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When U.S. President Donald Trump gave the State of the Union address in early February, Juan Guaidó, who declared himself Venezuela’s acting president last year, was in the audience as an honored guest. At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was paying a visit to Caracas. The coinciding trips were a striking reminder that there are competing visions of Venezuela’s future. 

Russia, along with countries such as China and Iran, considers Venezuela’s authoritarian president Nicolás Maduro the legitimate leader. Over the last several years, Maduro’s government has presided over a vast humanitarian crisis in the country, allowing much of Venezuela’s public infrastructure, including its public health system, to collapse. There have been widespread food shortages and malnutrition. The inflation rate has been spiraling upward since 2016, and by the end of 2019 it measured in the millions of percentage points. More than four million Venezuelans have found conditions so dire that they have fled the country in search of better prospects.

Meanwhile, Juan Guaidó, a former federal deputy in Venezuela’s National Assembly, has been recognized as its legitimate president by the United States and most Western countries. After other states recognized Guaidó, Maduro began compounding the crisis. He went to drastic lengths to stop humanitarian aid from arriving in Venezuela,if the country giving it supported Guaidó. (Last year, Maduro briefly closed the border with Brazil over such a dispute.)

Shortly after the trips of both Guaidó and Lavrov, the Trump administration issued new sanctions against the Venezuelan state airline, CONVIASA, and Russia’s state oil company, Rosneft. Washington hopes to sever some of Venezuela’s ties to Russia as one of the Maduro government’s major financial supporters and political allies. The airline was specifically targeted because it has been used to transport corrupt officials in Maduro’s inner circle for business overseas, including to the Kremlin. 

Isolating the core problem

This was a natural move in that the sanctions addressed the defining problem in dealing with Venezuela: its petroleum industry, which insulates the state from collapse. Rosneft has had a major hand in sustaining that industry, protecting it from the worst fallout of previous U.S. sanctions. It is currently illegal to import Venezuelan crude into the United States. Moscow accounts for about 70 percent of Venezuela’s oil transactions since that ban, and Rosneft largely resells crude from Venezuela to China and India. 

However, the United States cannot expect its latest round of sanctions to deter Russian support for the Maduro government. In reality, the sanctions are more likely to strengthen the relationship. As part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of undermining Western democracy and leadership, Russia has continuously cast U.S. sanctions as part of a strategy to take down Venezuela’s “legitimate” leader. That was Lavrov’s response to news of the sanctions in so many words. 

That messaging is consistent with Russia’s own experience of withstanding U.S. sanctions, spinning Russians’ endurance as evidence of Western impotence. Given the consistency of Moscow’s support for Venezuela in its current dire straits, the United States can count on having a major security risk in South America for the foreseeable future.  

Russia charges the gap

Though the Trump administration ostensibly wants to oust Maduro, its current foreign policy strategy deprioritizes the crisis in Venezuela in favor of addressing more urgent problems in the Middle East and East Asia. Putin has been friendly with Venezuela since the Chávez days, but in the last several years he has exploited the vacuum left by U.S. withdrawal. 

Maduro leans heavily on Russia for military support. Moscow has delivered an air defense system to Venezuela and maintains a military presence in the country, supposedly to facilitate defense cooperation. Indeed, defense cooperation was one of the themes Lavrov discussed with Maduro while in Caracas. A Russian military presence in the hemisphere should be an urgent and immediate concern for Washington, though the Trump administration has made no public statement on it.  

The general consensus is that using military force to oust Maduro would itself be unfavorable, especially if the effort is perceived as being led by the United States, given its history of unilaterally destabilizing governments in Latin America during the Cold War. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has not ruled out that option, nor the option of diplomatic negotiations. But the presence of Russian forces now makes a military option unthinkable, or at least more ill-advised than a few years ago. It also makes the prospect of negotiations more difficult.    

It is possible that Washington’s attention will turn away from other regions of the world, as U.S. troops are set to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan. For the moment, Russia’s actions in Venezuela are an incursion on what the United States has long considered a sphere of influence. It presents a real long-term security risk to the hemisphere.  

Sarah White is a research associate at the Lexington Institute. The views expressed are the author's own.