President Trump’s statement that “all options are on the table” in Venezuela was followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin putting 400 additional Russian operatives on the ground in Venezuela. The secretary of Russia’s Security Council recently stated that “the United States is preparing a military invasion of an independent state,” referring to Russia’s claims of an uptick of U.S. special forces arriving in Puerto Rico and Colombia.
Yesterday, violent clashes erupted between Venezuelan citizens and security forces. Opposition leader and interim President Juan Guaidó has openly called on the Venezuelan military to oust Venezuela’s head of state, Nicolás Maduro, from power. U.S. leaders have expressed full-throated support for Guaidó.
Amid what some view as an escalation in Venezuela, many Americans are asking a legitimate and appropriate question, “Why should the United States entangle itself in an internal political dispute in some foreign country?” Many Americans are concerned the United States is mistakenly moving toward escalation in another foreign internal political dispute that does not implicate a clear and vital American national security interest.
The United States should stand firm in the Western Hemisphere and assert its interests in Venezuela’s political outcome—the result there will directly impact American national security for many decades to come. Understanding how requires understanding the ongoing activity that Russia, China, and Iran are undertaking around the world to damage U.S. strategic interests and to accelerate their effort to take the position of the globe’s key influencers. Russia, China, and Iran’s global operations to accelerate a U.S. decline are now in full swing in Venezuela, a Latin American nation in the United States' backyard. Venezuela, therefore, represents a fluid, paradigmatic political-economic-military contest taking place between competing nations around the world.
Venezuela’s head of state, Nicolás Maduro, has become an instrument in Russia, China, and Iran’s broader objectives to expand influence deeper into our hemisphere, fill the void of American influence.
Maduro has become an instrument in Russia, China, and Iran’s broader objectives to expand influence deeper into the Western Hemisphere, fill the void of American influence where U.S. leadership became lackluster, and clinch leadership where America once held an uncontested sphere of influence. To wit, Russia, China, and Iran are seeking to establish satellite states they can control to expand their political-economic spheres of influence, and as part of that effort, to put the United States on a path to decline. In the case of Venezuela, which is within a four-hour flight to Miami, there are high stakes in the political, economic, and military domains. These are worth thinking through carefully.
In answering whether the United States should involve itself any further in Venezuela, let’s begin by exploring the intentions of U.S. contestants there. Why are Russia, China, Iran, and their allies so determined to control who stays in power in a small Latin American country?
First, Venezuela is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). OPEC members and nations who can influence them hold tremendous power over the global energy economy and specifically hold leverage over nations that depend on oil to function. Russia’s Rosneft holds a 49 percent stake in CITGO and co-owns multiple oil and gas projects with Venezuela’s state-owned energy enterprise. Russia has restructured over $3 billion of Venezuela’s sovereign debt and Venezuela has received loans in the billions in exchange for Russia receiving energy supply into the future.
Maduro’s dependency on Putin gives Russia greater influence it can and will exercise on Venezuela’s political and economic decisions.
As to military cooperation, Russia has sold Venezuela roughly $10 billion in military equipment since 2000. Just recently, Russia delivered nuclear capable bombers to Venezuela. Joint military exercises between the two nations have been ongoing for over a decade. Translation: Russian jets and warships regularly come into Venezuela, a friendly military zone, right in the United States' backyard. Russia seeks a lasting military presence in Venezuela and a base from which it could launch military operations generated by the below-market Venezuelan oil prices.
Putin is following up his support for Maduro with action, including sending hundreds of intelligence operators on the ground in Venezuela to keep Maduro in power. Moscow’s growing willingness to put the power of Russian security institutions behind Maduro is directly tied to Russia’s longstanding geopolitical interests in Venezuela. Russia leverages a relationship of dependency with Maduro who, as his foundations of power crack, may now perceive Putin as the man who will keep him in power. Maduro’s dependency on Putin gives Russia greater influence it can and will exercise on Venezuela’s political and economic decisions, including on oil supply.
Ironically, Russia has referred to the United States as “external forces” involved in “destructive meddling” in Venezuela. This, against the backdrop of Russia delivering nuclear capable bombers and hundreds of Russian intelligence operators to Venezuela in order to enforce Russia’s unilateral decision that the Venezuelan people will be ruled by Maduro.
The degree to which Maduro has lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people can be measured in external forces and foreign hardware sent to prop him up by countries like Russia and Cuba.
The degree to which Maduro has lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people can be measured in external forces and foreign hardware sent to prop him up by countries like Russia and Cuba. Russian ally Cuba has sent in Cubans to handle Maduro’s personal security. This raises a question as to Maduro’s confidence in the sincerity of Venezuela’s military leadership’s support of him. U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said it best: “Maduro require[s] foreign paramilitary support to keep remaining threads of a failed dictatorship.”
