allowing a broader consensus to emerge on how to address the crisis. On the one hand, there is less automatic solidarity with the Bolivarian revolution among emerging leaders on the left, while on the other, two hardline regional powers opposed to the Venezuelan government—Colombia and Brazil—face elections that could result in governments more inclined toward engagement with Caracas. Unfortunately, the natural forum for reaching a more productive consensus—the Organization of American States—has been rendered ineffectual by the partisan stance of its secretary-general, Luis Almagro, so producing a course correction will be diplomatically challenging.

It may seem quixotic or even perverse, amid the extraordinary geopolitical tensions on display today, to imagine that Russia and the U.S.—to say nothing of the many other protagonists—might agree on a solution in Venezuela. But even those external powers for whom the continued existence of the Maduro government is a useful stick with which to beat their common global adversary in Washington have other concerns too. And neither Moscow, Beijing nor Havana is so enamored of their ally that they would forever hold out against a transition, so long as their commercial and financial interests were guaranteed. Immediate neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean bear a particular responsibility for ensuring that the crisis does not slip too far down the global agenda, and for seeking a consensus solution.

Resolving Venezuela’s crisis will be the result, not of an event, but of a process, one likely to be dominated by many of those currently in power. Indeed, in some respects Maduro has already initiated it. And if it is to succeed, it will need to go some way toward meeting the demands of potential “spoilers” both inside and outside Venezuela.

In 2019, in a promising initiative, Sweden hosted closed-door meetings of almost all the main external stakeholders. If and when the tension in Eastern Europe subsides, something similar will probably be needed again. For while Venezuelans themselves are the ones who must forge a settlement, it will only be sustainable if the wider world plays its part.