US, Russia engage on Venezuela

(Government supporters throng streets if Caracas after the failure of the US-backed coup attempt, Venezuela, May 1, 2019)  

The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov remarked last Thursday in Moscow that no contacts between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump are expected at the G20 summit in Japan on June 28-29. “An encounter is not planned so far and there is no talk about a meeting,” Peskov said.

This remark was made in the run-up to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s forthcoming visit to Russia on April 12-14. There has been much speculation in the US media that a summit meeting between Trump and Putin was likely among Pompeo’s talking points with the Russian leadership.  

The ‘pull asides’ that Trump has been resorting to on the sidelines of international events to have a quick word with Putin have fallen into a pattern. Firstly, things remained strictly between the two statesmen at a personal level and secondly, Trump had to take care no feathers were ruffled back home while the Robert Mueller inquiry on ‘Russia collusion’ was going on. The arrangement left the Russian side unhappy, since unstructured informal conversations eventually led to nothing. The Russian-American relations continued to deteriorate. 

Unsurprisingly, it has taken over one year for Pompeo to schedule his first visit to Moscow after he took over as state secretary in April 2018. (No US secretary of defence has yet visited Russia during the Trump presidency, either.) The proposal on Pompeo’s visit was hurriedly mooted by Washington just a few days ago, earlier this month. Therefore, if Pompeo’s visit is being treated on a low key, it could be that Moscow doesn’t expect nothing much to come out of it.

The point is, although the Mueller inquiry could not prove any ‘collusion’ between Trump and the Kremlin, Russia still remains a toxic subject domestically in the US. For Trump’s detractors, he and Russia are often synonymous. The narrative that Trump and people around him were engaged in improper activities with Russia is not about to wither away and there are further moves likely in the Washington Beltway to find out about any other possible links between the Trump organisation and even his family and Russian entities or oligarchs. 

Then, there is the vexed issue of the US sanctions against Russia, which inherently curb the scope for any meaningful expansion of ties. The post-2016 sanctions do not stem from executive orders but emanate out of laws passed by the US Congress, which takes away from Trump’s hands the powers to remove them — and, equally, they  are not even tied to specific Russian behaviours. The Russians understand well enough that the sanctions won’t be lifted for a long time. 

Within such constraints, what is it that Pompeo’s visit hopes to achieve? At a state department briefing on May 10, an unnamed senior US official disclosed that arms control will top Pompeo’s agenda during the Russia visit. He said Trump seeks new agreements with Russia “that reflect modern reality. These agreements must include a broader range of countries and account for a broader range of weapon systems than our current bilateral treaties with Russia.” Besides, he said, “There will be a full range of global challenges to discuss, including Ukraine, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, and North Korea.”

However, there are enough signs that the main thing to watch could be whether a US-Russia deal on Venezuela becomes possible. Three weeks back, Fiona Hill, senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council in the White House, had visited Moscow for consultations. Amongst others, she met Putin’s foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov. According to media reports, Hill prioritised Venezuela as the most important topic in the US-Russia relations at the moment. 

Arguably, more than oil or the Monroe Doctrine, what motivates Trump could be the impact of a regime change in Venezuela on the Hispanic voters in the 2020 presidential race in Florida. This impression would only have been reinforced last week when Pompeo met Lavrov on the sidelines of the Arctic Council meeting in Helsinki when, again, Venezuela figured prominently in their discussion. 

With the recent US-backed coup attempt in Venezuela on April 30 having failed spectacularly, the probability of an outright US intervention is low — almost non-existent.  Trump would be reaching out for Russian help for a constitutional transition in Caracas that he could project as a ‘win’. Both Washington and Moscow are highly experienced in adopting a transactional approach to their relationship. 

For Russia, on the other hand, its support for the Maduro government in Caracas is driven as much by financial and energy interests as by Moscow’s vision of a multipolar world order that is based on international law. As the Moscow-based analyst Fred Weir wrote recently, “while it may look and sound like a Cold War standoff, for Russia it is really about the simpler issue of establishing rules for competing big powers in a post-Cold War world. In Venezuela, and between the US and Russia generally, there is no sharp ideological divide over world-shaping doctrines like communism versus capitalism.” 

Simply put, the Russian-American discord over Venezuela boils down to this: Washington wants Russia to stop ‘meddling’ in the Western Hemisphere, while Moscow would expect that the US also should stop fomenting anti-Moscow revolutions in Russia’s backyard. Otherwise, Russian experts acknowledge, it matters little to Moscow who rules in Caracas. 

The influential strategic thinker in Moscow Fyodor Lukyanov told Weir, “The relationship that emerged between Russia and Venezuela was an accident. It was mainly the initiative of Hugo Chávez, who was seeking counterbalances to his country’s dependence on the US. Of course this was enthusiastically supported in Moscow. But it should be pointed out that at that time, the early 2000s, Chávez was rich and could pay for Russian arms and advice. Since Chávez died, and his successor has not proven so adept or popular, many in Moscow have been worried about our heavy investments in a potentially unstable regime.” 

It is entirely conceivable that this complicated Russian-American tango of ‘meddling’ in the other side’s region could be in the first instance what prompted Washington to schedule Pompeo’s hurried visit to Russia to meet Lavrov and Putin in Sochi on April 14. Evidently, the Trump administration’s resuscitation of the Monroe Doctrine provides a diplomatic opening to Moscow, which of course continues to cherish the territories of the former Soviet republics as its own ‘sphere of influence’, too. 

To quote Lukyanov again, “This citing of the Monroe Doctrine is something quite intriguing, and it would be warmly welcomed in Moscow if we thought the Americans took it seriously.” Indeed, some reports on Fiona Hill’s talks in Moscow last month hinted that she made a proposal to what roughly involved Russia letting up on Venezuela in exchange for some US concessions on Ukraine. 

Be that as it may, significantly, Russian and Venezuelan foreign ministers met in Moscow on the eve of Lavrov’s meeting with Pompeo in Helsinki last week. What needs to be factored in is that although the coup attempt of April 30 failed, the situation in Venezuela is fluid. According to the Russian media, President Maduro has expelled dozens of army officers for their involvement in the coup, including high ranking officers. 

To be sure, Moscow would know that a political solution is needed. The good part is that regime change is off the table as of now, which gives the respite to negotiate. After the meeting with Pompeo in Helsinki, Lavrov told the media that he’d rule out any foreign military intervention in Venezuela.  

But the problem is that trust is lacking between Washington and Moscow. Russia cannot be sure that the American side will keep its side of the bargain — that is, assuming there is a will to negotiate at all. Again, there is the issue of US sanctions, which has crippled the Venezuelan economy over the recent years. This is important because Russia’s exposure to Venezuela is huge. At the very least, Russian investments (loans) to Venezuela since 2005 amount to $17 billion.