Venezuela: Russia and hemispheric geopolitics – Stabroek News Editorial

Stabroek News – October 13, 2019

A number of news organisations, including the BBC, have produced pieces on Russia’s growing global reach, and President Vladimir Putin’s apparent mission to re-establish his country’s influence in world affairs and engineer a return to spheres of influence. He has been aided by the carelessness, lack of judgement and sometimes arrogance of the West, which made it possible for him to make Moscow a player in the Middle East, take the Crimea and bring eastern Ukraine under its ambit.

But all of this, while of interest to Guyanese on account of the small world we live in, is not of immediate moment. In contrast, Russia’s actions across our border are. Once again, with Washington taking the lead, the West made a strategic miscalculation in de-recognising Nicolás Maduro as Head of State and Government in Venezuela, and according interim presidential status to Juan Guaidó.             

In other countries where a government is in office as a consequence of a flawed election, pressure is exerted on it for the holding of a free and fair poll – and sometimes not even then, as Guyana well knows. It is not the customary international practice to give recognition to someone other than the president, no matter the pro tem basis of it or that it happens to be in alignment with the local Constitution.

The nations which recognised Mr Guaidó based their decision on the assumption that the security services, in particular the army, would withdraw their support from Mr Maduro. But for reasons which are well known, this has not happened, and neither is it likely to happen in the immediate future as far as anyone can tell. With two ‘presidents’ in Venezuela, an opening is created for something which has echoes of a Cold War situation, with the West supporting Mr Guaidó, and a group of mostly ‘socialist’ countries led by Russia lending their backing to Mr Maduro. With President Donald Trump allergic to committing US troops to foreign wars – rightly, in this particular instance – the Kremlin, whose opportunism is legendary, can afford to take the risk of entrenching itself in Venezuela. It has the obvious advantage, of course, that President Maduro is actually in power, while the West is operating from a position of powerlessness, depending mostly on American sanctions which so far have not produced the results expected.

An article by Ryan C Berg, which appeared in the online edition of Foreign Policy magazine last week, also maintains that it is not financial considerations which are behind the present Russian policy, but geopolitical ones. Apart from anything else, PDVSA, the Venezuelan oil company, which had previously owed so much money to Rosneft, the Russian state-owned energy company, has managed to bring down its outstanding debt to $1.1 billion, and could repay the sum owed in full at the current rate by the end of this year, or by early 2020.  Rosneft has been accepting Venezuelan crude as a form of loan repayment, writes Berg, and was the top trader of Venezuelan oil, handling 40 per cent of PDVSA’s exports in July this year, a figure which had risen to 66 per cent by August.

The author is of the view that staying in Venezuela is a “low-cost” strategy for Mr Putin, and that he is “eyeing even deeper intervention…” He makes mention of the recent agreement between Moscow and Caracas relating to warships visiting each other’s ports, but places it in a new context. He writes that it may be a response to President Trump’s references to a naval blockade against Venezuela, and that if Russian warships and submarines were to be deployed from our neighbour’s ports, it could have the objective of inhibiting the US naval capacity to interdict vessels in the southern Caribbean. He refers too to the Cuban request to Russia to escort Venezuelan tankers carrying oil shipments to the island.

Berg reports the Head of US Southern Command, Craig Faller, as saying that Russian troops have embedded themselves in garrisons around Venezuela by the hundreds. In addition, they were following the pattern adopted in the Ukraine by wearing Venezuelan army fatigues, in order to blend in. As has been reported on several occasions before, Venezuela has been buying Russian weaponry over the years, and the missile defence system it had purchased is to be upgraded.

More disturbing, however, is Berg’s allusion to the fact that the Russians “have openly mused about stationing cruise missiles in Venezuela as a response to the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.” One hesitates to think that the Russians would be giving this proposal serious consideration, given all its implications.

As has been reported elsewhere, the Russians are looking to invest as well in Venezuelan agriculture, which was destroyed by Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro between them, in addition to the gold-mining industry. Venezuela’s gold mines are located in the border areas, some of them not so far distant from us. As we well know, criminal gangs have their grips on not a few of them along the Cuyuni River and in the Imataka, so whether the Russians will take these over, or will operate them indirectly, remains to be seen. The details of the investments, assuming they have been finalised, have not yet been made public, but any along the Cuyuni in particular, would be of interest to us. The Venezuelans have been no respecters of our frontier in that zone.

The Guyana government is so self-absorbed at the moment that it gives the impression of having no interest, time or energy for anything other than local politics. It is likely, of course, given that the ICJ is scheduled to listen to arguments in March next year as to whether it can hear the case relating to the border controversy, and given the hope that it will hear it, the government does not consider it has to exert itself on boundary matters for the time being. If so, it is seriously mistaken.

The entry of Russia into this hemisphere’s geopolitical equation would change the factors of which it is composed in a way we have never seen before. In particular, were it to be the case that Moscow were to have a marine presence in the Caribbean, even at a minor level, that could potentially constitute a problem for us at a time when Venezuela is putting its energies into maritime aggression against us. As it is, Russia’s strange little allegation about a British base on an island in the Essequibo which is training Venezuelan refugees to undermine the Maduro government stirs unease about the Kremlin’s intentions. Where a Russian maritime presence is concerned, the issue would be how the United States would respond, something which is very hard to predict in the case of the present White House.

While we hope that the ICJ will hear the case, and that if it does, it most likely will find in our favour, our problems may still not be at an end. It will certainly knock the bottom out of Venezuela’s legal case and confirm our moral rights to our territory. Furthermore, Venezuela could not then turn to any other tribunal more to its liking to hear the matter.

However, Caracas has already refused to participate in the ICJ proceedings, and like the case of the Philippines against China in the South China Sea, where the latter country refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the international court, Venezuela will almost certainly not recognise the ruling. At a legal and moral level that still would not help it, but while we might hear less about the land boundary, our neighbour still may pursue its bullying ways in our maritime space on the spurious grounds that no borders there have yet been negotiated. This is more likely if Caracas feels it has Russian backing. It would be in contravention of international law if it happened, but then when did international law ever disturb the slumber of any incumbent of Miraflores?

The governments of this country from time to time, and one political party in particular, have had close relations with the USSR (as it then was) in the past. However, they should understand that all of that means nothing now. Of course, it may be the case that even the Russians find they can’t keep Mr Maduro in office for an extended period, and that some opposition party or alliance will come to power sooner rather than later. If so, this would remove the Russians from the equation. If that happened, however, it would not mean that we would get a change in approach to boundary matters, since all parties in Venezuela labour under the delusion that Essequibo and associated waters are theirs. The external factors which would operate in such circumstances, however, cannot yet be predicted.

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  • kamtanblog  On 10/15/2019 at 3:54 am

    Ways I sees it
    Occupation by stealth !
    Mad-uro may be willfully “emptying his
    jails” of dissidents. Castro did so during
    George w reign ! Most of his dissidents
    now living in USA.
    One way of securing Essequibo is
    by flooding the area with Venezuelan
    guns and drug lords…mixed in with his
    Someone made a suggestion on
    GOL that with the coming of the
    Lethem to GT road construction
    and oil wealth it may be an opportunity
    for north Brazilian poor/unemployed to
    flood Guyana with economic migrants.
    Pipe dreaming ! Am sure increased border
    controls and legal migration can address
    that issue. Building a wall to keep immigrants
    out certainly not an option.

    My two cents


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