Thursday, April 10, 2014

Venezuela and Ukraine and the US

"Venezuela is Latin America's biggest exporter of crude oil and has the world's largest petroleum reserves." - Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne, Venezuela death toll rises to 13 as protests flare Reuters 02/24/2014

The crisis in Ukraine has coincided in time with the latest militant attempt by the Venezuelan opposition to overthrow the elected government there. Ukraine's Russia-friendly government was elected but was engaged in major repression, much more significantly so than what appears to be happening in Venezuela. But it was overthrown in what the left governments in Latin America have taken to calling a "soft coup."

Financial Times Latin America editor, John Paul Rathbone noted the similarities a couple of weeks into the Venezuela protests (Venezuela as Ukraine? 02/24/2014):

Just because Venezuela lacks Ukraine’s immediate geo-political heft – there are no borders in question in Venezuela; Europe’s energy security is not under threat; nor is the reach of Russia’s power or Vladimir Putin’s reputation – does not mean it lacks wider significance.

Caracas provides important economic assistance to Havana, without which Cuba’s economy would sink. Communist Cuba therefore has a vested interest in what happens in Venezuela, just as Russia does in Ukraine – a situation ripe for Cold War style comparisons.

In Venezuela, as in Ukraine, the confrontation also has deep roots that stretch back several years.
Jake Johnston recently wrote at the CEPR Americas Blog about The "Cubanization" of U.S. Policy Towards Venezuela 03/26/2014:

Venezuelan opposition politicians and their allies in the U.S. frequently decry Cuba’s alleged influence on the Venezuelan government. Ironically however, there seems to be an important and growing nexus between the Venezuelan opposition and the anti-Cuba lobby in the U.S. Cuban-American lawmakers recently introduced sanctions legislation targeting Venezuelan officials that appears to be designed to push U.S. policy toward Venezuela in the same direction as policy toward Cuba. ...

The Venezuela protests have "energized" members of Cuba’s opposition, reports the Times. Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, an anti-Castro blogger in the U.S., told the Times, “The fate of Castro-ism may be at play in Venezuela…What we were not able to topple in Cuba, we may be able to topple there.”

Yet despite near constant claims from the Venezuelan opposition that Cuba is in control of their country (for instance, when it was announced that [far-right] Venezuelan congresswoman Maria Corina Machado [who calls for immediate "regime change"] would be investigated and possibly stripped of her position, she responded that “It’s clear to me that it was the Castro brothers who gave the order”), the Times notes that:

Such convictions are held by critics in both countries, although they offer little hard evidence to back their suspicions. And while some former Venezuelan military officers say that Cubans are involved in decision-making in the armed forces, some protesters go further, professing to see what they call “the hairy hand” of Cuba everywhere: saying they have detected Cuban “infiltrators” at street protests; seeing a Cuban hallmark in the tactics of Venezuela’s armed forces; and circulating unsubstantiated Internet reports that Cuban special forces, or Black Wasps, are operating in Venezuela.
The New York Times report he's quoting there is Protesting in Venezuela, With Antipathy Toward Cuba’s Government by 03/25/2014.

The Obama Administration has been openly sympathizing with the opposition but not overtly pushing for regime change. Josh Goodman reports in Venezuela's opposition to meet with government Tampa Bay Tribune 04/09/2014:

The U.S., which has sided with the opposition in criticizing Maduro's crackdown on the protests and jailing of critics, says it is supporting efforts to bring about dialogue.

Testifying Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry pushed back against calls by Florida Republican Marco Rubio that the U.S. impose sanctions against the Maduro government for alleged human rights abuses, saying that with negotiations a possibility, now isn't the time for taking a tougher stance.

"This is a very delicate time," Kerry said. "I don't want to do something today that provides cannon fodder for them to use against me or us."
("Cannon fodder" seems an odd metaphor in that context.)

The Ukraine crisis has gotten our US punditocracy all excited, and not just US pundits. Arms manufacturers looking for higher sales and military services looking to boost budgets not doubt see new opportunities in the Ukraine/Crimea situation. Pavel Podvig noted at the end of last month (What the Crimea crisis will do to US-Russia relations Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 03/27/2014), "Even if the situation does not deteriorate further, bringing basic trust and confidence back to relations between Russia and the West will take a very long time." He notes some positive signs on arms-control issues:

The change may not be very visible at first, mainly because key elements of the arms control and disarmament infrastructure have remained intact. When some news reports suggested that Russia may suspend inspection activities under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in response to sanctions imposed by the West, the Kremlin quickly made a statement saying that it has no intention of reneging on its arms control obligations. Indeed, Moscow has made an effort to demonstrate its commitment to transparency in the military domain: On March 11, it allowed a series of Ukrainian overflights under the Open Skies Treaty. It also granted Ukraine’s request to conduct an inspection of a “non-declared military activity” in a border region. This kind of inspection is allowed under the 2011 Vienna Document, which built a framework for transparency on conventional forces in Europe.

