US vs Russia: Cold War Era Brinkmanship As Venezuela Crisis Deepens
As relations worsen between the US and Russia, is Venezuela beginning to look like the first contested battleground in a new Cold War?
Tensions between the U.S and Russia are threatening to get out of hand over the deepening crisis in Venezuela. Moscow has already fired a warning shot over Washington’s recognition of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president.
The crux of the issue is Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the U.S. calls his administration a dictatorship and asserts it is undemocratic, whereas Russia asserts U.S. support of Guaido in Venezuela goes against international law.
“His regime is morally bankrupt, it’s economically incompetent and it is profoundly corrupt. It is undemocratic to the core,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Mike Pompeo told a meeting in Washington last Thursday of the 35-member Organization of American States.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin telephoned Maduro last Thursday and “emphasized that destructive external interference is a gross violation of the fundamental norms of international law,” according to a statement on the Kremlin’s official website.
Maduro is under immense pressure to vacate office amidst widespread protests over the ailing economy that has seen inflation levels soar 1500 percent. Maduro is barely a year into a new six-year term after being elected in May, in an election that the opposition boycotted. The country has since emerged as a battleground, pitting the U.S. and its allies against Russia and its allies.
The U.S. is at loggerheads with Maduro over what it claims is a humanitarian catastrophe that has left citizens poverty-stricken and struggling for basic necessities. Washington is on record blaming the current administration of looting government coffers and plunging Venezuela into abject poverty and starvation.
Maduro can heave a sigh of relief having received support not only from Russia but as well from China, Mexico, Bolivia, Cuba and Turkey. However, soaring pressure from the U.S. and its allies continues to pressure Maduro and wreak instability in the country.
Just as it did with Russia over its Crimea involvement, the U.S. has imposed stringent economic sanctions on Venezuela, the most recent coming after in May of 2018 just a day after Maduro won re-election. Washington has also made it impossible for Maduro’s government to secure funds abroad to battle the high levels of inflation. With Russia moving to take a key role in the crisis, Venezuela is beginning to look like a Cold War era battleground.
The crisis peaked last week when Guaido, the 35-year-old leader of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress, declared that he had assumed presidential powers and vowed to hold a free election to oust Maduro. The U.S. and its allies quickly backed Guaido, prompting Venezuela to order all U.S. diplomats out of the country within 72 hours. Venezuela later walked back the demand and suspended it for 30-days in an effort to open a dialogue.
Russia Venezuela Interest
The Russian government has already had to refute claims that it sent mercenaries to back the embattled Maduro administration. The claims stem from an article by Reuters published last Friday which cited three sources in a report that said Russian private security contractors linked to the Wagner Group traveled to Venezuela to provide Maduro with support.
The Wagner Group is a Russian paramilitary organization which has previously operated in Syria and Ukraine.
Russia has not directly denied the Reuters report but they have attempted to downplay it. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said in response to reports of Russian mercenaries in Venezuela, “We have no such information” and has also dismissed reports by stating, “Fear has a hundred eyes.”
Claims that the Kremlin could have sent hundreds of mercenaries to shield Maduro from a coup raises serious concerns about what could unravel in the coming days or weeks. However, it would not come as a surprise that Russia is considering direct or indirect military action considering Russia’s investment in the country.
Venezuela is host to some of the biggest investments by Russia in the western Hemisphere hence, a move to shield Maduro from any interference by the U.S. The European superpower has reportedly spent $17 billion in investments in the cash strapped nation. Russia has already agreed to restructure over $3 billion worth of debt to Venezuela.
Russian oil giant Rosneft also owns shares in Venezuela oil production and Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, bigger than that of Saudi Arabia. While Venezuela is a battleground for influence in the Western hemisphere it is also a battleground for access and influence over the large Venezuelan oil reserves.
US Bank Rolling Opposition
The U.S. and Russia clashed outright during an emergency meeting called by the U.S. at the U.N Security Council on Saturday when the U.S. urged the security council to recognize opposition leader Guaido as the leader of Venezuela.
The U.S. insisted that an exit of Maduro would mark a return to democracy. Russia on its part insisted that the U.S. is meddling in the sovereignty of a nation by acknowledging an opposition leader as the president.
“The time is now to support the Venezuelan people, recognize the new democratic government led by interim President [Juan] Guaido, and end this nightmare. No excuses. [..].Now, it is time for every other nation to pick a side. No more delays; no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you are in league with Maduro and his mayhem,” said U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo
The U.S. has already granted Guaido and his forces $20 million in what it claims to be humanitarian aid and to support his claim for power. The financing seeks to cancel out the financial, political and military support that the Maduro administration continues to receive from China, Russia, and Cuba.
The crisis in Venezuela appears to have split the world into two with one faction supporting the current Maduro administration as the other echoes support for the opposition. The U.S. on its bid has received support from over 15 countries led by France and Germany. The countries insist they will continue to recognize Guaido as the president unless Maduro calls new elections. Russia and its allies led by Mexico, Turkey and Cuba have opposed the proposal.
Venezuela remains on edge and the involvement of Eastern and Western superpowers in the tussle will have huge ramifications going forward. The ultimate prize as it stands is the Venezuela military. Both Maduro and Guaido are vying for the allegiance of the country’s military.
On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that supporters of Guaido handed leaflets to soldiers detailing a proposed amnesty law that would protect them for help in overthrowing Maduro.
On the same day, Maduro was wearing tan fatigues and watching military exercises. He then appeared on state TV surrounded by the military’s top brass in an address to soldiers where he asked them if they were plotting with “imperialist” U.S. in leading a coup against him.
“No, my commander-in-chief,” they shouted in unison, and Maduro responded: “We’re ready to defend our homeland — under any circumstance.”
The military holds the key to a successful coup that the U.S. wants. However, with Russia involved, there are no guarantees that the U.S will have its way.