Vladimir Putin: The “New Russian Czar” In Syria And Venezuela

Jan 12th, 2019 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

One of the major developments of 2018 was the growing worldwide influence of Vladimir Putin.  He has made no secret of his desire to restore the grandeur and power of Russia, not as a communist state, but as the restored Russia of the czarist mold:  The Russian Orthodox Church supporting a corrupt, authoritarian state.  Two recent developments buttress his vision to make Russia a global superpower.

  • First is the US abandonment of Syria. Shortly before Christmas, President Trump declared, via Twitter, that he would withdraw all American troops from Syria within 30 days (he has now suggested over four months).  American troops entered Syria in 2015 as part of a coalition fighting the Islamic State, which had seized large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.  Over the last three years, the ISIS caliphate has crumbled, but Syria, let alone Iraq, is hardly stable.  Trump’s decision caused Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign, arguing that “our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.  While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”  The withdrawal from Syria will have profound effects:
  1. How has President Trump’s decision helped Russia? President Assad of Syria and his chief international backers Russia and Iran will benefit from the American troop withdrawal, which will further tighten Assad’s grip on this battered nation.  Indeed, when Trump announced his decision, Putin applauded him, saying during a news conference, “Donald is right and I agree with him.”  Russia now has a strong footprint in the Middle East as a result of its helping Assad.  As Jon Alterman, director and senior fellow of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues, “They re-established themselves as a global player when the conclusion had been that the glory days of the Soviet Union were dead and gone.”  With America gone, Assad will now shape his future with the help of Russia and Iran.  Furthermore, Putin’s gamble that intervening in Syria would revive Russian influence in the Middle East has worked.  Trump’s withdrawal from Syria gives Putin full reign in deciding the future of that nation, holding sway over its foreign policy, military and security services.  Indeed, Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign affairs analyst, declared that “Trump is God’s gift that keeps on giving.  Trump implements Russia’s negative agenda by default, undermining the US–led world order, US alliances, US credibility and an ally.  All of this on his own.  Russia can just relax and watch and root for Trump, which Putin does at every TV appearance.”
  2. How will the decision affect Israel? With America gone from Syria and no longer functioning as a counterweight, Iran is further empowered with free access to Hezbollah, which poses an existential threat to Israel.  “Analysts say now that Iran can link Shiite partners in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in a unified front against Israel.  In Syria, Iran and Hezbollah aim to strengthen a military presences near the Golan Heights, annexed by Israel after it was captured in the 1967 war.”  Indeed, a small, remote US base in southern Syria has made it more difficult for Iran to project power across the Middle East.  The al-Tanf garrison, where about 200 American troops have been stationed, sits in a strategically important terrain of an important Iranian supply route through Iraq into Syria.  Both Russian and Assad have pressured the US to leave this garrison, which the US has refused to do because it had consistently deterred Iranian activities in this area.  That deterrence will now be gone, further opening up greater Iranian influence in this area.
  3. The US policy in Syria involved keeping ISIS beaten; keeping faith with the Kurds, our most important ally in Syria; maintaining leverage in Syria and preventing Russia and Iran from consolidating their grip on this part of Middle East. With one Tweet, President Trump ended this strategic policy just a few miles north of our most important Middle Eastern friend—Israel.
  • Second is Venezuela. Reporters Anthony Faiola and Karen DeYoung, summarize the growing influence of Russia in the troubled nation of Venezuela:  “As allies go, Venezuela is a relatively cheap one for Russia. But the potential returns on Moscow’s investment there could be priceless.  In exchange for modest loans and bailouts over the past decade, Russia now owns significant parts of at least five oil fields in Venezuela, which holds the world’s largest reserves, along with 30 years’ worth of future output from two Caribbean natural-gas fields. Venezuela also has signed over 49.9 percent of Citgo, its wholly owned company in the United States — including three Gulf Coast refineries and a countrywide web of pipelines — as collateral to Russia’s state-owned Rosneft oil behemoth for a reported $1.5 billion in desperately needed cash.  Russian advisers are inside the Venezuelan government, helping direct the course of President Nicolás Maduro’s attempts to bring his failing government back from bankruptcy.”  Russia helped orchestrate this year’s introduction of a new digital currency, the “Petro,” to keep oil payments flowing while avoiding U.S. sanctions on the country’s dollar transactions.  Venezuela’s still-formidable defense force, once an exclusively U.S. client, is now equipped with Russian guns, tanks and planes, financed with prepaid oil deliveries to Russian clients. Maduro scoffed last year at President Trump’s public threat to use the U.S. military to bring him down, saying Venezuela, with Russian help, had turned itself into a defensive “fortress.”  For Russia, the establishment of a political outpost in the Western Hemisphere is “a strategic win,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society.

 

Furthermore, in early December, two nuclear-capable, long-range Russian Tu-160 bombers arrived at Maiquetia International Airport outside Caracas, met by senior Venezuelan military officers who saluted and shook hands with the pilots. The Russians later took part in joint exercises.  “The Russian missile-carrying planes flew alongside [Sukhoi] Su-30 and F-16 fighter jets” of the Venezuelan air force, a Russian Defense Ministry statement said. “The pilots of the two countries practiced interaction in mid-air while tackling flight tasks,” including a 10-hour exercise across the Caribbean.

Just days after the Argentina summit in December of 2018, Maduro traveled to Moscow to meet with Putin. The Venezuelan leader said Russia agreed to invest an additional $5 billion to improve Venezuelan oil production — much of which goes to Russia’s export customers — and $1 billion in gold mining. Separate contracts were signed to supply Venezuela with 600,000 tons of Russian wheat and to modernize and maintain its Russian-made weaponry.  Maduro described Russia and Venezuela, both under heavy U.S. sanctions, as comrades in a fight against American hegemony and leading the charge toward a new, “multipolar world.”

Russia’s “friends” in Latin America include Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, countries that Trump national security adviser John Bolton referred to in a speech last month as the “troika of tyranny.” Bolton said that “this president, this entire administration, will stand with the freedom fighters” combating the “destructive forces of oppression, socialism and totalitarianism.”

Vladimir Putin’s goal to make Russia a global superpower is giving every evidence of succeeding.  Russia is not only a major player in the Middle East, something Russian czars of old only dreamed of, but Russia is once again a real threat in the western hemisphere.  Vladimir Putin is not our friend!

See Anthony Faiola and Karen DeYoung, “In Venezuela, Russia pockets key energy assets in exchange for cash bailouts,” Washington Post (24 December 2018); Bret Stephens in the New York Times (27 December 2018); Sune Engle Rasmussen and Michael R. Gordon in the Wall Street Journal (28 December 2018); Vivian Yee in the New York Times (27 December 2018); and Neil MacFarquhar in the New York Times (22 December 2018).

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