Last December, Russia flew two of its strategic bombers to Venezuela as a display of military capacity. These training missions have occurred every five years since 2008 as part of a military cooperation agreement between Caracas and Moscow. The flight of the Tu-160s was accompanied by rumors that Moscow may be looking to establish a military base in the Caribbean. Unnamed sources were quoted by Nezavisimaya Gazeta saying that the Venezuelan island of La Orchilla is a potential site. Eventually, these rumors proved to be mere fantasy, yet they underscored that, in spite of Caracas’ growing isolation, Moscow is there to stay.
Why is Moscow still considering Venezuela as a strategic partner when it is progressively being isolated diplomatically and has an economic meltdown? Geopolitics is crucial. However, some analyses have tended to simplify the Caracas-Moscow relation to an anti-U.S. transcontinental axis, to the point of some calling for Washington to enforce the Monroe Doctrine on Russian activities in the country. This perspective tends to reduce Venezuela to a vessel or a blank space. Some fail to acknowledge the agency of Latin American countries, especially on the topic of why did Latin America swerve left (see, Operation Condor) and become receptive to Moscow. A shared animosity towards the U.S. is a crucial factor determining the geopolitics of the relationship. However, also significant is the legacy of the “pink tide” and its vision on multipolarity.
Throughout the 2000s, Latin America saw the rise of a series of center-left governments in the region’s major countries, Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. Dubbed the “pink tide,” it significantly changed the region’s politics. The shift in the realm of diplomacy was notable. The tide’s governments promoted a slew of new regional integration projects, such as the would-be European Union of South America, Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and the more overtly anti-U.S., the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). It also gave new life to the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR). These organizations were seen as powerful symbols of Latin American unity and rising profile as an autonomous actor in world politics. It also sought to diminish the influence of the Organization of American States, which is seen by some in the region as a vehicle for American influence. Underlying these projects was an understanding that the world is transiting to multipolarity and that Latin America is moving away from Washington’s hegemony.
Russia did not prompt these changes in Latin American politics, but it did respond to them. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia retreated from the region. Since the collapse of socialism, Moscow found no clear partners in the region nor resources to engage with older partners (Cuba) during the 1990s. The pink tide and the commodities boom offered Russia a chance to “return.” First, because of the convergence in worldviews between the pink tide governments and Russia in regards to multipolarity. Not only did pink tide governments endorse this view of world politics, but they built their diplomatic programs on it. Then, the pink tide was taken in Russia as a sign that Washington’s relative influence in the world is waning, even in its own, so-called “backyard.” For Russia, to build a presence in Latin America is seen as a way to assert Russia’s global reach. Finally, since 2014. Russia has been looking to diversify its diplomacy to break out of the post-Crimea isolation. This imperative has drawn Moscow to engage further with regions outside of Europe, which drives Moscow to explore more opportunities in Latin America. However, Moscow chose not to engage the region’s multilateral institutions. Instead, Moscow decided to engage the area by way of its bilateral relations, and carefully chose its partners.
Today, the Russian moves in Latin America that grab the most headlines are those that are taking place in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba. However, during the times of the pink tide, it was the leaders of the region whom Moscow was courting, which is where Hugo Chávez’ legacy of regional leadership plays in. At the start of the 2000s, Venezuela was far from the mess it is in now. The commodities boom led its oil-based economy to grow, with its GDP climbing quickly, at a pace of about four percent throughout the Chávez era (1999-2013). The country’s poverty rate plummeted. This economic wealth was paired with the immense popularity of Chávez, at home and abroad. He, along with Nestor Kirchner and Lula da Silva, became leaders of the pink tide, lending their weight to projects such as UNASUR and the large-scale investment projects that the grouping promised. Moscow, recognizing their leadership in the region, gave them privileged status in its Latin America strategy. This broader approach to the region marked a departure from Moscow’s Cold War Latin America strategy. Instead of having only one country (Cuba) as a “base” from which to try to influence the region, in the post-Soviet period Moscow decided to engage the whole region, fostering various strategic partners in a diverse array of issue-areas.
Will Russia Stay in the Region?
The pink tide peaked around 2015 when Argentina elected centrist Mauricio Macri to the presidency. Its end came along with a shift in regional governments around the mid-2010s, as more center-right parties won elections. Moreover, UNASUR and ALBA are in decline, and Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro faces growing international isolation. Now that Venezuela has been in economic meltdown and has lost over a million people due to emigration, Moscow is seen by Caracas as a potential lender of last resort.
In choosing Venezuela as a strategic partner, Moscow focused on what it saw as one of the region’s ascendant leaders, and an ally in an emergent multipolar world. However, among all Latin American countries Russia did not choose to engage Venezuela only, nor did it intend to replicate in Venezuela its experience with Cuba during the Cold War. Many commentators in Russia suggested that Moscow must deepen its relations with Brazil, the country they see as the real key player in the region. For Venezuela, Russia is more than a friendly brother-in-arms in the emerging multipolar world, it is a potential security provider in the face of a hostile U.S. The threats coming from the Trump administration to intervene militarily in Venezuela have only driven Caracas closer to Moscow. The relationship between Russia and Venezuela is thus an unbalanced one, one from which Moscow receives not much more than geopolitical clout, and a chance to assert its “global” reach. Venezuela’s current crisis will test the depth of this relationship and to what extent is Moscow ready to involve itself to prop up Maduro’s faltering regime. For the moment, dubious investment pledges, displays of military cooperation and declarations of support may be the extent of Russia’s generosity towards Venezuela.
Ivan Ulises Kentros Klyszcz is a doctoral student at the University of Tartu, Estonia. He can be found in Twitter at @IvanUlisesKK.