February 22, 2019

The ongoing political standoff in Venezuela offers an opportunity for Washington to get something it wants: a democratically elected president in Venezuela and one less vocal Russian ally in its backyard. The Trump Administration recently announced that it plans to leave Syria without any conditions. Russia is involved in both Venezuela and Syria, so if the United States thinks strategically, it can advance its interests by linking the two. The deal will be complicated but it’s worth a shot.

In Venezuela, two men claim to be president and the country is deadlocked. Nicolás Maduro, who served as president from 2013 to January 10, remains in power and has the powerful military behind him. The National Assembly invalidated the results of the 2018 election and ordered the President of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó to assume the role of interim president in the absence of a legitimate democratic leader. Soon after the announcement, the United States and members of the Lima Group recognized Guaidó as the interim leader. Yet, after the flurry of recognitions and offers of support by the international community, as well as mass popular marches in support of the interim government, the situation remains unresolved. Russia and China have backed Maduro. To help facilitate a transfer of power from Maduro to Guaidó until new elections can be held, the United States should work to overturn Russian support for Venezuela by leveraging the US’ withdrawal from Syria.

Russian support for Venezuela has been based on money and anti-Americanism. Russia has invested billions of dollars in Venezuela which it risks losing if Maduro is forced out. Rosneft, a Russian oil company, is heavily involved in Venezuela’s oil industry which has suffered from years of mismanagement and from sanctions initiated against PDVSA, Venezuela’s biggest oil producer. A change to a more US-friendly government could risk that investment and the loans that Russia has issued to the Maduro government. Second, along with Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba, Venezuela is one of the last anti-US bastions in Latin America. It constantly denounces US policies and supports Cuba by providing it with subsidized oil; Cuba provides doctors and intelligence officers who help to monitor the opposition. Anti-US sentiment is attractive to Russia since much of its foreign policy is bent on thwarting American efforts worldwide. As a result, Russia has reaffirmed its support for the government, warned the United States that it should not intervene militarily, and has even sent mercenaries to Venezuela, likely to protect Maduro.

It’s clear that the Kremlin would need good reason to back down from supporting Maduro. But the United States may have a card to play as the Trump Administration appears to have decided to withdraw from Syria. 

Russia has backed the Syrian government from the start of the civil war and has built up its presence in the region by establishing a naval base at Tartus. Likewise, it stands to benefit most from post-war investments as Bashar al-Assad will look to reward his ally. While the United States has already signaled that it intends to withdraw from Syria after the defeat of ISIS’ physical caliphate in the region, there is no reason to hurry. The United States should state that it may keep a military presence in Syria to protect its Kurdish allies or to ensure ISIS does not resurge. This would help the United States regain leverage.

Russia frequently denounced US support for Syrian Democratic Forces in the Syrian civil war and has called for the United States to permanently leave. By remaining in Syria, the United States poses a risk to Russian investments and its military presence there. It also prevents Syria from returning to the pre-war status quo as opposition forces still remain a threat. Being so close to victory, and seeking to further its gains in the Middle East, the Kremlin should be motivated to negotiate. The Middle East’s proximity to Russia and its greater strategic significance will also play a role in the Kremlin’s calculations.  

Washington should let Moscow know that US withdrawal from Syria is in abeyance while it works on the Venezuelan crisis. Moscow can expedite the withdrawal by ceasing support for Maduro whether by recognizing Guaidó, calling for new elections, or simply stepping back from the issue. In turn, Russian investments in and loans to Venezuela should be guaranteed to ensure it is compensated. Guaidó has already stressed that Russian and Chinese loans entered into legally under Venezuelan law would be honored. This will help allay some Russian fears and should be attractive to Moscow, since Maduro is unable to repay its loans. Removing its support for Maduro would be a major blow as Russia has been its primary supporter. Its other allies, such as China or Turkey, have less leverage, and are unlikely to seek a showdown with the United States in Latin America. As a result, Maduro would be forced to start looking into contingency plans such as fleeing to Cuba. Likewise, military support, which has been steadfast, would likely begin to waiver. Guaidó’s offer of amnesty for officers willing to defect would help facilitate this. 

There are two more consideration here. First, Moscow might conclude from the proffered deal that creating new problems abroad for the United States might be a way to gain leverage over Washington in other areas such as the conflict in Ukraine. To dissuade the Kremlin from reaching this conclusion, Washington should increase its support for Ukraine. The United States has yet to respond to Moscow’s November 2018 attack on Ukraine’s ships near the Kerch Strait. A combination of new sanctions on Russia and arms for Ukraine would serve multiple US interests and ensures that other regions are not part of the Syria-Venezuela negotiations. 

Second, many argue that the withdrawal from Syria might permit ISIS to resurge there; however, that is not in Russia’s interest. A US withdrawal will force Russia to take on more of the burden in the fight against ISIS. Otherwise, it risks further turmoil in Syria or another US intervention. The battle against ISIS is already moving to the Sahel in Africa and Southeast Asia. The United States should shift its focus to those regions.

There is no guarantee that Putin would be willing to accept such a tradeoff. If Putin accepts a deal, the Venezuelan crisis ends sooner. If he does not, Washington loses nothing. 

Johnny Herbst is a foreign policy professional in Washington.

Editor’s note: The positions and analysis reflected here do not necessarily reflect the work or views of the Atlantic Council. 

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