Pictured: A United States Air Force Reserve cargo plane delivers humanitarian aid, intended for the people of Venezuela, in Cucuta, Colombia, a mile and a half from the Venezuelan border, on February 22, 2019. The USAF reservists were greeted by Colombian President Ivan Duquemarquez and Vice President Marta Lucia-Ramirez. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Maj. Wayne Capps)
America is facing two dangerous crises. In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, the illegitimate winner of a reportedly sham election, has, with his socialist policies, created a catastrophic situation. The struggle in Venezuela between his challenger, Juan Guaidó, and him is reaching a crescendo. Millions of Venezuelans, suffering under his radical regime, have been flooding neighboring Brazil and Colombia. Yet, with the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Maduro is clinging to power, as Fidel Castro did in the early 1960s with the aid of Nikita Khrushchev.
Putin, seeking to rescue his beleaguered client, Maduro, as well as his considerable investments in Venezuelan oil and gold, recently deployed two nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela. In addition, hundreds of "private military contractors who do secret missions for Russia" are reportedly deployed in Venezuela.
The Venezuelan crisis is also linked to a second dangerous crisis in eastern Ukraine. There, even as U.S. ships recently sailed through the Black Sea, Putin is undertaking a new destabilization policy directed at the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
Why Mariupol? Putin's main objective seems be to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the EU. His strategy is also likely designed to weaken Ukraine, which depends on the export of coal, steel and grain through Mariupol, which is the key export port for the whole Donbas region.
Putin seems to have become militarily involved in Venezuela partly to assure that Ukraine, the most geopolitically significant country on its western borders, will not follow the path of the Baltic NATO countries. He apparently desires Ukraine to become a weak nation that will eventually reach some sort of economic cooperation with Russia. A believer in warfare by proxies on land -- separatists, "volunteers," Chechens and Special Forces -- Putin is now using the Russian Navy and special forces by sea, economically to strangle the prominent, strategically important industrial city of Mariupol. A railroad hub and the key port on the Azov Sea, Mariupol could also serve as a land bridge to the Crimea.
Even if Russia may not have a master plan, it does appear to have strategic objectives: building a network of naval and air force facilities as in Syria, or renewing them as in Crimea and in occupied Abkhazia. Russia would love again to possess the port in Mariupol to dominate the Azov Sea.
Facing both crises -- in Venezuela and Ukraine -- what does Trump need to know and what can he do?
Putin's Evolving Strategy and Venezuelan and Ukrainian Crises
First, the Russian president has never desired to recover the whole Soviet or Czarist empires. Rather, for more than a decade, he has concentrated on some strategically important slices of countries that were part of the former empire, primarily those with a sizable population of Russian-speakers, Orthodox believers or Shiite supporters of Christians. More importantly, as opposed to expensive full occupations of landlocked countries by former Russian Premiers Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, including Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Afghanistan, Putin's aims seem different. He appears to be seeking littoral slices of countries with assets he considers strategically important for Russia. The slices Putin seems to favor are those linked to the South by strategic waterways and endowed with energy resources. Now, with ISIS helpfully cleaned out of Syria by the United States, Russia has a warm water port on the Mediterranean, gas fields, and, ever since President Obama effectively abandoned Syria, the opportunity for Russia to displace or control any leaders there, such as Bashar al-Assad.
Putin also appears to wish to re-acquire ports, coastlines, waterways and littoral lands lost to Russia during the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Examples include Georgia's Abkhazia, in 2008, with its Black Sea coastline, and in 2014, Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, the site of his Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. Putin has also been enlarging naval facilities in Syria's port of Tartus, in the eastern Mediterranean, and has settled comfortably in an airbase in the Syrian province of Latakia.
How can Russia, a country with a GNP roughly equaling that of the Netherlands -- but that has been called a large "gas station" producing oil and transfers of energy and arms -- engage effectively in strategic competition with the United States, the largest technological and economic powerhouse?
The answer is that, as Russia, along with China, might have the nuclear capability seriously to damage the U.S., Putin appears to assume that America will not want to engage in a large, nuclear confrontation with it.
Putin's military strategists, given his lean circumstances since he came to power, seem to have pushed forward with the only military program that made sense: building a lethal, non-carrier-oriented naval fleet and killer special forces in each armed service with the objective of threatening -- and prevailing in -- local conflicts. They have also focused on the evolution of hybrid war scenarios to obtain land in countries that are not NATO members. Ukraine, Georgia, Syria and perhaps, in the future, Venezuela, are all examples. The key vital national-security focus for Russia, however, is still Ukraine, with its crucial geopolitical position and technological and agricultural potential.
Building a new U.S. base in Poland is critical for the U.S. to ensure the security of NATO countries, Poland and the Baltics. Meanwhile, the vulnerability of Mariupol on the Azov Sea and in the east was exposed by the Russian navy's attack on three Ukrainian ships on November 25, 2018, in which some Ukrainian sailors were wounded and 24 captured and imprisoned. Russia claims they infringed on internal waters that others claim are international.
Putin's Unsurprising Aversion to Regime Change
Putin has, learned a few lessons from the overthrow of two of his clients. The first was Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Persuaded at the time by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russia abstained at the UN rather than veto a NATO "humanitarian" intervention against the Libyan dictator. Putin, however, not only lost valuable contracts; he was also possibly shaken by the humiliating and feckless murder in Tripoli of Gaddafi by U.S.- armed "moderate" rebels, after Gaddafi had complied with all US requests.
The second lesson came when the corrupt pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted in 2014 by a popular uprising in Kiev. Putin responded with a quick invasion of Crimea. To him, retaking Crimea with Sevastopol, the traditional home base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, must have seemed essential for linking his naval deployment between the Black Sea and Syria in the eastern Mediterranean.
