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Defining Russia’s Interests in Venezuela

Our latest interviewee on the topic of “Venezuela and Russia” is the leading expert of the Analytical administration of the Center for political conjuncture of Russia, Pavel Salin.

1. How natural and justified is the convergence of Russia and Venezuela in recent years?

It’s hard to say how much – it’s hard to measure such things with quantitative parameters. Initially, I think, at the beginning of the process and in consideration of the deterioration of the relations of the RF with the USA, the parties were guided by the logic «the enemy of my enemy is my friend». The Russian powers, unpleasantly surprised by the series of «color revolutions» on the post-Soviet space, decided to inflict a «symmetric strike» to the «soft underbelly»/«backyard» of the USA, which Washington in the rush for world hegemony had simply abandoned. And Venezuela was here the most simple and obvious choice, inasmuch as Chavez had laid claim and is laying claim not only to independence from the USA, but also to ideologo-political leadership in the region (the scales of the economy, the territory and the quantity of the population of Venezuela don’t allow for laying claim to anything else).

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Later, at the peak of the rise in prices for energy sources, purelyeconomic benefits from cooperation were added. Besides cooperation inthe energy sphere, Caracas, receiving «hydrocarbon» windfall profits,was able to pay with «hard cash», not with promises and for deliveriesof Russian weapons, which at least partially compensated the losses(current and potential) on the markets of China and, to a lesserdegree, India.

2. In your opinion, how good for Venezuela is cooperation with the faraway RF and confrontation with the nearby USA?

The question sounds too diffuse. On the whole, the Chavez regime,which is getting closer with, among others, Russia, is good forVenezuela (the poor majority). Venezuela’s policy in relation to theUSA distantly recalls the Russia’s policy in relation to Europe, but ona smaller scale. Venezuela, like Russia in the 1990s, was araw-materials appendage of the USA without any rights (Russia -Europe). When the rise in prices for oil began, political ambitionsbegan to grow as well. Russia, remaining the same raw-materialsappendage of Europe, now wants to integrate into European society as anequal. Venezuela, remaining the same raw-materials appendage of theUSA, is attempting to appear in the capacity of a regional integratorto spite the USA, but this does not impede the energy cooperation ofCaracas and Washington. At the foundation of the foreign policy of theUSA lies absolute pragmatism, and if this is necessary, they will buywhat they need, even from sworn enemies – if there is no other way. Andif this is not beneficial – then the USA will not meet even the veryclosest allies halfway – this is where they differ, let us say, fromthe USSR, which often supported allies to its own detriment

3. In your opinion, how realistic is the possibility that themoderate reformers in this region ( the presidents of Brazil,Argentina, Uruguay) will swerve to the left?

I would say not “swerve to the left”, but “radicalize”. SouthAmerica right now on the whole represents a leftist continent – the USAin this sense has lost it. The only rightist pro-American regime thereis in Colombia, and it is in many ways holding on with Americanbayonets. The rest of the regimes can be divided into moderatelyleftist (a vivid example – that same socialist de Silva in Brazil, whoindeed is the leader of the «moderates» in the region), and leftistradicals («bolivarian hooligans») headed by Chavez (Venezuela, Bolivia,Ecuador, in some measure – Cuba and Paraguay).

In consideration of the crisis, a sharp drop in the standard ofliving of the population is expected, and here totally oppositevariants of the development of events are possible. It is possible thatthis will provoke bolivarian revolutions in countries with a moderateregime, and the entire continent will become «bright red». But, inconsideration of the high role of the military in the political life ofthese countries, overthrows are possible too, based on the results ofwhich the white wealthy minority, relying on the military-and-policerepressive apparat, will rule the poor majority, physicallyannihilating those who think differently.

4. «Russia has every right to declare about her strategic interestsin the Western hemisphere against the background of the declarations ofthe USA about its interests on the post-Soviet space ». But why wasRussia not able to declare about its interests on the post-Soviet space?

Russia, in my opinion, was able to declare about its interests onthe post-Soviet space quite effectively, moreover not in word, but indeed. Here both the victory in the «five-day war», after which Russiaonce again began to be regarded as the principal military guarantor ofstability in the post-Soviet region, and the dislodging of theAmericans from «Manas», and other, less [large-]scale and noticeableevents. What is being spoken of here is that in such a manner they’retrying to tell the Americans – «look, we can mess around under yourbelly as well». For countries with an «insular» psychology, like theUSA, it is very unpleasant to be realize that they can be «had» at home- let us recall what a shock the terrorist acts of 11 September caused,when the Americans were attacked not somewhere in their embassy inAfrica or on a destroyer in the Near East, but right at home. Or, whatis more pertinent for the given question – the reaction of the USA tothe deployment of missiles on Cuba in 1962, although this, once again,was a symmetrical response to the actions of the USA in the immediateproximity of the USSR – in Turkey. True, what is being spoken of now isnot the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in the region, andcertainly not the support of anti-American terrorists.

5. Doesn’t the ill feeling on the part of Brazil, Guyana andColombia in connection with the shipments of Russian weapons toVenezuela threaten Russia?

