Could U.S. Sanctions Deliver Venezuela into Russia’s Sphere of Influence

As the Trump White House mulls sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry, we consider the upsetting possibility that we’re just a pawn in Putin’s grand strategy.

Venezuelans are only now beginning to wake up to the geostrategic aspect of the crisis we’re in. Used to thinking in government-vs.-opposition terms, we struggle to wrap our minds around a new situation where big outside powers pick over the carcass of our institutions for influence. It’s a brave new world out there.

We know Nicolás Maduro is mere days from attaining his chosen Weapon of Mass Destruction: la Constituyente may convene as early as Thursday. The US continues to levy targeted sanctions aimed at Maduro and his cronies. We appreciate the gesture, but measures like these won’t return democracy to Venezuela. International sanctions seldom work. Gary Hufbauer, from the Peterson Institute for International Economics, analyzed over 200 cases of international sanctions in the last 100 years and he concluded that it’s better to keep our expectations modest.

Trouble is, Trump doesn’t do “modest”.

And so he’s considering his own “nuclear option”: sectoral sanctions to asphyxiate the Chavista economy a move rumored to be crippling like nothing seen so far.

Would such devastating sanctions be more effective?

There’s reason to doubt it. The target is a tyrant willing to sacrifice his country rather than resign from power. What sanctions will deliver, though, is hunger and still more civilian casualties.

For some, this is the cost of putting a cruel regime on its knees sooner or later, Nicolas Maduro will compromise or resign. Do they really have the measure of the man? I doubt it.

Gary Hufbauer… analyzed over 200 cases of international sanctions in the last 100 years and he concluded that it’s better to keep our expectations modest.

Chavez’ successor finds inspiration in North Korea, Syria, Iran, Russia, and of course, Cuba. Regimes that have survived an extensive range of sanctions, letting their civilian populations absorb their destructive impact without giving up an inch of power.

The Russian Factor

Sanctions are indeed necessary. The international community must show its will to confront the abuses that some governments commit, maintaining credibility without going to war. That’s why North Korea is sanctioned when it plays with ballistic missiles, Syria for using chemical weapons, and Russia for erasing borders and annexing Crimea.

Sanctions do sometimes elicit some concession from rogue governments. They tend to be effective only when the issuing party is willing to enforce them with military actions if necessary, an option which today seems off the table. The Southern Command and our neighbors are not preparing to launch an attack, they’re preparing to take on a tide of refugees.

And so Maduro is tinkering on two scenarios: he’s either Assad in Syria or Castro in Cuba.

But Syrians and Cubans have never tasted democracy, while Venezuelans are used to their freedom. Either way, Maduro counts on Cuba and most importantly on Russia’s support. And unlike Assad, he confronts an unarmed opposition. In both Syria’s Civil War, as well as the immovable Cuban dictatorship, Russia has been the dominant player.

More and more, I think the Russian Factor is the key to understanding our crisis. Lest we forget, the current protest cycle got going when Maduro abused his control of the Supreme Court to remove any obstacle to signing oil joint ventures with Russia.

The Southern Command and our neighbors are not preparing to launch an attack, they’re preparing to take on a tide of refugees.

Citgo, PDVSA’s U.S.-based refiner and retailer is now 49.9% mortgaged to the Russian oil giant company Rosneft, as collateral to a $2 Billion dollar loan. The catch is that the Russians wish to substitute the control over Citgo for the control over some prime Venezuelan oil fields which, without the approval of the National Assembly, would be illegal.

In the event of strong U.S. sanctions against PDVSA, where do we think Venezuela will turn to for supplies? For the diluent needed to move its extra-heavy oil? Where will PDVSA go for capital, for technology, for oil field services? Russia is the obvious answer.

The answer to the “Cui Bono” question on sanctions points straight at Moscow.

Today, the Kremlin is re-assessing its presence in Latin America. Trump has clawed back the U.S.’s opening to Cuba, forcing Raul Castro —short of cash and better options—  to reach out to Putin. In the inevitable chaos of a Venezuela asphyxiated by the loss of its primary client, and with the USA no longer attached to a strategic commercial relationship, Russia could present itself as the guarantor of order. Having aligned their interests, Maduro’s survival would become raison d’Etat for Russia.

Russian generals have openly expressed their plans of returning to their Cuban bases, a gesture that would be interpreted as highly aggressive. All they need is an excuse to justify naval and submarine operations in the Caribbean spanning a triangle made up of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. A client government in need and the ownership of some oil fields could be two good excuses.

The “Nuclear Option” on Venezuela is a boomerang: The United States would be making room for Russia’s strategic objectives, not in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, but in its backyard. Were anyone other than Donald Trump in the White House, the U.S. would register that for what it is: a crisis.


Roger Santodomingo

Roger Santodomingo is Senior Fellow at the CDDA in Washington DC and a columnist for El Pais. He is the Author of several books, including “De Verde a Maduro,” the unauthorized biography of Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro (Random House, 2013)