In May 2017, as the number killed during protests against the regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela climbed toward 40, and with more than 130 injured and over 1,300 arrests, many in the United States and the region asked, “How much longer could it go on?”
In addition to the crisis within Venezuela, the collapse of its economy and the escalating criminal and political violence have also produced a massive outflow of refugees to neighboring Colombia and Brazil, to the nearby Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, and Curaçao, and to other locales throughout the region. In total, an estimated 1.5 million of Venezuela’s 32 million people have left the country since the government of Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. Venezuela’s neighbors watch the unfolding drama not only with concern for the Venezuelan people but also from the perspective of how that crisis could affect them as it deepens and possibly becomes more violent.
The situation in Venezuela is often mistakenly diagnosed as principally a political or economic crisis. It is better understood as a criminal act without precedent in Latin America: the capture and systematic looting of a state, achieved by first capturing its institutions through mass mobilization and bureaucratic machinations, then increasing control of the state through military force, as the criminal nature of the act and its consequences become apparent to the nation’s citizens. Former Venezuelan government officials have suggested that as much as $300 billion may have been diverted over the last decade from national coffers to private accounts through the currency control system alone.
The crisis in Venezuela is a problem for the country and the region that neither international law nor existing multilateral institutions are well equipped to handle. For neighboring states, politically acceptable alternatives appear to be few. For example, it is unlikely that the United States, or organizations such as the United Nations or the Organization of American States (OAS), will choose to physically intervene or be able to act in a manner sufficiently impactful to alter the current trajectory of Venezuela toward a broader and more violent internal crisis. Yet, both the United States and multilateral institutions do have plausible alternatives and may yet have the ability to play a decisive role in managing the consequences of that crisis for the region without direct intervention.
The Situation in Venezuela
It is difficult to anticipate when or how the Maduro regime in Venezuela will collapse, yet it is clear that its current course is both economically and politically unsustainable. In economic terms, destructive government policies, including expropriations, price controls, and currency controls, in combination with rampant corruption and mismanagement in government enterprises, have progressively eliminated the capacity of the Venezuelan economy to produce even the most basic goods required by the people of the country to survive. Additionally, declining petroleum output, high production costs, debt service obligations, an accumulation of adverse legal judgements from past expropriations, and increasing reluctance of creditors (even politically supportive China and Russia) to lend new money are shutting off Venezuela’s access to hard currency to buy goods from abroad, even though international oil prices have recently trended upward.
Defaulting on the loan obligations of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA) to use the hard currency to import more goods (to ease political pressures) would trigger legal consequences that could bring about the seizure of the company’s assets, even oil shipments abroad, aggravating the regime’s liquidity crisis in a way that could endanger its ability to maintain power. The Venezuelan government has thus engaged in an increasingly desperate series of delays, legal actions, and fund shifting to make bond payments, while making a minimum quantity of foreign currency available to state organs and friends of the regime for the purpose of importing goods to maintain the support of the military and other key regime support groups.
These measures have included drawing down remaining international reserves (largely in gold), continuing to expropriate companies such as General Motors, rolling over bond payments, mortgaging assets such as the petroleum refiner and distributor CITGO, seeking new loans from state partners such as China and trusted companies such as Rosneft, and filing creative legal actions to delay decisions and awards against the government. Yet, little new credit is coming in, and the government is running out of assets to mortgage and legal options to postpone payments.
Venezuela is unable to produce needed goods domestically and lacks the cash to import them. The result, as increasingly evidenced in reports coming out of Venezuela, is ever greater scarcity of everything from food and medicine to toilet paper. Store shelves are empty, and people are spending significant portions of their day seeking food and other necessities. Seventy-two percent of Venezuelans report having lost weight in the past year because of such shortages. As Wall Street Journal reporter John Forero put it, “Venezuela is starving.”
The Maduro government has attempted to address the political implications of such shortages by appointing the military to distribute scarce food. As a result, the system mainly channels the little available food to those who support the regime while also ensuring the military both has reliable access to food for itself as well as opportunities for earning money by selling food on the black market.
