Putin's Syria playbook: Next stop Venezuela?

Putin's Syria playbook: Next stop Venezuela?
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During his recent visit to Russia, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS-Iran tensions rise: Five things to know about oil tanker attack US-Iran tensions rise: Five things to know about oil tanker attack The US must do its part in closing the largest outdoor prison in the world MORE urged Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinTrump remarks deepen distrust with intelligence community Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales MORE to end his support for the regime of Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro. If Putin continues to defy the U.S. and European call for democracy in Venezuela, Moscow may emulate the political and economic tactics it refined during its intervention in Syria. In practical terms, this means exploiting Maduro’s weakness to secure access to resources and strategic infrastructure located within Venezuela’s borders.

Russia has openly stepped-up support for Maduro as his government wobbles following a contested election in February. This backing has consisted of material assistance to Venezuela’s armed forces, the provision of diplomatic cover, and the deployment of ground troops, including the Wagner Group — Moscow’s shadowy paramilitary organization that participated in the annexation of Crimea as well as fighting in Syria. Despite the recently announced withdrawal of Rostec, a large Russian state defense contractor, after Caracas failed to pay up, Russia remains heavily involved in Venezuela.

Indeed, Moscow continues to have clear vested interests in seeing Maduro survive. Caracas owes Russia $3.15 billion in sovereign debt, while robust Russian investments in oil and gas reside in Venezuela. Moreover, Caracas serves as a useful thorn in Washington’s side. In recent years, Russia has conducted military training with the Venezuelan armed forces, and has repeatedly deployed — most recently this past December — its most modern strategic bomber, the nuclear-capable Tu-160 Blackjack.

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If Putin decides to escalate Russia’s involvement in the Venezuelan crisis, he may lean on methods honed in Syria. In that war, Moscow drew from an arsenal of low-risk, high return policies to secure Russian interests in return for propping up an ailing client regime. Though Putin only intervened in Syria when the regime of Bashar al-Assad was on the brink of a military collapse, Maduro’s regime is already on political life support.

Russia officially entered the Syrian civil war in September 2015. Desperate for support, Damascus has since bartered away national assets in return for the Kremlin’s assistance. Moscow now controls Syria’s only fertilizer plant and both the military and commercial sections of Syria’s vital Mediterranean port at Tartus. Russia has also gained long-term access to Syria’s gas reserves in Homs, stations a large contingent of Russian military aircraft at the Hmeimim airbase near Lattakia, and is set to receive majority extraction rights to Syria’s valuable Palmyra phosphate mines.

So far, the bargain has paid off for both parties. Many experts credit Russia’s intervention with saving Assad’s regime, while Putin has gained access to valuable resources and boosted his regional influence. The Tartus port will now host Russian warships — including nuclear-powered vessels — and submarines, enabling larger maritime forward deployments. This in turn solidifies Russian naval combat power in the Mediterranean Sea and bolsters Moscow’s ability to project political clout abroad.

The economic roots Russia is establishing in Syria allow it to contest U.S. influence in the Middle East more effectively and represent an additional market for Moscow at a time when it faces a litany of U.S. sanctions. These outcomes directly undermine current U.S. efforts to contain Russia’s reach.

Maduro’s regime, like that of Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad’s in 2015, is in crisis. It faces widespread political insurrection at home. It is mired in a persistent, self-imposed economic depression. It has few international backers and is increasingly isolated, even within Latin America.

Yet Venezuela has chips to trade. It holds significant natural resources within its borders, is geographically well-positioned to subvert U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, and could further expand the reach of Russia’s military. Caracas possesses the largest proven crude oil reserves in the world, airbases capable of deploying Russian strategic aircraft, and multiple deep-water ports. One could easily imagine Maduro, should he find himself with his back against the wall, exchanging access to these assets in return for Putin’s support, as Assad did with his own assets.

The U.S. must therefore keep close watch of Putin’s hand in Caracas and push back against a Russian attempt to turn Maduro’s desperation into Russia’s advantage. To this end, the Trump administration should continue to vigorously enforce its already robust sanctions campaign and make clear, both through private and public channels, that it stands steadfast in support of the elected president, Juan Guaido, and true democracy in Venezuela.

Andrew Gabel is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power. Follow him on Twitter @Andrew_B_Gabel. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.