Between Russia and the US: How Venezuela is playing both sides in the Ukraine conflict

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is making overtures to Washington and toning down his support for Putin, but the move is likely to have a political cost for both countries, say experts

Florantonia Singer
Venezuela Ukraine conflict
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, with his Venezuelan counterpart Delcy Rodríguez.RUSSIAN FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTRY (EFE)

One day, Nicolás Maduro gives Vladimir Putin his unconditional support over Russia’s war against Ukraine. The next, the Venezuelan leader tones down his support for the Russian president and calls for dialogue between Russia and Ukraine – a move that came just after he received the highest-level US delegation to visit Venezuela since 1999. But four days later, Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez has her picture taken with “good friend,” Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, at a meeting in Turkey, which was reportedly about bilateral relations. This is how Venezuela is playing both sides in the war against Ukraine.

The dramatic upheaval of global geopolitics in the last month has undoubtedly opened a window of opportunity for Maduro. Chavism is surfing the wave of the crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine to try to improve its position, after years of being cornered by Washington’s economic sanctions and accusations of human rights violations, for which an International Criminal Court investigation is pending.

The March 5-6 meeting between representatives of the Joe Biden administration and Nicolás Maduro surprised everyone. Both parties have acknowledged that they discussed “energy security” issues. After the meeting, the Venezuelan government made overtures on some of the US’s most pressing demands. It announced that it will resume negotiations with Venezuelan opposition parties in Mexico, after halting the talks in 2021 in response to the extradition of Colombian businessman Álex Saab, a Maduro ally who is accused of money laundering and acting as a frontman for high-level Venezuelan government officials. The US, incidentally, has not brought up the issue since it was revealed this year that the Colombian had been collaborating with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) since 2018. In another gesture of rapprochement, Venezuela also released two American prisoners, who had been arbitrarily detained in the country – one since 2017, and the other, since 2021.

But there is an ulterior motive behind these moves. With the US and the United Kingdom banning Russian oil and gas exports over the conflict in Ukraine, Venezuela is looking to become their new supplier. Up until 2019, when the US imposed tough oil sanctions, the North American country was its best customer.

That same turbulent year, in which Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó challenged Maduro and achieved international recognition as interim president, Maduro made moves to protect himself. He moved the European headquarters of PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil and natural gas company, from Lisbon to Moscow. A year later, Washington responded with sanctions against Russian oil company Rosneft for ignoring the veto it had placed on transactions with PDVSA. Although the Russians soon sold their assets in Venezuela and terminated operations in the country, they continued to play an important role in the sale of sanctioned Venezuelan oil.

“The solutions that Russia offered with respect to selling crude oil, the occasional investment and laundering of assets are no longer on the table,” says international analyst Andrei Serbin, who specializes in defense issues. “But now Venezuela has gone from being Russia’s most isolated partner to the least,” adds Serbin.

The United States has tried to play down one of the issues discussed with Maduro: the possibility of Venezuela once again becoming its crude oil supplier and taking over the market that used to be supplied by Russia, which provided just 1% of its consumption and 3% of its imports. Another topic discussed was resuming flights between the US and Venezuela, which would help lessen the South American country’s isolation.

The return to commercial relations could happen by lifting sanctions or the issuance of special licenses to US companies such as Chevron, to allow them to resume operations in four oil fields in Venezuela. A special license could also be issued to the Indian oil company Reliance, which has lobbied heavily to obtain permits to continue buying Merey crude oil from PDVSA. This is an option that Washington could consider in view of the current crisis in the world energy market and the implications this could have for US domestic policy due to the rise in fuel prices.

“Since Biden took office there has been an aversion to taking an active or substantive position on what they call the Venezuela issue,” notes Mariano de Alba, a specialist in international law. “There is no quick and easy decision on Venezuela and in Congress, there are important figures in both parties who do not approve of what is happening. Meeting with Maduro has a political cost. The discontent is not going to change, but Biden has to take the risk and give the impression that he is taking action to keep gas from rising to exorbitant prices in the run-up to the midterm elections.”

Elections in 2024

Maduro also has his own problems to solve. The Venezuelan leader must achieve a remarkable economic improvement between now and 2024 to ensure that he is the candidate for the Chavista parties in the presidential elections of that year. To do so, he not only needs the votes of Venezuelans, but also the support of his coalition, where there are those who question whether he is strong enough to stay in power.

These questions came to the fore in January this year, when Maduro’s party lost in a do-over of a gubernatorial race in the western state of Barinas, the hometown of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. “So in Chavism, there is much fear about what may happen in 2024,” notes De Alba, who is also a senior advisor at the International Crisis Group.

“Maduro’s big bet was to increase ties with Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, but the results have not come as quickly as expected. Now his most important ally [Putin] is in a rather complicated and long-term situation,” says De Alba. “Maduro has no intention of betraying Putin, but is rather exploring what he can get out of this rapprochement with the United States, while making as few concessions as possible, increasing revenue and burying the interim government of Juan Guaidó in order to reach a better position in 2024.”

Even so, de Alba warns that the nascent relationship between Venezuela and the US is fragile and will also depend on the progress that can be made in Mexico. “It is going to be a tense relationship, because the process has many enemies.”

This week, the White House had to reiterate its support for Juan Guaidó, and clarify that the rapprochement with Venezuela does not imply that it recognizes Maduro as president. But Venezuela’s foreign minister, Felix Plascencia, has emphasized that if the US wants to resume relations they must “accept that the only and legitimate government of Venezuela is the one led by President Nicolas Maduro.”

Meanwhile, Maduro has to build a narrative from the middle ground and find a way to skirt around any tensions that may arise from forming a closer relationship with the US – especially after years of anti-American rhetoric.

Kalashnikov and flowers

The Russia-Venezuela relationship was first forged under Hugo Chávez. Russia’s initial investments were focused on the construction of housing and the sale of arms and military supplies. Russia also plans to build an industrial plant for manufacturing Kalashnikov automatic rifles by the end of 2022. This would be the first of its kind in Latin America. Chávez also tried to supply Russia with Venezuelan flowers such as orchids, calla lilies and gerberas, but the deal quickly withered.

According to experts, the Russia-Venezuela alliance has been overestimated and it is no longer clear if Moscow is bringing any value to the relationship. “The Russian presence in Venezuela is focused on instances of technical support for military material, education and training and operational support in anti-aircraft defense systems and the use of drones. But there are no Russian military bases in Venezuela,” notes Serbin.

For political scientist Jonathan Benavides, the Russian presence in Venezuela has been part of a discourse to fuel tensions with the West. “It is the credible threat that they [the Russians] are knocking on the backyard of the United States, just as the US is in Russia’s backyard,” he says. “It’s a strategic alliance to upset the United States.” But he adds that in terms of trade, Russia supplies 80% of the wheat that Venezuela consumes. The war could lead to shortages in a country that is already facing a food crisis.

On the meeting between the Russian and Venezuelan foreign minister, Benavides says: “There are issues that had to be discussed with Russia.” One of the most important issues is how to move money from the sale of Venezuelan oil that is in Russian banks sanctioned by the US. Benavides also points out that the meeting in Turkey, which came just days after the US delegation visited Venezuela, may have more political overtones. “It is possible to speculate that Venezuela is being used as a channel of communication between the two powers,” he explains. “In all wars, you can be in armed conflict in the street and in the offices you are looking for channels of contact.”

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