With respect to political dynamics, the maneuvers adopted by the Maduro regime have demonstrated its determination to maintain power at any cost and its unwillingness to pursue a sincere political compromise or a constitutional solution that could result in its loss of power. A string of events and U.S. government actions in recent years against leaders in the current Venezuelan regime has highlighted that there are likely solid criminal cases against a significant number of persons in that government, thus signaling to them that a loss of political power could lead to their extradition and imprisonment in the United States. Indicative events include the July 2014 arrest of former Venezuelan security chief Hugo Carbajal when he left the country to become his country’s ambassador to Aruba, the November 2015 arrest in Haiti (and subsequent conviction on narcotrafficking charges) of Maduro’s nephews, and the U.S. Treasury Department’s February 2017 designation of Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami as a foreign narcotrafficking kingpin.
Reflecting such incentives to maintain power, Maduro and his fellow Chavista elites have violated Venezuela’s constitutional order in increasingly egregious ways, demonstrating that a resolution of Venezuela’s political and economic crisis through democratic processes is increasingly improbable. Key actions in this regard include dubious rulings by the pro-Maduro National Electoral Council and the Venezuelan Supreme Court
- preventing the opposition from using the supermajority it won in December 2015 elections (by blocking the seating of three opposition congressmen, giving pro-Maduro legislators two-thirds of the chamber);
- blocking a constitutionally stipulated recall referendum against the president;
- stripping the opposition-dominated congress of budgetary and other authority;
- ruling unconstitutional virtually all of the initiatives passed by that congress;
- postponing state and local elections; and
- eliminating key opposition leaders, including jailing Leopoldo López and disqualifying Henrique Capriles.
The Maduro regime has further begun a process of “renewing” the nation’s political parties, likely designed to disqualify parties and leaders hostile to the regime if currently delayed local elections or future presidential elections are held. Its boldest step to date, however, was its May 2017 initiative to form a constituent assembly and rewrite the constitution, a process almost certain to eliminate the elected opposition-dominated parliament.
If such actions demonstrate the unwillingness of the Maduro regime to respect constitutional processes and limits that could lead to their loss of power, the Venezuelan military has equally demonstrated its unwillingness to intervene to restore the democratic order or to avert a further economic and political meltdown in the country. While Venezuela’s armed forces have traditionally acted as guarantors of the nation’s constitutional order, during the eighteen years of rule by populist leader Hugo Chávez and his successor, Maduro, the military has been politicized and heavily indoctrinated with pro-regime ideology. In addition, virtually the entire cadre of its senior leaders has been replaced by regime loyalists.
Further decreasing the likelihood that the armed forces would act to restore Venezuela’s constitutional order, the military leadership (and particularly the National Guard) has become too deeply involved in drug trafficking, contraband, and other illicit activities to risk allowing or bringing about such change. Furthermore, the regime has embedded Cuban intelligence and counterintelligence agents throughout the military to keep an eye out for defectors.
While the United States has been highly critical of the actions of the Maduro regime, it has not, to date, indicated a disposition to move beyond the imposition of economic sanctions. And, while the OAS under Secretary Luis Almagro has strongly denounced the interruption of the democratic order in Venezuela, the organization principally functions on consensus, and the block of left-leaning anti-U.S. governments represented by the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas (ALBA) continues to oppose any anti-Venezuela action by the OAS. Venezuela’s fellow ALBA countries may not agree with Maduro’s decisions in governing Venezuela, but, arguably, they do not find it in their strategic interest for the OAS (in which the United States is an important actor) to condemn Venezuela or play a significant role in the region’s politics in general. Even if the OAS were to expel Venezuela from the organization for violation of its democratic charter, the Maduro regime already gave its notice in April of its intention to leave the body.
Similarly, while the United Nations Security Council, in theory, could authorize an intervention in Venezuela, permanent members Russia and China would likely veto such action, insofar as each has significant business interests in the country, as well as strategic interest in the persistence of a Venezuelan regime that actively resists the expansion of U.S. influence in the region.