New START activities were also unaffected—during these tense weeks, Russia duly notified the United States of the routine test launch of a ballistic missile, and conducted an inspection of the US strategic nuclear arsenal as called for under New START.
While this is a vital interest of both countries to avoid nuclear war, it's a more pressing one for Russia as the weaker power.

On the arms business front:

The West, however, does not seem inclined to treat Crimea as an isolated incident, so cooperation will probably suffer across the board, even though Russian participation is indispensable to a number of high-profile projects. For example, Moscow’s Soyuz rocket is currently the only way to take people to the International Space Station. The United States has been working on its own piloted spacecraft for some time, and we can now expect this work to accelerate.

Russia’s contract to supply RD-180 rocket engines could also suffer. This was a very valuable, commercially viable project in which Russia provided engines for most of the US military’s rocket launches. Now production is likely to move to the United States, and the US Air Force will be looking for alternative ways to launch its payloads. Termination of the RD-180 project would be a serious setback for US-Russian cooperation. Plus, the Russian producer of the engines, Energomash, would lose about 60 percent of its revenue, and the United States would have to spend about $1 billion to start production.
For some companies, a "new Cold War" would be good bitness. file that in the "everything old is new again" category.

But Ukraine is not part of NATO. NATO has no treaty obligation to defend it and has not tailored its military deployments to include war over Ukraine. For that matter, one question raised by the crisis is how seriously the US and other NATO countries thought through the real implications of the extended NATO commitments taken since the Cold War, particular those in the Baltic nations. More bitness opportunities for the weapons companies!

And one effect of the crisis has been to make a wider audience more mindful of issues in US-NATO-Russian relationships that close observers have been noticing for years but that our mainstream media, especially TV, have been too busy chasing Kardashians and missing planes to much notice. Paul Pillar talks about how the Russians more-or-less inevitably had to view NATO expansion (US Triumphalism and the Ukraine Mess Consortium News 04/05/2014):

The expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe broke a promise that the United States had made to Mikhail Gorbachev and that was part of a package of understandings facilitating the peaceful reunification of Germany. Breaking the promise was probably in part the arrogance associated with being the remaining superpower and feeling untroubled about the keeping of commitments.

It also reflected a general American tendency, amid one-sided focus on the credibility of threats, to overlook how the making of promises and commitments is a useful diplomatic tool. Breaking promises weakens the tool. Holding one’s own side accountable for fulfilling promises is important for the same reason that the right to be sued, and not just to sue, is an important civil right domestically; it is the right to be able to make an enforceable promise.
This is an important consideration. In typical US public discussions of "credibility," it's more often than not cast in more-or-less testosterone contest terms: who's showing "toughness" and "resolve."

The idea that being consistent in restraint does not sit well with the triumphalist approach that dominates US foreign-policy discussion. This in mind mind is the single most significant problem with the Obama Administration's intervention in the Libyan civil war. Muammar al-Gaddafi was not anyone's idea of a nice man nor was his government an admirable one. But Gaddafi voluntarily gave up his "weapons of mass destruction" programs at US demand. The Cheney-Bush Administration touted that (misleadingly) as the result of their Iraq War. But he gave up his nuclear weapons program. What lesson can other governments take from that? Pretty much only that if they cooperate with the US on arms control, they leave themselves vulnerable to being overthrown with active participation of the US.

Pillar also notes a far from negligible piece of US policy:

Another aspect of the typically Manichean way in which Americans tend to look at international politics is that there has to be a foe — something or somebody against whom the United States leads the forces of freedom and light. Once 9/11 came along there were Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda, but terrorist groups never make as good a foe as a state. Besides, the eastward expansion of NATO was already under way before 9/11. [my emphasis]
And besides freedom and goodness, there are also those sweet, sweet weapons deals to be done. Missiles to be sold, bombs to be dropped and replaced. The bitness of American is bitness, as we know from the wisdom of Calvin Coolidge.

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