I can’t say anything about Guyana – I simply don’t know. As concernsColombia, it is totally oriented towards the USA, Russia does notcooperate with it closely in practically any sphere at all, so itsreaction does not worry Moscow. This is like in the situation withGeorgia, although Georgia is closer to Russia territorially andculturally. As for Brazil, it is unlikely that the shipments of Russianweapons to Venezuela are going to seriously harm it. First, the countryis a regional and one of the world leaders in the production and saleof weapons, competing with Russia, and the Russian specimens shipped toVenezuela on the whole are not dangerous for the Brazilian armedforces. Second, Chavez himself has not displayed aggression in relationto Brazil and indeed any regimes in South America, besides thepro-American Colombian one. Finally, Brazil is connected with Russia bysufficiently close trade relations (the country is one of the largestsuppliers of meat), and it will not likely want to lose such apromising sales market for its ag output, especially in light of thecrisis and of the reduction of other markets the world over.

6. How do you assess the state of the opposition in Venezuela?

The opposition in Venezuela is sufficiently strong, and Chavez’spower is not as solid as this seems at first glance. This can be seentoo by the results of the last referendum, where he won by a not verylarge margin. The strength of Chavez’s regime is in two things. First -his personal charisma. Second – he was able to fix up a sufficientlyeffective system for the redistribution of «oil» incomes in favor ofthe minority, but this is specifically a redistribution – there areproblems in the country with the creation of an industrial baseindependent of the export of hydrocarbons. In consideration of theworld crisis and the fall in prices for them, this could give theopposition new chances.

7. If «the principal direction of cooperation will lie in the sphereof the production and refining of oil and the help that Russia canrender in the construction of the so-called «South American gas ring»,then for how long will this be? After all, the reserves of oil and gasin Venezuela and Russia are not going to last forever?

Sufficiently long – what could be spoken of is decades. It is morelikely that the Chavez regime will fall than that energy resources willend in Venezuela.

8. Is the «gas ring» realistic there, if there are big problems withgas rings here (the South and North Streams – very expensive and thereare opponents of these projects).

More likely this is hyperbole. The USA are diversifying deliveriesof hydrocarbons to themselves and will never allow anybody to become amonopolist in this question. Here, Russia in some far-distant futuremay even compete with South America for the North American market – theopening of a plant for the production of LNG on Sakhalin leads one tosuch thoughts. Although this is a decidedly distant prospect.

9. Will the “resetting” of relations with the USA after the comingof Obama force Russia to do some “resetting” of its own in relationswith Venezuela, for example in the quantity of military contracts,which create fertile soil for tension in that region?

I don’t see any real “resetting” of Russian-American relations fornow – only words. So that a “resetting would truly appear, the USA aregoing to have to abandon many of their strategic objectives, whichthey, judging by the first steps of the Obama administration, do notintend to abandon for now – what is being spoken of is only a change inthe methods of achieving them. For example, it has already beenrepeated many times that Washington will once again reconsider theadvisability of building a ballistic missile defense – and what of it?Reconsider and say whether you’ll build or not, but there’s no sense inrepeating yourself. Now, if there are going to be concessions – notimaginary, but real – on the part of Washington (abandonment ofballistic missile defense, abandonment of lobbying for «Nabucco» and soon), then it does make sense to discuss what concessions Russia isready to go for, including also in the sphere of MTC[military-technical cooperation, Russian for “selling arms”–Trans.]with Venezuela.

10. If the Iranian nuclear program, being implemented not withoutthe help of the RF, rouses such irritation the world over, then willnot the Venezuelan one, likewise implemented not without the help ofthe RF, become such an irritant?

Recently, the chief of the Pentagon Robert Gates himself (who hasremained in the Obama administration) declared in relation to SouthAmerica that he is more concerned about the actions of Iran there thanabout those of Russia. Unlike Iran, where both nuclear weapons and themeans of delivery can be created in the foreseeable future, thesituation in Venezuela is completely different. For now, as much as Iunderstand it, the development of the nuclear sphere there is takingplace only in words, and there exist serious reasons for this. First,Venezuela is rich in hydrocarbons, and, what is most important,produces them in a sufficient quantity to remove the necessity for thedevelopment of the «peaceful atom» (Iran is also rich, but does notproduce enough). Second, Venezuela does not have suchneighbors-irritants who possess nuclear weapons as Israel is for Iran.Argentina and Brazil did attempt to do something in the given sphere,but they abandoned their attempts back in the 1970s-80s. SoRussian-Venezuelan nuclear cooperation (but not the sale ofconventional weapons) could very well become the first concession onthe part of Moscow in the event that Washington truly demonstrates itsreadiness for dialogue, and the “resetting” about which was spokenabove truly comes.

Photo: Pavel Salin (photo from www.treli.ru)

* Center for political conjuncture of Russia (CPKR) founded in the year 1992.
Russian politological center. Founded in the year 1992 in Moscow by agroup of fellows of the Russian-American university, the Institute ofRussian history of the RAN[Russian Academy of Sciences] and students of the humanities facultiesof MGU [Moscow State University] named after M.V.Lomonosov. The firstprojects of the CPKR were associated with the study of politicalparties and a situational analysis of the political situation. In 1994,the CPKR enters the market for mass information media monitoring andpolitical consulting.