Adding to Venezuela’s problems, the probability that violence will escalate is increased by the government’s creation and deployment throughout the country of collectivos, relatively undisciplined armed bands of civilians, to enforce its will. This will ensure a high cost in lives of Venezuela’s own military or of a foreign military if anyone attempts to change the regime by force.
Potential Scenarios for Venezuela
The plausible scenarios for Venezuela (all negative) loosely fall into three groups, based on assumptions regarding which side prevails and whether violence is sustained or dissipates: (1) resistance burnout and consolidation of the criminal state, (2) escalating violence resolved by imposition of a pseudodemocratic compromise regime, and (3) prolonged criminality, repression, and insurgency.
Resistance burnout and consolidation of the criminal state. In this scenario, the military and the government maintain cohesion, and there is no foreign intervention. Eventually, through the regime’s control of resources and brutal repression (including violence by the collectivos), the majority of civil resistance is suppressed or flees the country. Millions depart the country as economic or political refugees, or to escape the criminal violence. With the diminishing of resistance, the regime consolidates its totalitarian order, probably imposing a new constitution and legislative body. Following the imposition of stability, Maduro is killed or pressured to step down, and power passes to a new leader, similarly committed to the populist ideology and the criminal enterprise, but with more rational economic policies and improved managerial capabilities.
With some stability and improved leadership, key anti-United States statist investors such as the Chinese and the Russians begin loaning new money to the regime, further expanding their access to Venezuela’s oil resources. New credit from these allies, possibly assisted by rising petroleum prices, supports further consolidation of power by the regime.
Escalating violence resolved by imposition of a compromise regime. In this scenario, violence increases significantly over that manifested in May 2017, possibly involving sporadic major confrontations between collectivos and Venezuelans identifying with the opposition and demanding the restoration of the previous constitutional order. Armed, self-interested groups are involved on all sides.
Violence exceeds the ability of Venezuela’s National Guard to control; the regular military, already reluctant to participate in the repression of civilians, is deployed but refuses to act, possibly with some units dissolving or declaring themselves loyal to the opposition. Key extrahemispheric players, including the Chinese and the Russians, make a tacit agreement with the opposition in return for guarantees of the protection of their businesses and other interests in the country. Maduro and other key regime leaders are killed or leave the country, while others cut a deal for a power transition, with the support of key military leaders, in return for limited immunity and protection from extraditions.
Prolonged criminality, repression, and insurgency. In this scenario, like the prior one, violence increases significantly, and the regular military splinters or is too unreliable to be employed. Some key figures possibly flee the country. By contrast to the previous scenario, however, a deal involving a power transition cannot be achieved. Key external players such as Russia and China maintain a “wait-and-see” posture. Protest-based violence, including selective attacks against protesters by collectivos, deteriorates into broader, bloodier efforts by pro-regime forces to intimidate or silence regime opponents through large-scale violence, sparking reprisals by anti-Maduro groups, and occasionally drawing the National Guard and regular military forces into the conflict.
Continuing violence, including possible sabotage of oil installations and other government assets, leads to a broad economic collapse and the highest outflow of refugees of the three contemplated scenarios. In this scenario, major foreign actors, including China, would likely coordinate to evacuate their workers. Depending on the risk posed to Russian, Chinese, and other oil installations, United Nations Security Council agreement to a peacekeeping or peace enforcement mission could be possible, presuming that Chavista forces would see permitting such deployments as advantageous, or would no longer be able to block them.
There is no inherent limit to the deepening of suffering, violence, and criminality that could occur. Indeed, the economic plight and abuses by the regimes in Zimbabwe and North Korea serve as reminders of how much a people can suffer at the hands of a totalitarian regime that pursues irrational policies but is determined to maintain itself in power with the acquiescence of its military.
Implications for Venezuela’s Neighbors
Each scenario discussed implies an expansion of the already significant outflow of refugees to neighboring Colombia and Brazil, nearby Caribbean islands such as Aruba, Curaçao, and Trinidad and Tobago, and the rest of the region, as well as the export of arms and broader impacts on the criminal and political landscape.
