Russia Is Gearing Up for a Conflict With the United States in the Caribbean

With Moscow propping up Maduro, evading oil sanctions, and moving its troops around the coast, Washington needs to rethink its own strategies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro shake hands at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 2, 2013.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro shake hands at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 2, 2013. Maxim Shemetov/AFP/Getty Images

New conflicts in the rest of the world may be looming large, but one in the United States’ own backyard is about to get more dangerous. Despite U.S.-led sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), oil from the country is still flowing onto world markets. A central facilitator of the exports is Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, which has been accepting Venezuelan crude as a form of loan repayment. In this way, Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing a leading role in keeping Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro afloat. As long as he does, current U.S. sanctions policy will do little to force a change in Venezuela, which is why Washington needs to rethink its strategy for dislodging the Venezuelan leader—and soon.

As PDVSA’s list of clients has shrunk, Rosneft has quickly surpassed all other companies to become the top trader of Venezuelan oil. Whereas the company handled 40 percent of PDVSA’s oil exports in July, by August, it was handling 66 percent. Recently, PDVSA even established an office in Moscow to facilitate payments to its Russian client, which has helped reduce its outstanding debt to Rosneft to $1.1 billion. At this pace, outstanding loans to Rosneft could be repaid in full sometime around the end of this year or in early 2020.

Once that happens, Putin’s stated excuse for continued engagement with Venezuela will be moot, but this won’t bring about the grand geopolitical shift in Venezuela that it otherwise could. That’s because, for now, supporting Maduro is a low-cost strategy that allows Putin to burnish his image as a defender of embattled regimes everywhere. Russia’s presence in Venezuela—its most significant in the Western Hemisphere since the Cuban missile crisis—will continue long after the excuse of collecting on Venezuela’s debts has run its course.

Indeed, recent moves indicate that Putin is eyeing even deeper intervention in Venezuela, both military and financial. An August meeting of Russian and Venezuelan defense ministers led to an agreement that the two countries’ warships could visit each other’s ports, possibly in preparation for future collaboration on territorial defense. No doubt, the Russians are mindful of reports that U.S. President Donald Trump is obsessed with the idea of a naval blockade against Venezuela. Combined with Russia’s existing naval arrangement with Nicaragua—through which it provides training and equipment in exchange for major port access and permission to operate a global satellite system—the deployment of warships and submarines from Venezuelan ports may aim to deny access to all U.S. naval operations to interdict vessels in the southern Caribbean. Indeed, the Cubans have already requested that Russia escort tankers carrying Venezuela’s shipments of free oil to the resource-strapped island.

Russian troops have embedded themselves in garrisons around Venezuela by the hundreds.

Meanwhile, Russian troops have embedded themselves in garrisons around Venezuela by the hundreds according to Craig Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command. With Russia’s intervention in Ukraine as a model, Russian soldiers have started donning the fatigues of the Venezuelan Army in an effort to blend in. Russia is also making a concerted effort to get its long-delayed AK-47 plant up and running in the city of Maracay, as well as upgrade the missile defense system it sold to Venezuela, which continues a long-term and worrisome buildup of Russian weapons amassed by the Venezuelan regime. What is worse, the Russians have openly mused about stationing cruise missiles in Venezuela as a response to the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The echoes of the Cuban missile crisis are chilling.

Russia’s presence in Venezuela has emboldened nonstate actors as well. The arrival of Syrian security personnel to protect former Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who allegedly oversaw the incubation of Hezbollah inside the country, and the safe haven provided to the National Liberation Army (ELN) and dissident members of the FARC are frightening developments for regional security and stability.

In the financial realm, Putin has recently played host to several of Maduro’s cronies. With PDVSA close to repaying its debts, Maduro is redoubling efforts to secure new Russian loan commitments. Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez visited Moscow in August to discuss some possibilities, including arrangements for her country’s flagging agriculture and mining industries. Meanwhile, as the world attended the United Nations General Assembly last month, Maduro paid a visit to Putin in Moscow and was rewarded with the arrival of more Russian military specialists in Venezuela. And Russia’s deputy prime minister arrived in Caracas over the weekend to declare that Russian-Venezuelan relations were “at their best moment.

Any financial deals that materialize from these meetings will likely aim to break U.S. sanctions and place Russia in even closer proximity to—or perhaps even in partnership with—the transnational organized crime groups that control lucrative resource extraction in Venezuela’s vast, ungoverned frontier. (Continuing his diplomatic tour aimed at sanctions-busting, Maduro plans to visit North Korea in the near future.)