China also holds substantial influence and leverage over Maduro. Some reports indicate China has loaned up to $70 billion to Venezuela, like Russia in part to secure future energy supply. Venezuela is about $19 billion in debt to China and trade relations between the two nations total more than $7 billion per year. China partly calculates its foreign policy today through its medium to long term “One Belt One Road” initiative. China’s Belt and Road strategy is focused on forging ties with nations across the world, developing their infrastructure, including communications infrastructure with ZTE and Huawei becoming the permanent communications substructure of nations around the world, all amid China’s venture toward 5G hegemony.
China’s ambition is to displace the United States as the center of the global economy. China’s political calculus in staying behind Maduro or backing Guaidó may partly factor in its borrower performance and the viability of future transactions. Either way, bills paid or in default, China will extract value from its poorer patrons. In cases of looming loan defaults, China will use that leverage to generate strategic benefits from their distressed borrowers. Some critics describe China’s Belt and Road strategy as “debt-trap diplomacy.” Guaidó has promised Venezuela’s debt holders that he will make good on his nation’s loans.
Russia, China, and Iran seek to own and control autocrats like Maduro in order to secure satellite states globally.
Meanwhile, China has put some of its most sophisticated technological capabilities behind Maduro to help him create a citizen surveillance state in order to maintain control and power. China’s ZTE, which the United States sanctioned last year for selling prohibited technological capabilities to Iran and North Korea, has enabled Maduro to develop an integrated data surveillance state that includes monitoring the Venezuelan people’s political expressions and dissidents on social media. Russia, China, and Iran seek to own and control autocrats like Maduro in order to secure satellite states globally.
Iran, an OPEC member, has forged an alliance with Venezuela that the Iranian and Venezuelan leaders in 2007 called the “the axis of unity.” Tehran has dispatched Hezbollah operatives into Venezuela, giving Hezbollah access to the Americas. Like Russia, Iran holds significant sway over Venezuela’s energy decisions. Iran shows a propensity to weaponize oil supply for political purposes. Iran will reportedly deploy new-generation warships to Venezuelan waters, which means waters in the Western Hemisphere. These are significant commitments from Iran amid increasing economic constraints as U.S.-led sanctions tighten.
Past administrations have made the Western Hemisphere vulnerable to Russia, China, and Iran’s influence. A United States that was either ineffective or withdrawn from leadership abroad has helped expand the spheres of influence of nations like China, Russia, and Iran. We’ve now reached a point where a hostile nation, Russia, has delivered nuclear capable bombers to Caracas. Russia seeks permanent military bases in Venezuela, near our homeland, with resident nuclear capabilities at Moscow’s disposal. How should the United States define its interests here and what should be done about it?
The United States should stand firm in the Western Hemisphere. America has a national security interest in denying its opponents full-fledged satellite states in its backyard.
Some critics of growing U.S. involvement in Venezuela reasonably assert that all nations forge diplomatic, economic, and military ties with other nations and that this does not justify the United States to escalate toward hostilities. Critics can point out that the United States has a military presence around the world, including near Russia, China, and Iran’s main lands. Those nations have not jumped to materially threatening the United States, though they certainly have engaged in asymmetric hostilities against the United States for years.
Why should the United States involve itself further in a foreign nation without a clear and present threat to its homeland’s national security? Part of the answer to this question depends on one’s initial foreign policy perspective. In assessing Venezuela, should U.S. thought leaders narrow the scope of their assessment in time to the near or longer terms? Should they calculate the effects of U.S. foreign policy decisions only within the borders of Venezuela or consider broader regional, hemispheric, and global effects? I recommend we take in all of reality and calculate the effects as best we can in the near term and long terms, regionally and globally.
The United States has historically been deliberate about ensuring it fights its wars far from its shores. Let’s stick to this good policy. The United States must deny a military and intelligence platform in its backyard to parties with whom it could be engaged in hostilities in the future. The United States should stand firm in the Western Hemisphere. America has a national security interest in denying its opponents full-fledged satellite states in its backyard. Should the United States find itself in a future war with an enemy that maintains Venezuela as a satellite state, this seemingly small and inconsequential Latin American nation would be used to great military advantage against the United States.
The United States must set a clear standard in addressing the foreign policy paradigm Venezuela currently presents. There is no current credible advocacy for the United States to launch military force today.
Meanwhile, let’s distinguish between symmetric and asymmetric hostilities. The United States is the preeminent conventional military superpower. Because Russia, China, and Iran are not responding to U.S. military presence in their regions by threatening the United States in a conventional military fashion does not mean these nations are not actively engaged in asymmetric hostilities against the United States—they are.
As military strategist Conrad Crane aptly observed, “There are two approaches to waging war: asymmetric and stupid.” This is especially true when considering the United States as your opponent in the ring. For the near-term, if they can help it and holding all things constant, Russia, China, and Iran will not conventionally confront the United States. Using asymmetric tactics to accelerate American decline is where we are currently competing. U.S. adversaries are succeeding by all relative measures and they hope to continue succeeding indefinitely.
The United States must set a clear standard in addressing the foreign policy paradigm Venezuela currently presents. Many Americans reasonably feel the United States should not put boots on the ground at this stage. But U.S. options are not limited to the false binary of military force or withdrawal from foreign affairs. The United States must appropriately use non-military capabilities today to shape global conditions tomorrow.