Colombia. Historically, people and goods have always moved relatively freely across the Venezuela-Colombia border; the mother of Maduro was born in Colombia, and possibly the president himself was as well. Nonetheless, the influx of Venezuelans into Cúcuta and other Colombian border towns has created some resentment among Colombians. Some perceive the new arrivals as competing with them for jobs, particularly in the informal sector, and some believe the refugees have undermined security.
In 2016 alone, over 150,000 people entered Colombia from Venezuela. Some enter on a temporary basis to earn money in the informal or illicit economy and purchase goods not available in their home country, while others choose to remain indefinitely. The Colombian border town of Cúcuta has been the focus of this movement, with significant increases in the population of Venezuelans in the city, including those who work in the informal sector as prostitutes and street vendors, and in other activities. A portion of those crossing the border from Venezuela into Colombia are actually Colombians by birth who had immigrated to Venezuela years or decades prior in search of economic opportunity or to escape violence.
Colombia’s major cities such as Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali have also registered significant increases in Venezuelans. However, because two major roads from Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, converge on the Colombian border near Cúcuta, an expanded flow of migrants from a deteriorating situation in Venezuela would probably concentrate there and, to a lesser extent, to the north in La Guajira department, including the town of Riohacha, and Valledupar in Cesar department. Nonetheless, some of those leaving Venezuela will also enter Colombia at more southerly points, including Arauca, Puerto Carreño, and Inírida, where controls are weaker.
Of those who initially migrated to Venezuela from Colombia, many now returning are expected to settle in the border region, since they have family or other contacts in the region. Of those arriving from cities on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast, such as Caracas, Puerto Cabello, Maracay, and Valencia, many will likely migrate toward Colombia’s own Caribbean coast, to cities such as Maicao, Barranquilla, and Sincelejo, where the climate and culture are familiar. By contrast, Venezuelans coming from more rural areas to the south of the nation’s principal mountain range will likely gravitate toward cities in the interior of Colombia on the other side of its flatlands, such as Villavicencio and Bogotá.
Other migration routes notwithstanding, the focus of migration on Cúcuta and La Guajira raises particular concerns for Colombia since the area, particularly Catatumbo and other parts of the province of Norte de Santander, is a hotbed of criminal and terrorist activity, with Colombia’s notorious Gulf Clan and the National Liberation Army (ELN) vying to fill in areas being vacated by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC). In this complex dynamic, the newly arriving immigrants are both potential victims of and recruits for those organizations. Indeed, given the established history of cross-border smuggling, Colombian security officials believe that some people crossing the border are moving drugs and contraband, among other illicit activities.
Venezuela and Neighboring Countries
Further to the south, in border towns such as Arica, Puerto Carreño, and Inírida, although the current and expected volume of immigration from Venezuela is less of a problem, the area is the center of the illicit mining for coltan, a strategic mineral used in a wide array of advanced batteries and electronics products.
In addition to the potentially destabilizing impact of refugee flows on both the Colombian economy and centers of organized crime in the country, Colombian security experts worry that some of Venezuela’s collectivos and other groups will sell their FN FAL (light automatic) rifles and other military equipment to help maintain themselves, flooding contested criminal areas such as Catatumbo with arms as well as people in economic need.
As the Venezuelan crisis deepens and the flow of refugees grows, de facto encampments are likely to form, particularly around Cúcuta. It will be in the interest of Colombia to formally manage such camps to alleviate suffering and to prevent them from becoming centers of criminal recruitment and victimization, given the challenging environment of the zone.
In preparation for a refugee crisis, the Colombian government has an established system, the “national entity for the management of the risk of disasters,” that was used when Venezuela expelled more than six thousand Colombians from the country in August 2015. Nonetheless, security experts in Colombia are concerned that the resource requirements and the complexity of a massive flood of refugees from Venezuela would likely overwhelm the system’s capacity.
For Colombia, such challenges come at a time in which its military’s resources for operations and maintenance are declining significantly, while the government is searching for the resources to fund the substantial obligations that it incurred in the agreement that it signed with the FARC in November 2016. Colombia must also deal with the upsurge of criminal and other violence between the ELN and criminal bands as the FARC demobilizes and withdraws from its former territory.