Putin then -- after first organizing a multilateral defense against former U.S. President Barack Obama's 2013 planned "red line" intervention in Syria -- went for direct intervention by military force from 2015 to 2018. The reason was purportedly to preserve the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but undoubtedly to expand even further Russian influence in the region -- the traditional goal of Russian rulers.
Putin's Strategy of Linkages
What has not been understood in the West is that Putin has linked the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, by taking advantage of Russia's peculiar geography. A canal between the rivers of the Volga and Don allows Putin to move elements of his Black Sea Fleet to the Caspian Sea and his Caspian Sea Flotilla to the Black Sea, when necessary, to be used in either conflict -- Syria or Ukraine.
The ongoing disputes in both Syria and Ukraine -- combined with the negotiations Minsk I and Minsk II in which he came out the winner -- have enabled Putin to manage both conflicts to America's disadvantage. Forays into the city of Mariupol by Russian proxies had already begun in 2014, as in other east Ukrainian cities, such as Donetsk, Lugansk and Kramatorsk.
Most Western observers and residents of Mariupol had apparently anticipated at that time, that the siege of this strategically important city would take place in 2015. (However, Andrey Kortunov, the President of the Russian International Affairs Council [RIAC] of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2015, put in doubt any ongoing offensive in Mariupol. He said, "So far the chances are that we can only expect that there will be no escalation at the beginning of the fall, which many are talking about.") . Instead, to everyone's surprise, Putin froze the Mariupol conflict and redeployed some of his forces to intervene in Syria. His objective there was ostensibly to defend his client, Assad, from a U.S.-supported, rebel uprising, but possibly more to defend Russia's newfound interests there -- Russia's upgraded navy and air force facilities in Tartus and Latakia, as well as future energy investment and energy transfer (pipelines) in Syria.
Putin's intervention helped to consolidate Assad's victory in late 2018 and Russia's entrenchment in Syria. With President Trump's announcement of a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, however, Putin quickly defrosted the conflict in eastern Ukraine and returned with his new strategy: seemingly the economic strangulation of Mariupol to weaken Ukraine by means of his navy on the Azov Sea.
Since 2015, even while engaged in Syria, Putin had ordered building a bridge over the Kerch Strait, the bottleneck passage from the Black Sea into its tributary, the Azov Sea. The 18-kilometer-long bridge links Russia to the Crimean Peninsula. The bridge is so low, however -- 115 feet from the water -- that tall Ukrainian commercial ships cannot pass under it to the Black Sea. Many analysts (here, here and here) view the construction of the too low bridge as not a result of poor engineering or stupidity. (The bridge, however, might be short-lived, due to seismic movements in the Kerch Strait.)
For years, during Obama's tenure and ever since Trump took office, Putin has skillfully fielded all U.S. attempts to arm Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles. Initially, it appeared that Trump was persuaded by Putin that Ukraine was not an area important enough for U.S. engagement. After negotiating with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, however, Trump, in an about-face approved the sale to Ukraine of 210 Javelin missiles and 37 launchers.
Ukraine's possession of the U.S.-made missiles has had a tremendous psychological impact on the Russian tank crews in Donbas, who reportedly now refuse to deploy and shell Ukrainian positions.
How Should the U.S. Proceed?
Prior to the Cuban missile crisis, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was viewed by Russia's Khrushchev as weak. Today, the Kremlin views Trump as weakened by "Russiagate" and the possibility -- lustily reported by the media for two years -- of his either resigning or facing impeachment, as President Richard Nixon did in 1974.
There is little Putin can do to save Maduro's regime in Venezuela; the cards are stacked in America's favor.
In Venezuela, there is a legitimate leader, Juan Guaidó, while Maduro's policies have alienated not only most of his people, but evidently most of his neighbors as well. Maduro is reportedly thought little of by leftists in South America and Europe.
The large amounts of humanitarian aid that Maduro is refusing to the Venezuelan people, should, of course, be allowed into Venezuela.
The U.S. should try to avoid bloodshed by continuing to offer Maduro and his key supporters safe passage out of the country.
So far, Putin seems to have been counting on a lack of American resolve regarding Venezuela; he has just succeeded in getting China to support him.
If Maduro is removed from office, Putin might act as he did when a popular revolution overthrew Yanukovych in Ukraine, in 2014: with a surprise invasion of the Crimea. This time, Putin may launch a surprise naval and land attack on Mariupol, set up a land bridge from Crimea to Russia and continue intensifying his attempt to strangle Ukraine's economy, in order to subjugate Ukraine to Russia. Trump needs to take immediate preemptive measures to prevent Putin from doing that, by increasing naval aid to Kiev.
Although the U.S. and Britain have recently conducted naval drills in the Black Sea, that action alone is insufficient. While strictly following the international convention on deployment of foreign ships through the Turkish Straits in the Black Sea, more naval power needs to be brought into play. The Ukrainian Navy could be allowed to borrow dozens of small vessels from NATO countries, while the U.S. undertakes a rapid program of helping to rebuild and enlarge the minuscule Ukrainian Navy.
If America abdicates its role in Venezuela, you can bet Russia will eventually build intelligence facilities there. Russia has also been providing Nicaragua with "sophisticated weaponry," including "T-72 tanks, war boats, warplanes, and powerful bombs."
Above all, President Trump must continue as he is doing now, to work towards liberating the Venezuelan people. Any hesitation will be counterproductive.
Dr. Jiri Valenta is a non-resident member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and formerly served at the Brookings Institution and the Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. He is also a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.