To the extent possible, the role of all U.S. allies should mature from mere public expressions of support for Guaidó to defining strategic objectives and concrete steps we will take together.
The United States needs to be clear with allies and adversaries about its interests in Venezuela. The world should know where the United States stands if it expects to curtail its opponents’ behavior and encourage allies to act. The administration has so far been taking all the right steps. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s leadership on Venezuela has been eminent in both substance and clarity of message.
So, what else should the United States do? While it should continue to leverage its economic influence unilaterally as a key trading partner and tighten sanctions that have resulted in a 40 percent plunge in Venezuelan oil exports, it must get several of its allies off the bench and in the game. To the extent possible, the role of all U.S. allies should mature from mere public expressions of support for Guaidó to defining strategic objectives and concrete steps we will take together. The United States should help its allies phase into a Venezuela foreign policy that enmeshes real-time operational domains with strategic objectives.
The United States should establish specifics with as many allies as possible on what Venezuelan military and security institution leaders can expect from the United States if they withdraw allegiance from Maduro. The United States must compete in the ever-important public diplomacy and information space. The United States and its allies must meaningfully support Venezuelan freedom of information. Meanwhile, it should act quickly to eviscerate what remaining perception of legitimacy Maduro still has on the world stage.
If the United States expects Venezuela’s military leaders to act, they will have to know what the 60-plus nations who have verbally expressed support for Guaidó will actually do if events turn for the worse for them.
Venezuelan military leaders remain behind Maduro, for now. What the leaders of Venezuela’s security forces do is an important determinant of the outcome there. Guaidó has now openly called for Venezuela’s military to topple the Maduro regime. U.S. leaders have expressed support for Guaidó’s “Operacion Libertad.”Some of Venezuela’s military leaders are in contact with U.S. officials and allies. If the United States expects these leaders to rethink their position, they need to know where America and its allies stand and what it will do if they break ranks with Maduro.
Venezuela’s military leaders are under surveillance and looming compulsion by Maduro, with the help of Russia, China, and Cuba. Unfortunately, not all military leaders in Venezuela are motivated purely by their laws and patriotism. In spite of Guaidó’s offer of immunity, some of Venezuela’s corrupt but powerful security leaders are concerned that a new Guaidó government not only means their wealth-generating criminal activities in narcotics and other areas will end, but that they’ll be prosecuted, or worse. But among Venezuela’s patriots in military leadership, U.S. contacts cannot be squandered as arrests of military officers by Maduro on suspicion of conspiracy continue.
With clashes erupting now and Guaidó calling on citizens and the military to take action on the ground, Maduro could act drastically in the near future against military leaders. So long as Maduro loyalists (and the many Russian, Cuban, and other foreign operators working as thugs for Maduro) share a parity of capabilities in comparison with military leaders who oppose Maduro, an ultimate resolution remains uncertain and security has the potential to rapidly deteriorate.
If the United States expects Venezuela’s military leaders to act as individuals or en masse against Maduro, it should do what it can to ensure they understand what the 60-plus nations who have verbally expressed support for Guaidó will actually do if events turn for the worse for them. Pushing U.S. allies to join the United States with concrete commitments could help influence more military leaders in the direction of Guaidó. For those military leaders on the fence and those still loyal to Maduro, their perception of how far the United States and its allies are willing to go in Venezuela will be an important factor that will influence their behavior and be a part of their survival calculus. Today, Secretary Pompeo projected a clear message.
Venezuela presents a challenge that can indicate to the world how the United States will protect its interests into the future.
While Maduro uses security forces to block food and other humanitarian aid from reaching his people, Venezuelans seek inalienable human rights, self-determination, liberty, opportunity, and at this point, basic necessities. The United States should recognize that the allegations of human rights violations committed by the Venezuelan government are not mere slogans of Maduro critics.
The Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner (UNOCHR) published a report in June 2018 titled Human Rights Violations in  Venezuela: A Downward Spiral with No End in Sight, in which the UNOCHR documents human rights violations by state authorities including “extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detention, and torture.”
Venezuela’s people deserve the world’s support for human rights. Venezuelans continue to reject Maduro by peaceful expression and adherence to Venezuela’s laws. The prodigious pursuit of human rights by Venezuelan civilians in the face of a regime that has committed gross violations of human rights reinforces the legitimacy of our calls for Maduro to step down. The United States stands with the people of Venezuela.
For America’s national security calculus, Venezuela is about the ambitions of our adversaries and competitors in the Western Hemisphere, which involves damaging U.S. strategic interests. Russia, China, and Iran are aligned in projecting power deeper into the United States' hemisphere with a laser-focused policy to accelerate America’s decline politically, economically, and militarily. The United States should maintain preeminence in the Western Hemisphere. Venezuela presents a challenge that can indicate to the world how the United States will protect its interests into the future.
Omar Qudrat is an attorney and member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. As a former U.S. Department of Defense official, Omar has served at home and overseas in various roles including as a counter-terrorism prosecutor and political advisor to NATO. Omar is a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.