Diary from Trumpland

Joining forces

Print edition : April 26, 2019

An Ilyushin Il-62M, one of the two Russian military planes that arrived with troops and equipment for Caracas, at Simon Bolivar International Airport on March 28. Russia said its troops will stay in Venezuela “for as long as needed” and urged the United States not to worry about Moscow’s ties with a traditional ally. Photo: YURI CORTEZ/AFP

Boxes with medicines and disposable medical supplies to Venezuela being unloaded from a Chinese Airline in Caracas on March 29. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Venezuela’s Vice President Delcy Rodriguez after talks in Moscow on March 1. Photo: Pavel Golovkin/AP

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Russia and China both have stakes in Venezuela and are unwilling to let the U.S. drive an agenda that goes against their interests.

On March 24, two Russian military aircraft landed at Caracas’ Maiquetia airport. These planes carried about 100 Russian soldiers, who were led by General Vasily Tonkoshkurov, the chief of staff of Russian ground forces. Russian sources said immediately that this was not an unusual event. Russia and Venezuela have military cooperation agreements, and this particular trip was part of those contracts. A few days later, in the White House, United States President Donald Trump said: “Russia has to get out of Venezuela.” It was a sharp remark. Trump’s team warned that Russia should not bolster the government in Venezuela, which has been hit hard by low oil prices and by the U.S. sanctions regime.

The Russian entry into Venezuela is not a major military intervention. Although it suffices as a signal that Russia is keen to prevent any U.S. military moves in Venezuela and to ensure that Russia’s ally—the Venezuelan government—is able to withstand attempts at regime change by the U.S. A senior Russian diplomat based in South America told Frontline that the Russians would not send in too many troops. “No need to repeat the Cuban missile crisis,” the diplomat said with a smile. The reference was to the arrival of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, a provocation that almost brought the U.S. and the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) to blows at that time.

“Russia does not want any mistakes in the Americas,” said the diplomat. It will tread carefully, sending small numbers of troops, as in this case, or two large bombers, as it did in December 2018. Russia has already provided Venezuela with an anti-missile capability, although it is unclear if this will be enough to withstand a full-scale “shock and awe” type bombardment by the U.S. Air Force.

On March 31, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went on Rossiya-1 television to explain why Russian forces had entered Venezuela. “We have explained what our servicemen are doing in Venezuela,” Lavrov said. They are “providing, on an absolutely legitimate and legal basis, the maintenance of military equipment, which we have delivered in accordance with an intergovernmental agreement ratified by the Venezuelan parliament and absolutely in line with the Venezuelan Constitution”. Trump’s point person on Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, seemed to agree with Lavrov. The troops arrived in Venezuela to fix the Russian S-300 ground-to-air missile system, “which apparently got screwed up by the blackout”, said Abrams.

The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zajarova said that the blackout was the consequence of a cyberattack, one that was organised by people with detailed knowledge of Venezuela’s systems. “All the operating algorithms and vulnerable points of the equipment of those systems”, made in Canada, “were well known by the organisers of the aggression”, she said.

In 2009, Russia had lent Venezuela $2 billion to purchase 92 tanks and the S-300 missile system. In May 2012, two battalions of the S-300VM (Antey-2500) arrived in Caracas. The S-300 missile system is deployed in airbases around the country and is the main deterrent to any U.S. bombing run against the country. It was, therefore, urgent that the system be repaired, for which the Russian technicians arrived in haste.

Provocation

Nonetheless, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who must know what Abrams knows, called the troop entry a “provocation”. The numbers of troops are low and they, with the 35 tonnes of material they brought into the country, are consistent with the kind of deployment necessary to repair the defence shield.

There are indeed provocations in and around Venezuela, but not by the Russians. On March 7, the electricity grid went down in Venezuela: the loss of power most likely disrupted the S-300 missile system. The Venezuelan government accused the U.S. of a cyberattack and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs concurred. The blackout came as it became clear that the coup against the government of Nicolas Maduro was not going to succeed. Power cuts demoralise a population: it was a good way to set in motion the machinery of the coup, which had been dented by mass demonstrations across the country. The most pointed provocation came from U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who walked into a press conference with a yellow notepad that carried the words, “5,000 troops to Colombia”. Between 2001 and 2016, the U.S. provided the Colombian military with at least $10 billion worth of equipment; the U.S. has a military presence in seven Colombian military bases (it cannot set up military bases on its own in Colombia as a result of an adverse Colombian court ruling in 2010). Military leaders from the U.S. and Colombia have increased their meetings, with the U.S. Southern Command running a training programme for Colombian troops this March in the main training centre at Tolemaida Air Base, south-west of Bogota. This base is the key point for joint special forces training. Tempers are frayed between Colombia and Venezuela, with the former allowing the entire circus of provocation over aid to take place from its side of the border. U.S. military aircraft landed in plain sight in Colombia in February. It was, therefore, odd to hear Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo complain about the arrival of Russian military aircraft in Caracas.

On February 14, long before the arrival of these Russian planes, Colombian President Ivan Duque met Trump at the White House. Trump was asked whether he would send more U.S. troops into Colombia so as to put pressure on Venezuela. Trump’s answer was simple: “You’ll see.” In 2004, the U.S. Congress authorised the U.S. to allow 800 of its troops into Colombia. The “You’ll see” answer is important. Trump will either return to the U.S. Congress to see about an increase in troops to Colombia or the U.S. will do as it has already done which is to send troops to Panama. There are already reports in the Panamanian press of U.S. military drones being flown from the country. All this is deeply provocative for a situation that is already very tense.

Will China bail out Venezuela?

Venezuela’s most pressing problem is its financial instability. Inflation remains high and revenues from oil have fallen significantly. In March, the country’s oil ministry said it would no longer sell oil to India. This was in anticipation of India already cutting its oil buys as a result of immense U.S. pressure. India had become the leading importer of oil from Venezuela after the U.S. withdrew from the market. It was a shock to hear the Venezuelans say that they would not sell to India, although it was perhaps the correct decision. India would not continue to buy Venezuelan oil for long.

The Venezuelan oil ministry had already known that China would enter the oil market and become its main buyer. China sees that Venezuela and Iran—both placed under severe sanctions by the U.S.—have been selling their oil at an all-time low since November 2017. Little wonder that China has imported an average of 4,46,000 barrels a day from Iran, much more than the sanctions waiver China received from the U.S. In February, the last month for which figures are available, China bought 5,31,000 barrels a day of Venezuelan heavy crude, 17 per cent more than it bought in January. The oil buys from Iran and Venezuela are slated to continue. China, which is in the midst of a trade dispute with the U.S., seems unfazed by U.S. pressure. The prices are attractive, and it is useful to China to cement partners as it moves along with its global Belt and Road initiative.

Venezuela owes China $50 billion for loans taken out in the past few years. It owes Russia a much smaller amount, $3.15 billion. The debt servicing is itself considerable: several hundred million dollars a year for the Russian debt and much more for the Chinese loans. Russia and China both have a stake in Venezuela. They are not willing to let the U.S. drive an agenda that goes against their interests. That much is clear, as a senior Chinese diplomat said. “We have our own way of looking at the world. We do not see the world through Washington’s eyes,” he said. That kind of attitude should be welcome news in Caracas, where the sense of being beleaguered is high. If Russia and China continue to provide military and financial support, Venezuela may yet survive the aggravations of the sanctions policy. It is, perhaps, the country’s only hope.

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