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The Russia-Venezuela Partnership: Strategic for Who?

No one should be too surprised by the exceptionally warm welcome given to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during his recent visit to Moscow – these developments have been long in the making, and closely observed with appropriate concern (the European Commission circulated a paper on Russia’s activism in Latin America back in 2006). The fact that the Kremlin has solidified its alliance with another authoritarian oil exporter, and stapled down significant deals in terms of arms ($5 billion over the next decade), energy (including a joint venture between PDVSA and Gazprom), and banking, is just the latest expression of Moscow’s successful campaign to assume a greater role in global affairs. But what is left unclear from Chavez’s first meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is who is getting what out of the relationship, and whether the motives driving this policy of strategic partnership are being transparently understood. If we take a closer look at the regional ambitions of each country, we can see that the perceptions of this relationship by Washington and Brussels are almost more important than the actual substance of the Venezuelan-Russian strategic partnership. However each leader appears to want to spin it differently, which raises some conflicts. chavezmedvedev072308.jpg Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R) and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez attempt to coordinate their comments during a press conference on July 22. Photo: REUTERS/Alexander Nemenov/Pool (RUSSIA)

As we have become accustomed, there were two divergent narratives present at the meeting – the trademarked fiery and bold declarations of Chavez, who is wont to declare new security alliances joining him in vocal opposition to the United States, and then there is Russia, which prefers to present the business side of the partnership while emphasizing a newfound prestige of global diplomacy.According to coverage of the Moscow Times, the press conference was kept rather exclusive to control what Moscow expected (or couldn’t possibly plan for) Hugo Chavez to say: “Only a limited number of reporters were admitted to cover the meeting at the Maiendorf Castle, fueling speculation that Chavez’s anti-U.S. rhetoric was uncomfortable for a Kremlin trying to promote Russia as a more reliable partner for the West.” Apparently these efforts worked – according to the transcript no one even asked Chavez a follow up question.Similarly, coverage from Kommersant details a circus-like atmosphere of Medvedev being upstaged and rather “taken aback” by Chavez’s willingness to include his name among a list of Latin America’s foremost leftist revolutionaries with a swift rhetorical sleight of hand. President Chavez told the press in his statement that the multi-billion dollar energy and arms deals would “guarantee the sovereignty of Venezuela, which the United States is now threatening,” while also giving a warm welcome to Gazprom and Lukoil to explore in areas of the Orinoco Basin which had been nationalized from multinational corporations.However, the Russians are very quick to reject any element of “ideology” in its foreign relations. The Kremlin recoils from many of Chavez’s suggestions of shared values, and thus, Medvedev’s tone was much more measured (full transcript here) and did not seem to be as provocative or set on poking Washington in the eye.Neither Medvedev nor Chavez were being very direct about why they are deepening the relationship, and I find myself in disagreement with other analysts who say that it is only about the business deals.Chavez has come to Moscow seeking to bolster his international and regional credibility amid a weakening political position in Venezuela and a worrying losing streak in Latin America (everything from his disputed involvement with FARC kidnapping issues to the uncertain changes occurring Cuba). According to some lawyer colleagues I have spoken with in Venezuela, government officials have paid close attention to how Russia acted to protect Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe following a democratic collapse, and it is believed that by extending such favorable energy deals to another state (rather than another private company) that Venezuela is purchasing future political insurance and potential veto in the United Nations.Russia is not just exporting tanks, jets, and kalashnikovs to Venezuela, it is exporting legitimacy.Chavez also faces the possibility of losing the upcoming municipal elections just as he suffered a defeat on the referendum, so one can imagine that the heavy rearmament from Russia could be seen as a preparation for an auto-golpe – though I agree that such speculations are unwarranted at this juncture. What we can see is that Venezuela is less concerned about any real threat from Washington, which is more preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan, and electing a new president, and more focused on shoring up support for the personal political power of an individual.The Russians are playing an entirely different game with the Venezuelan relationship, and view the country as just one piece on the chessboard. First, in recent months we have seen a willingness on behalf of Gazprom and its proxies in the government to present a much more transparently monopolistic face to the world, with everything from talking about $250 oil to gas cartels to an offer to purchase all hydrocarbons from Libya no matter what the price. Russia, it can be argued, is benefiting from the instability created by poor relations between Caracas and Washington, and enjoys the upward pressure on the price of oil this geopolitical situation is creating.Furthermore, the Venezuelan relationship can be seen in the broader context of the Kremlin reasserting its influence in Latin America in general, which in my opinion has advanced so rapidly thanks to more than a decade of dreadfully lacking attention from the United States. Following a recent diplomatic clash with the U.S. over the establishment of anti-ballistic missile bases in the Czech Republic, Russia promised a concrete military response. Just a few weeks later, we have a leaked news story that they are considering moving nuclear bomber bases to Cuba – bringing back no small hint of Cold War memories. This comes on top of significant natural gas investment deals in Bolivia, as well as direct diplomatic relations with Colombia. Russia is once again a major player in Latin American politics, and it is possible we are witnessing the first steps as the region’s return as one of the primary “theaters” of political conflict in U.S.-Russian power relations.But what is Russia getting out these considerable efforts to cozy up to Venezuela? Clearly we are not just talking about mutual interests. Part of that answer lies in the other new “theater” to the East: Georgia and the Caucasus. I believe that one powerful motivation for Russia to trump up its relations with Venezuela is to earn another political bargaining chip to extract concessions from Washington in this critical region (along with Iran, nuclear proliferation, and sovereign wealth that even Paulson is drooling over, Moscow’s pockets appear to be filling up with these chips).The issue of Georgia is critically important to Moscow, not just because of the Abkhazia conflict which has escalated the two countries to the brink of war, nor even because of the MAP process to integrate Tbilisi into NATO. Georgia represents the only, non-Russian controlled conduit to bring oil and gas through to pipelines to Europe via Turkey and the Black Sea, and when Georgia’s energy infrastructure comes under Russian control, so goes Europe’s hope for independence from Russian supply. Dmitri Trenin has argued that the Venezuelan agreements are a simple tit-for-tat on Georgia, but I believe that the Kremlin is looking for much stronger long-term leverage here.It was a cynical and debatable statement, but Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal once commented that the Kremlin under Putin excels at creating problems, and then offering to become part of the solution. Today, with regard to the help the Russians are lending to Chavez, I think this statement is apt.