Russia is peddling a dangerous new narrative: Washington should trade Ukraine for Venezuela.
This is Moscow’s most recent front in its war against Ukraine. Wolodymyr Zelenskii’s inauguration as Ukraine’s new president has not stopped Russia’s attempts to destroy Ukraine’s independence, democracy and integrity. Now it’s playing out in Washington.
The narrative goes that Washington should give Moscow a free hand in Ukraine — in return for Moscow supposedly giving Washington a free hand to unseat Venezuela’s venal and criminal Maduro regime. This narrative also argues that Washington should simply extend the New START Treaty for five years, while resuming arms control talks with Moscow.
The Russian narrative contends that President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE, believing himself exonerated by the Mueller report, can now freely improve relations with Moscow. Not coincidentally Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinNew hacking efforts show Russia undeterred by US actions Putin blasts cancel culture, calls gender fluidity 'crime against humanity' Russia breaks daily COVID-19 infections, death record MORE shares this narrative. Therefore, Washington should seek to improve these relations and retrieve them from the supposedly dangerous impasse into which they had fallen. Allegedly, only churlish members of the media, unregenerate Russophobes and foreign policy commentators oppose this development.
Unfortunately, this approach is morally indefensible and strategically disastrous. Let us remember that Russia’s armies (including so-called separatists, who are really Moscow’s auxiliaries in Ukraine) invaded the Crimea and the Donbas and committed the most naked aggression since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Putin would also undoubtedly try to leave these “separatist” forces in the Donbass and Crimea to destroy any basis for independent Ukrainian statehood.
Second, Moscow unilaterally and knowingly broke the INF treaty. Meanwhile, Ambassador Antonov in Washington (who negotiated the New START Treaty) claims, that all the new nuclear weapons Putin has displayed to threaten the U.S. and its allies circumvent the New START Treaty and are therefore non-negotiable. Simply extending what has proven to be a one-sided and poorly drafted treaty will gain neither security nor arms control. Instead it will further weaken our own deterrent with nothing to show for it in return.
Third, in Venezuela, the issue is not so much Russian forces but Cuban forces, which are not bound by any bilateral Russo-American agreement. Thus, this narrative essentially represents a weakening of U.S. security and America’s global position.
Fourth, whatever one thinks of Mueller’s report, its conclusions do not provide grounds for improving ties with Moscow. Quite the opposite. Conclusively proving Russian interference in our elections, it instead justifies American retaliation. This administration has rightly increased defense support for Ukraine, expanded and extended sanctions upon Russia, challenged Russia on energy, exercised its legal right of withdrawal from the INF treaty that Moscow broke, launched a robust military rebuilding process, and is fighting Moscow and Havana’s stooge, Maduro, in Venezuela. Indeed, Maduro’s policies amply justify a humanitarian intervention in Venezuela to rescue its people who are trapped there by a government of surpassing venality.
Indeed, the Trump administration should intensify pressure upon Maduro by targeting the huge drug trade that sustains Maduro’s racketeering enterprise that masquerades as a government. In any case, U.S pressure will likely grow beyond Maduro’s ability to withstand it. We have already seen that his own ranks are increasingly restless, disloyal and contemplating defection to the other side.
Moscow may push this narrative because destroying Ukraine shatters U.S. credibility across Europe and NATO. At the same time Russia would negotiate for itself a financial parachute if it left Venezuela. Neither would it lose much by doing so. Furthermore, trading Ukraine for Venezuela undermines both Ukraine whom we have pledged to support and European security while also explicitly recognizing Russia’s right to intervene in Latin America. That admission legitimizes further Russian-backed threats to Latin American countries from insurgents and narco-traffickers that Moscow supports.
Venezuela has long served as a base for threatening our ally, Colombia, for over a decade. Those threats would not cease if Moscow moved its base to Nicaragua, Moscow’s other Latin American client. Consequently, this trade gains little or nothing for Washington and loses an enormous amount.
Advocates of this cynical deal, like Putin, believe that the great powers can simply dispose of states like chess pawns. This belief, of course, contravenes everything the U.S. stands for. Moreover, such deals legitimize naked aggression, imperialism in the form of spheres of influence, and the untrammeled use of force. Those phenomena have mostly been conspicuously absent in our policy towards Venezuela.
“Trading” Ukraine for Venezuela also undermines U.S. security guarantees to our allies. It also does nothing to stop Moscow’s long-standing campaign of information warfare to suborn and corrupt our own and our allies’ democracies here, in Europe and Latin America. While Putin might well benefit and even gain more ill-gotten lucre from this “trade,” the U.S. and its allies would only lose. The disinformation inherent in this proposed deal might play well in Moscow and among people who are either too cynical or naïve to care about these issues. But we must reject them and their advocates who are ultimately wolves in sheep’s clothing, whose proposals are truly bad ideas whose time should never come.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College.