Beyond outflows of people and guns, as the position of the Maduro leadership in Venezuela becomes more uncertain, Colombian security and defense professionals also worry that Venezuela could seek to provoke a war; this would serve to divert the attention of the Venezuelan people and the international community as well as maintain the unity of the Venezuelan military. Indeed, Venezuela has a long history of aggressive posturing toward Colombia, including territorial claims over La Guajira and substantial parts of Colombia’s eastern plains in Venezuela’s 1999 constitution. In March 2008, then President Chávez called to move ten Venezuelan armored brigades to the Colombian border in response to Colombia’s signing of a base status agreement with the United States. It further conducted a war game that year, Guaicaipuro, focused on a preemptive Venezuelan invasion of the Guajira. More recently, provocative Venezuelan actions include its conduct of a nationwide mobilization exercise, Zamora 200; its deployment of a small military force across the Arauca River into Colombia in March 2017; and the increasingly bellicose rhetoric of the Maduro regime toward Colombia, calling the nation a “failed state.”
Brazil and Guyana. While Colombia has, to date, borne the brunt of the spillover effects of the Venezuela crisis, Venezuelans have also crossed into the Brazilian state of Roraima. On one weekend in June 2016 alone, an estimated 150,000 Venezuelans crossed into Brazil, although only a portion stayed, while others came to purchase food and other goods. In May 2017, the mayor of the Brazilian city of Manaus declared an emergency after more than 350 Venezuelan refugees appeared on its streets, while more Venezuelan refugees have also been seen in the provincial capital of Boa Vista.
With respect to Venezuela’s other neighbor, Guyana, although the two countries share a land border, the relative lack of infrastructure connecting the two across Guyana’s Essequibo region and the lack of population in the area has limited the migration of Venezuelans to Guyana to date. As with Colombia, however, Guyanese worry that in a moment of crisis, the Maduro regime could provoke a military crisis with Guyana as a diversionary tactic, based on a historical dispute over the Essequibo region. The Maduro regime attempted to resurrect the dispute in September 2015, just months after ExxonMobil discovered significant oil deposits off the coast of the disputed area.
Island nations. In addition to the countries that share a land border with Venezuela, instability in the country is affecting its neighbors in the Caribbean. Venezuelans looking to obtain supplies or to escape economic and other hardship in the country are crossing the relatively narrow expanse of Caribbean water to the nearby islands of Aruba, Curaçao, and Trinidad and Tobago. In Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuelans reportedly take a ferry or hire local boats to cross the seven kilometers of water separating the two countries in order to buy goods in Trinidadian stores. In some cases, they bring guns from Venezuela to trade for food and other basic goods. And, the interchange between Venezuela and its island neighbors, exacerbated by the combination of sheer economic need and the breakdown of law and order, has also contributed to piracy off its coast.
In Trinidad and Tobago, as in the La Guajira region on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, an additional risk is created by the possible migration of persons with ties to radical Islamic groups such as Hezbollah. During recent years, Iran reportedly used Venezuela as a point of entry for its Qods forces (religious paramilitary agents), while Venezuelan authorities sold government-issued passports to refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East.While there has been little evidence of the outflow of such migrants to date, the established Muslim communities in Trinidad and Tobago and La Guajira make both a logical destination if the crisis in Venezuela deepens. Given that Trinidad and Tobago is already a leading source on a per capita basis for foreign fighters to the Middle East, migration from Venezuela of those affiliated with radical Islamic groups would have a potentially radicalizing and destabilizing effect on the Islamic communities in those areas.
