By Hon. Richard Holwill, JHCGA's Ambassador in Residence
As Russian threatens Ukraine with tanks and a U.S. led coalition threatens Russia with economic sanctions, Russia appears to seek ways to threaten the United States by reviving the prospect of placing nuclear-tipped missiles in the Western Hemisphere. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, speaking on Russian television, raised the possibility on January 10.[i]
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro reported that he spoke by telephone with Vladimir Putin on January 21st. In a subsequent tweet, he added that he was grateful for Putin’s willingness to support Venezuela with weapons needed to secure its “sovereignty.”[ii]
Putin also called Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel on January 24th but the Cubans played down that call and appear to have no interest in being drawn into this particular fight. Maduro, however, doesn’t have the luxury of turning down a Russian request because he is increasingly reliant on Russia for economic and security support. The two countries have signed more than 200 agreements covering everything from clothing to food.[iii]
Most critically for Venezuela, the Russians sent technicians to assist with oil production. Venezuela has significant oil reserves but its production levels had fallen due to chronic mismanagement and under-investment. (See chart below.) However, with help from Russian technicians and financial support,[iv]Venezuela’s national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), was able to achieve a 90 percent increase in output in November of 2021.[v] That level of production cannot be sustained without substantial investments, which means that Maduro must have continued Russian support.
While Russia may want to distract the U.S. government with the threat of a new Cuban Missile Crisis, Russia is not likely to move significant military assets to Venezuela. The country is simply too unstable. The Venezuelan Army is fighting a guerrilla insurgency in the country’s western provinces. Criminal gangs hold several towns in the interior and, according to the most recent reports, one such gang holds a neighborhood in the capital city of Caracas.[vi]
Moving sophisticated weapons to Venezuela would both divert resources from whatever Putin is planning for Ukraine and put the weapons at significant risk, not from a U.S. counterstrike but from an under-paid Venezuelan Army officer who could be tempted to sell the weapons to the CIA or any other interested buyer. In other words, the prospect of a new missile crisis based in Venezuela is simply not credible.
Putin likely knows that he does not need to deploy major military assets to draw Washington’s attention to dangers closer to home. Most of the Soviet Union’s past moves in Latin America involved supporting radical left-wing political and guerrilla movements from Central America through the Andes to Uruguay and Argentina. Russia could try this tactic again but Latin America has changed and support for violent revolution appears to have ebbed, partially because leftists are now winning elections in Latin America and the disaster in Venezuela serves as a warning against extremism A missile crisis or support to insurgencies is, to borrow a phrase from one of my daughters, so last year – in this context it is so last century.
Still, we should not expect Putin to suffer sanctions without finding ways to hurt the U.S. and other NATO countries. I expect that he will respond to sanctions with a 21st Century weapon – cyber warfare. If Russia attacks Ukraine, we should expect aggressive hacking aimed at paralyzing the international banking system and damaging U.S. and European infrastructure. The U.S. electric power grid is a logical target and may be somewhat vulnerable, notwithstanding efforts in recent years to harden the system against hackers. Air traffic control could also be vulnerable, as could some communication systems.
If that speculation is correct, we will face two questions In the coming days. Are our cyber defenses what they should be? And how will we respond? The United States government is known to have developed offensive cyber weapons. More than one officer involved in those projects has said to me that “we are better at this than they are.” Were Russia to use cyber weapons and we were to counter with our offensive cyber capability, we could be witnessing the onset of a worldwide cyber war.
February 21, 2022
[i] https://hindustannewshub.com/world-news/russia-missiles-in-venezuela-will-russia-deploy-nuclear-weapons-in-venezuela-big-disclosure-of-the-mouthpiece-of-the-communist-party/ [ii] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/russia-raises-negotiation-stakes-with-possibility-of-military-deployment-to-cuba-venezuela [iii] https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2022/01/29/russia-has-become-a-crucial-ally-of-venezuelas-dictatorship [iv] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-russia-oil-specialreport/special-report-vladimirs-venezuela-leveraging-loans-to-caracas-moscow-snaps-up-oil-assets-idUSKBN1AR14U [v] https://www.reuters.com/markets/commodities/how-venezuela-pulled-its-oil-production-out-tailspin-2021-12-27/ [vi] https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/the-government-is-losing-ground-residents-say-gangs-take-territory-venezuelas-2021-07-18/