Russia’s willingness to deepen its involvement in Venezuela highlights the need for creativity in U.S. policy. Precisely because Trump lacks any appetite for the use of force, the United States must step up its sanctions game—issuing new embargos and creatively policing existing ones—as its only chance to dislodge Maduro. Rosneft, which is perhaps Maduro’s best ally, should top the list of new designations, even though U.S. officials have declined to take this measure in the past. Enforcement measures will also have to become more creative. For example, tankers carrying sanctioned Venezuelan oil have resorted to turning off their transponders while approaching or leaving Venezuelan waters, unloading at night, and frequently changing the flags of their vessels in order to evade detection. However, international law requires ships to keep their transponders on, and the United States should work to ensure that the rule is enforced.

Here, Washington should take a page from its tactics against North Korea. Along with Japan and the United Kingdom, the United States has run a sophisticated operation to detect ship-to-ship transfers and sanctions evasion in international waters, even seizing a North Korean vessel found to be in violation. In Venezuela, the United States should do the same, and also issue secondary sanctions targeting the shipping networks moving Venezuela’s oil (including a planned increase in shipments to Cuba)—as the Treasury Department has already done against Iran. The move should include going after the handful of vessels currently lingering off Venezuela’s coast that serve as floating storage facilities for crude oil while Maduro desperately seeks new buyers. ExxonMobil’s announcement that it will bar the use of tankers linked to Venezuelan oil shipments in the last year affects about 250 vessels worldwide and provides another powerful deterrent to moving Venezuelan crude. Targeting cargo insurance companies could be another useful tool in the fight to dislodge Maduro. Lastly, the United States should seek to impose costs on countries such as Fiji, Liberia, and Tanzania—serial offenders—for allowing suspect vessels to fly under their countries’ flags.

Since sanctions are most effective when they are multilateral, the United States must show a more concerted effort with the European Union and the Latin American countries that make up the Lima Group. The EU has sanctioned a mere 25 Venezuelans in addition to its arms embargo on the country. It has held out the possibility of more comprehensive sanctions if Maduro closes the door on mediated negotiations with the Venezuelan opposition. Maduro’s recent pronouncement that he will not rejoin the Norwegian-led talks demonstrates the limits of the EU’s fantasy that he was coming to the table in good faith. At the very least, the Trump administration should pressure the Spanish government to stop the flow of illicit Maduro funds running through its central bank. But even that could be an uphill battle, as the incoming EU foreign minister is a former foreign minister of Spain, Josep Borrell, who has accused the U.S. government under President Donald Trump of behaving like a “cowboy” in Venezuela.

In contrast to Europe’s reticence, Latin American countries have dusted off and invoked the decades-old Rio Treaty, a regional security compact capable of compelling countries to implement sanctions against a mutual threat. After a recent meeting of its consultative body, the signatories to the treaty voted in favor of imposing additional regional sanctions on Venezuela. Of course, the designation and enforcement capabilities of the individual member states vary greatly, but this move is a welcome development that should serve to deny visas to regime insiders, as well as safe places to store their ill-gotten gains. Now that the region has bound itself to a policy of sanctions, the United States must work to ensure that countries uphold their commitments.

For the past few years, the Maduro regime has adapted nimbly to U.S. sanctions, because its criminal activities span the globe and involve a broader network of actors in Russia, Hong Kong, Panama, Romania, Switzerland, Miami, Nicaragua, and El Salvador—to name just a few. That’s why the United States must see the Maduro regime as akin to a criminal network, rather than an isolated political entity, and target that network accordingly.

Although U.S. sectoral sanctions have managed to increase the operating costs to Maduro and his cronies, they have not managed to freeze the regime’s activities, nor have they managed to deter outside powers such as Russia from lending Maduro’s government a hand. Moreover, U.S. strategy has been inconsistent at best—supporting early presidential elections, meeting with regime insiders steeped in narcotrafficking, and begging Maduro to cut and run in return for vague promises of amnesty. As Maduro masses hundreds of thousands of troops on the Colombian border, and as thousands of Venezuelans escape the country daily, getting U.S. sanctions policy in order will be critical to bringing Maduro, and the outside powers that support him, to heel.

Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where his research includes Latin American foreign-policy issues.

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