Recommendations for the United States
Despite the systemic looting of Venezuela by the Maduro regime, U.S. intervention in Venezuela would be strategically unwise. While such action could topple Venezuela’s Bolivarian socialist government, it would reinforce the historic perception of the United States in the region as interventionist, sowing distrust and other anti-U.S. sentiment. In addition, in the short-term, it would leave behind an economically decimated, highly corrupted and politically polarized state. Following intervention, the United States would face the dilemma of allowing the newly “liberated” but broken Venezuelan state to continue as a source of criminality and instability in the region or engaging in the lengthy, expensive effort of trying to rebuild the country. In the process, as in the Middle East, the U.S. presence in Venezuela would likely become the focal point for rallying anti-U.S. sentiment, and U.S. forces in Venezuela would present a tempting target for the Chavista “resistance” and leftist terrorist groups posturing as resistors of the “yanqui invasion.”
While it would be unwise for the United States to intervene in Venezuela and unrealistic for the international community to do so, both nonetheless have an important role in shaping the evolution of the situation in a positive direction, and in managing the consequences of the crisis in Venezuela on its neighbors. With respect to Venezuela itself, the United States should give the fullest support possible to the OAS, currently under Secretary Almagro, in condemning the departure from the democratic order established by Venezuela’s constitution, and it should support the OAS and other multilateral and bilateral efforts pressuring the Chavista elite to restore that order. Also, it is imperative that the United States continue to highlight publicly the illegitimacy of the Maduro regime as a criminal elite that has, through administrative machinations, stolen control of the resource-rich state from its people, and which is increasingly relying on the force of arms to continue looting the state with an eye to making good a “getaway” with the money.
As part of such efforts, the United States must lead the international community in isolating the Chavista leadership through individually targeted economic sanctions, cooperating with other players in the international community to deny the Chavistas sanctuary in other countries after their rule. The U.S. State Department, Treasury Department, and other appropriate organizations should particularly focus on the legal and financial arenas, supporting Venezuela’s National Assembly as it invalidates contracts made by the Chavista elite outside the constitutional order. This approach may have only limited short-term impacts in Venezuela itself, but it may help change the calculations of key Maduro regime benefactors such as China and Russia, convincing them that their best strategy for securing their oil holdings and other interests in the country is by working through the constitutionally legitimate National Assembly rather than the executive branch, whose operation outside the constitution leaves its commitments of Venezuelan resources to others without legal validity.
Beyond addressing the crisis in Venezuela itself, the United States should actively work with the country’s neighbors to prevent the byproducts of the crisis, including the outflow of refugees and arms, from destabilizing the region. Venezuela’s neighbor, Colombia, confronts the double challenge of being the country most impacted by the flow of Venezuelan refugees and arms (and possible military provocations), while dealing with the enormous resource and internal security challenges arising from its government’s peace agreement with the FARC. While the Colombians take pride in their own capabilities, they will need more (and different) support from the United States, not less, in the months ahead.
In the short term, the United States should coordinate with Colombia, as well as Aruba, Curaçao, Trinidad and Tobago, and other states, in conjunction with the International Committee of the Red Cross and other nongovernmental organizations, to support the needs of the refugees. It should collaborate with the governments of the region to provide logistics, intelligence, and other support as permitted by national laws to help protect those refugees from victimization and criminal recruitment, as well as to monitor who is coming in, where they are going, and how they are affecting the local criminal environment. Particularly in Colombia, the United States should consider increased intelligence, training, and material support to police, prosecutors, and special military units combatting organized crime, which will likely expand through the refugee and arms flows.
In the unlikely, but not inconceivable, event that the Maduro administration attempts to provoke a military conflict with Colombia or Guyana, the United States should be prepared to provide military and other support to defend the territorial sovereignty of each. However, it should avoid direct military intervention in Venezuelan territory aside from possible selective removal of offensive capabilities being used against Venezuela’s neighbors, such as combat aircraft and helicopters in their bases, or forward-deployed armored vehicles.
As the United States supports the countries of the region in their response to the Venezuelan crisis, it should, wherever possible, work through the OAS and other multilateral institutions of the Inter-American System, including a coordinated response to the handling of refugees. The United States should also look for ways to leverage the events of the Conference of American Armies, of which it is head during the current two-year cycle, as a vehicle for such coordination in military affairs. Finally, the United States should be prepared to work with the United Nations to deploy a peacekeeping or peace enforcement force into the region when the evolution of the crisis and the positions of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council make such action feasible.
