Russia emerged as a crucial power broker in the crisis in far-away Venezuela last week when Washington accused Moscow of convincing President Nicolas Maduro not to flee to Cuba. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Maduro had a plane on the tarmac ready to fly to Havana when “the Russians indicated that he should stay”. Moscow hit back, dismissing the claim as fake and accusing Washington of supporting a coup “that has nothing to do with democracy” by backing opposition leader Juan Guaido.
Moscow has its reasons for standing behind Maduro — he’s a rare ally in Latin America and Russia has poured billions into the Venezuelan economy. But analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin is also playing the long game, hoping to use Venezuela as leverage in his global tug-of-war with Washington.
“Russia is seeking to translate its influence over Maduro — which is in fact not absolute — into an opportunity to have dialogue with the United States,” Tatyana Stanovaya, head of R Politik, a Parisbased analysis firm, said.
“Maduro is a bargaining chip.” Tensions in Venezuela have soared since Guaido declared himself acting president in January, claiming Maduro’s re-election last year was illegitimate.
More than 50 countries led by the United States lined up behind the 35-year-old head of the National Assembly, but Russia and China have backed Maduro.
Reeling from Western sanctions, Moscow has quickly sensed an opportunity, even if it meant locking horns with the United States in Latin America, Washington’s traditional sphere of influence.
In a highly publicised move in March, Moscow sent two planes with around 100 soldiers and equipment to Caracas, where Russian mercenaries are also believed to be operating.
Ties between Russia and the West plummeted over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, its backing for separatists in eastern Ukraine and military support for President Bashar al Assad in Syria.
But the audacity with which the Kremlin inserted itself into the Venezuela crisis has drawn gasps in Washington.
“Russia is making the next play in our hemisphere,” Frederick Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, wrote last month.
“Vladimir Putin may be laying the ground for making Venezuela the defining foreign policy debacle for President Trump in the same way Syria became that for the Obama administration.”