In December 2018, the Russian Federation sent two Tupolov-160 supersonic bombers around the world to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. On January 23, 2019, the U.S. and a series of Latin American countries recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, a move denounced by Moscow, which supports the existing regime of President Nicolás Maduro. These developments have triggered a deluge of headlines and cries of a repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis or that Venezuela could become a new Syria.
Many claim that Russia is spending billions to establish a new beachhead to advance its geopolitical interests, and indeed, Russia’s support for Venezuela does offer some geopolitical benefits. Yet after nearly two decades of close relations, the geopolitical benefits to Moscow have been limited to anti-U.S. posturing and supporting its pose of being a global power.
A closer look at the Russia-Venezuela relationship reveals it is first and foremost profit-oriented. Moscow’s outlay on Venezuela is a fraction today of what it once was, as economic ties—from energy-sector joint ventures, to arms deals, to a financial development bank—are afflicted by corruption and state collapse. The recent flurry of Russian activity is primarily aimed at protecting economic interests amid Venezuela’s crisis, rather than bolstering geopolitical strength. Geopolitical bluster has helped to cover up the failings of the Kremlin’s economic efforts to date. As the Venezuelan Crisis unfolds, Moscow is likely to prioritize defending its economic interests in Venezuela, particularly its oil investments, over its geopolitical ones.