The crisis in Venezuela is a tragedy with grave implications for its neighbors and the region. Yet, in that tragedy, there is also opportunity for the United States to strengthen its relationship with countries in the region by tangibly demonstrating its commitment to work with them to mitigate the effects of the crisis. It is also an opportunity to do so in a way that strengthens the OAS and Inter-American System (in whose functionality the United States has a strategic interest) as the principal multilateral vehicle for addressing regional security issues.
The Venezuela crisis may be the first opportunity of the Trump administration to define its vision for democracy, security, and good governance in the region, and to demonstrate its commitment to the partner nations with which the United States shares the Western Hemisphere. Given U.S. connectedness to the region through geography, commerce, and family ties, doing so is critical not only for the Trump administration and Venezuela’s neighbors but also for the United States and the region as a whole.
First published in the Journal “Military Review” July-August 2017, Republished by Author’s permission
Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?
With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.
Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.
Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.
In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.
Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?
In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.
This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.
President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.
What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.
If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.
Trump’s legacy hangs over human rights talk at upcoming Biden-Putin Geneva summit
Two days after the NATO Summit in Brussels on Monday, US President Joe Biden will be in Geneva to hold a much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are meeting at the shores of Lake Geneva at a villa in Parc la Grange – a place I know very well and actually called home for a long time. The park itself will be closed to the public for 10 days until Friday.
A big chunk of the lakeside part of the city will be closed off, too. Barb wire and beefed up security measures have already been put in place to secure the historic summit. The otherwise small city will be buzzing with media, delegations and curious onlookers.
I will be there too, keeping the readers of Modern Diplomacy updated with what’s taking place on the ground with photos, videos and regular dispatches from the Biden-Putin meeting.
The two Presidents will first and foremost touch on nuclear security. As an interlude to their meeting, the NATO Summit on Monday will tackle, among other things “Russian aggression”, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Last week, Stoltenberg said that he “told President Biden that Allies welcome the US decision, together with Russia, to extend the New START Treaty, limiting strategic weapons, and long-range nuclear weapons”. To extend the treaty is an important first step for Stoltenberg. This will be the obvious link between the two summits.
But Biden also has to bring up human rights issues, such as the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and Putin’s support for the jailing of Belarusian activists by Lukashenko. Human rights have to be high on the agenda at the Geneva Summit. And indeed, Biden has confirmed officially that pressing Putin on human rights will be a priority for the American side.
Biden and Putin are not fans of each other, to say the least. Both have made that clear in unusually tough rhetoric in the past. Over the years, Biden has said on numerous occasions that he has told Putin to his face that he doesn’t “have a soul”. Putin’s retort was that the men “understand each other”.
Right at the beginning of his Presidency, earlier this year, Biden also dropped the bomb calling President Putin a “killer” for ordering the assassination of political opponents. The Russian president responded to the “killer” comment on Russian television by saying that “it takes one to know one”. Putin also wished Biden good health, alluding to the US President’s age and mental condition which becomes a subject of criticism from time to time.
Understandably, Putin and Biden are not expected to hold a joint press conference next week. But we weren’t expecting that, anyways.
For me, this Summit has a special meaning. In the context of repression against political opponents and critical media voices, President Biden needs to demonstrate that the US President and the US government are actually different from Putin – if they are any different from Putin.
This week, we were reminded of Trump’s legacy and the damage he left behind. One of Trump’s lasting imprints was revealed: Trump had the Department of Justice put under surveillance Trump’s political opponents. Among them House Democrats, including Congressman Adam Shiff, who was one of the key figures that led Trump’s first impeachment that showed that Trump exerted pressure on Ukrainian authorities to go after Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.
In the context of Trump’s impact, President Biden needs to show that there has to be zero tolerance towards the cover up by the US government of politically motivated attacks against voices critical of the US government. If President Biden wants to demonstrate that the US government is any different from Putin’s Russia, Secretary of State Blinken and FBI director Chris Wray have to go. Biden has to show that he won’t tolerate the cover up of attacks on political critics and the media, and won’t spare those that stand in the way of criminal justice in such instances.
