Trump Administration

The Folly of Conflict With Russia Over Venezuela

There is at least one point on which Washington and Moscow find themselves at odds: Venezuela.


|||Evgeniy Parilov/
Evgeniy Parilov/

For all of President Donald Trump's reputation of affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is at least one point on which Washington and Moscow find themselves at odds: Venezuela, and specifically Russian deployment of about 100 military advisers, intelligence officers, and other officials in support of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

"We strongly caution actors external to the western hemisphere against deploying military assets to Venezuela, or elsewhere in the hemisphere, with the intent of establishing or expanding military operations," National Security Advisor John Bolton said Friday, dubbing the Russian troops "a direct threat to international peace and security in the region."

Is that a red line? It has the look of one, which would be a dangerous escalation after months of intermittent saber-rattling in Maduro's direction. A formal challenge to Russia's support of the Maduro regime would be a substantial step beyond what has so far been pro forma insistences that "all options are on the table." And risking instigation of great power conflict over Moscow's limited deployment to Caracas is a reckless overreaction, not to mention unlikely to actually improve the situation on the ground, where a grave humanitarian crisis is underway. A military confrontation with Russia will not "fix" Venezuela, but it could easily make the country a warzone. Putin's intervention in Venezuela—like the continuance of the brutal Maduro regime—is certainly not desirable. Still, it is folly to imagine that a red line, and the U.S. military intervention it could produce, is a realistic or prudent solution to either.

Part of this is about history: The United States has a record of meddling in Latin America, often with disastrous results. Venezuelans are aware of that background and are resultingly wary of much U.S. involvement in their nation's internal politics. Maduro is aware of this dynamic, too, and has already leveraged it to his advantage, casting himself as Venezuelans' protector against "imperialist" intervention. "Don't trust the gringos," he said in late January, citing past U.S.-orchestrated regime change in Latin America. "They don't have friends or loyalties. They only have interests, guts, and the ambition to take Venezuela's oil, gas, and gold." Russia has likewise accused Washington of attempting "to organize a coup d'état."

None of this need be true for it to be effective propaganda, though the Trump administration is pursuing regime change, even if (at the moment) by non-military means—and some in Washington are openly pushing for forcible regime change right now. And as unpopular as Maduro is among his starving people, U.S. intervention could function as his lifeline, damaging the reputation of the Venezuelan opposition and stirring up nationalist sentiment against foreign interference.

"Nothing will contribute more to the questioning of the legitimacy and credibility of [opposition leader] Juan Guaidó than the support he is receiving from the United States," explained Héctor Vasconcelos, president of the Mexican Senate's foreign relations committee, in January. Indeed, as a November survey showed, Venezuelans reject both the Maduro regime and the prospect of a foreign military intervention to remove him. They prefer a negotiated transfer of power, a political solution that does not require or deserve United States involvement.

Beyond history, disparate current interests in Venezuela should also discourage U.S. military intervention, especially an intervention including conflict with Russia. It is obviously preferable for the United States for Venezuela to be peaceful and free, just as is true of any of our nearer neighbors. But intervening in Venezuela will not solve its problems. All it will do is make its problems America's problems. Venezuela's fate is not core to U.S. security; there is no existential threat here.

There is not an existential threat for Russia, either, and Moscow's actions have more to do with its economic investments in the country: Russia's national oil company, Rosneft, has put billions into Venezuela's nationalized oil and gas industry, and "Russia is also focused on recovering billions in debt that Mr. Maduro owes Moscow and Beijing, some of which is measured in oil," notes The New York Times. "Full repayment may never happen," especially if Maduro is successfully ousted. That monetary stake in Maduro's political fate gives Moscow a durable interest in Venezuela's affairs which harsh language from Washington will not alone outweigh. The risk of escalation is real.

Less real is the prospect of anything resembling success. "Studies have shown that foreign-imposed regime changes do not improve political or economic relations between the intervening and target states. They rarely lead to democracy, and, regardless of whether they are conducted covertly or overtly, they increase the likelihood that the target state will experience a civil war," notes Boston College political scientist Lindsey A. O'Rourke at Foreign Policy.

There is no reason to believe this pattern—so vividly demonstrated in recent years by U.S.-orchestrated regime changes in Iraq and Libya—will break in Venezuela. Add the chance of great power conflict to the mix and it is evident how U.S. intervention could compound Venezuelans' misery instead of relieving it. Even in the best-case scenario, when the fighting finally ceases, a regime change project will become a nation-building project, with Washington given the ill-suited task of rebuilding Venezuela into some semblance of normalcy. Again, look to Iraq and Libya to see how that will go.

A clear-eyed view of the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela demands recognition that the Maduro regime is condemnable—and that there is no wisdom in advocating U.S. intervention, especially when Russia is involved. To give the Venezuelan people their best shot at a more free, peaceful, and prosperous future, Washington's main job is to leave well enough alone.