opinion Vladimir Frolov Why Moscow Sent its Military Personnel to Venezuela Twenty years after NATO’s bombing – The Moscow Times

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Russia鈥檚 deployment of military personnel to Venezuela last week provoked much hand-wringing and some fierce language from Washington. U.S. President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have all called on Moscow to 鈥済et out鈥 of Venezuela, end its support for President Nicolas Maduro鈥檚 government and help engineer a peaceful transfer of power to opposition leader Juan Guaido.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, invoking the Monroe Doctrine, went as far as making a thinly-veiled threat to Moscow, warning that any step toward military operations in Venezuela or other parts of the Western Hemisphere by outside powers would be treated by the United States as a 鈥渢hreat to world peace.鈥

Elliot Abrams, the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, condemned the Russian military role in Venezuela as 鈥渆xtremely pernicious鈥 and threatened a U.S. response with new sanctions.

Moscow, meanwhile, has responded with much more restrained language, at times trolling and taunting Washington.

鈥淭hey shouldn鈥檛 worry about our deployments in Venezuela, they should focus on their withdrawal from Syria,鈥 Putin鈥檚 foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said.

鈥淔irst of all, we would like Washington politicians to look at a map. Part of Russia鈥檚 territory the Chukotka Peninsula is located in the Western Hemisphere. In other words, the American continent is a close neighbor of Russia,鈥 quipped Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

Carlos Jasso / Reuters

Washington seems to be working against Russia repeating the 鈥淪yria scenario鈥 in Venezuela. In August 2015, Moscow deployed a small fighting force to Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad, upending the balance of forces, creating new leverage for Russia and limiting American room to maneuver.

Were something similar to materialize in Venezuela, U.S. plans to peacefully unseat Maduro by providing international recognition and legitimacy to Guaido could quickly unravel while drastically raising the costs of U.S.-led military intervention in support of the opposition.

Washington鈥檚 fear is probably misplaced. Although top Russian military leaders have talked 聽about using Syria as a template for 鈥渓imited military operations abroad鈥 in support of Russian interests, Venezuela鈥檚 ill-suited for such operations due to its distance from Russia and proximity to the U.S. Nor are there clear military objectives in Venezuela apart from deterring outside military intervention.

Russia鈥檚 actions in Venezuela resemble the Soviet Union鈥檚 strategy in Nicaragua in the 1980s, when it provided economic aid and military support to the Sandinista government against anti-communist insurgents (the Contras) equipped and supported by the United States. (It is ironic that Abrams, the architect of the U.S. Contra strategy, is now the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela).

Russia鈥檚 actions in Venezuela resemble the Soviet Union鈥檚 strategy in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Russia believes that the U.S. will eventually change its strategy from 鈥渞egime change by Twitter鈥 to supplying arms to the opposition to overthrow Maduro. Moscow is thus engaged in great power resolve signaling 鈥 making it clear to Washington that it no longer has freedom to take military action in any part of the world against Russian objections.

It is highly symbolic that Russia is expanding its presence in Venezuela to deter possible U.S. intervention on the 20th anniversary of NATO鈥檚 bombing of Yugoslavia.

It has become a common lamentation in Moscow that in 1999 Russia was too weak to deter NATO. The Kremlin is sensitive to undesirable parallels were it to fail in Venezuela, and as a result the country is viewed as an important test of Russia鈥檚 ability to defend its interests and allies globally.

While Russia is under no obligation to defend Venezuela (although state-owned Rosneft has about $9 billion invested there), the country is important to the Kremlin鈥檚 narrative of Russia鈥檚 return to the global stage as a great power that shapes a new multi-polar world order and has the capability to check destabilizing American unilateralism.

Sensing that Trump鈥檚 strategy in Venezuela is poorly planned, Moscow thinks it important to counter regime change in Venezuela to reflect Russia鈥檚 principles of the 鈥渞ules-based order.鈥

By taking a stand in the United States鈥 backyard, Moscow also hopes to make itself a more valuable partner for Washington on other issues, particularly those in Russia鈥檚 backyard. While structuring a 鈥渂ig deal鈥 with Trump that would require haggling on Venezuela, the Middle East and Ukraine is probably not feasible, simply re-engaging with Washington on equal footing is in itself important.

Moscow was pleasantly surprised by U.S. outreach to launch bilateral talks on Venezuela and agreed to a meeting in Rome two weeks ago. The talks turned contentious, however, with both sides sticking to their incompatible narratives.

Still, Moscow hopes to continue with the format. Russia鈥檚 preference would be to mediate between Maduro and the opposition and engineer a settlement with new presidential and parliamentary elections in ways that would look like an internal decision, not something dictated from the outside.

It is not too large a gap to bridge.

The views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moscow Times.

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