Biden is stuck in the 2000s when it comes to Eastern Europe, as I argued last week but he needs to wake up. President Biden and the US government still haven’t dealt effectively with Trump’s harmful impact on things that the US really likes to toot its horn about, such as human rights and freedom. Whether the upcoming Geneva Summit will shed light on that remains to be seen.
Will Geneva Be Any Different Than Helsinki?
Any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the U.S. is inevitably an important international event. At some point in history, such summits decided the fate of the entire world, and the world held its collective breath as it followed Kremlin-White House talks on strategic arms or the two sides seeking agreements on urgent regional problems or any political signals coming from the superpower capitals prior to another round of negotiations.
The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines, then diplomats, military personnel and officials start their assiduous work on specific issues, collaboration between the two countries’ private sectors and civil society perks up, the media gradually soften their rhetoric, bilateral projects in culture, education and science are gradually resumed.
Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.
Surely, nobody is willing to see another Helsinki scenario in June 2021, this time in Geneva. Yet, do we have good reason to hope for a different outcome this time? To answer this question, let us compare Donald Trump and Joseph Biden’s approaches to Russia-U.S. summits and to bilateral relations at large.
First of all, in Helsinki, Trump very much wanted the Russian leader to like him. The Republican President avoided publicly criticizing his Russian counterpart and was quite generous with his compliments to him, which inevitably caused not only annoyance but pure outrage in Washington and in Trump’s own Administration. Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.
Additionally, in Helsinki, Trump wanted, as was his wont, to score an impressive foreign policy victory of his own. He believed he was quite capable of doing better than Barack Obama with his “reset” and of somehow “hitting it off” with Putin, thereby transforming Russia if not into a U.S. ally, then at least into its strategic partner. Apparently, Biden has no such plans. The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like. So, we are not talking about a transition from strategic confrontation to strategic partnership, we are talking about a possible reduction in the risks and costs of this necessarily costly and lengthy confrontation.
Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden has had to prepare for Geneva. Trump travelled to Finland eighteen months after coming to power. Biden is planning to meet with Putin in less than five months since his inauguration. Preparations for the Geneva summit have to be made in haste, so the expectations concerning the impending summit’s outcome are less.
These differences between Biden and Trump suggest that there is no reason to expect a particularly successful summit. Even so, we should not forget the entire spectrum of other special features of the Biden Administration’s current style of foreign policy. They allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the June summit.
First, Donald Trump never put too much store by arms control, since he arrogantly believed the U.S. capable of winning any race with either Moscow or Beijing. So, his presidential tenure saw nearly total destruction of this crucial dimension of the bilateral relations, with all its attendant negative consequences for other aspects of Russia-U.S. interaction and for global strategic stability.
In contrast, Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc. The dialogue on arms control beyond the New START does not promise any quick solutions, as it will be difficult for both parties. Yet, the sooner it starts, the better it is going to be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.
Second, Trump never liked multilateral formats, believing them to be unproductive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could single-handedly resolve any burning international problems, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to North Korea’s nuclear missile programme.
Biden does not seem to harbor such illusions. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria. It is not at all obvious that Biden will succeed in reaching agreement with Putin immediately on all or any of these issues, but the very possibility of them discussed at the summit should be welcomed.
Third, Trump was not particularly fond of career diplomats and, apparently, attached little value to the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy. The Russia-U.S. “embassy war” had started before Trump—but not only did Trump fail to stop it, he boosted it to an unprecedented scale and urgency.
Sadly, the “embassy war” continues after Trump, too. Yet President Biden, with his tremendous foreign policy experience, understands diplomatic work better and appreciates it. Practical results of the Geneva summit could include a restoration of the diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow to their full-fledged status and a rebuilding of the networks of consular offices, which have been completely destroyed in recent years. Amid the problems of big politics, consular services may not seem crucial but, for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining the opportunity for recourse to rapid and efficient consular services would outweigh many other potential achievements of the Geneva summit.
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