Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Vladimir Putin today in Sochi — and that should make Nicolas Maduro very, very nervous. The fate of Venezuela will occupy a significant part of those discussions, as the Maduro regime teeters in the face of a populist uprising led by legislative leader Juan Guaidó. It’s hardly the only item on the crowded agenda, as the Washington Post points out, but it might be the most acute:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in this Black Sea resort city on Tuesday, intensifying a high-stakes round of diplomacy as Moscow and Washington wrangle over a raft of crises around the globe.
Pompeo and Putin will likely square off over Venezuela and Iran, two countries where the United States and Russia are increasingly at odds. They will navigate through a host of other global hotspots — potentially including China, North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine — where Moscow and Washington each have their own, often clashing, interests.
And they may face questions over the sustainability of a U.S.-Russian dialogue at a time when many Trump administration critics in the United States say the White House still has not done enough to respond to Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
That sustainability might be weighing on Putin’s mind as well. The Telegraph reported this morning that Putin is ready to make some significant — but not unilateral — gestures to the US in order to improve Russia’s political standing here. The biggest concession might be Maduro, whom Putin reportedly detests, which would allow Russia to extricate itself from an unnecessary complication overseas:
“Vladimir Putin detests Nicolas Maduro,” one Venezuelan source with decades of dealings with Russia told The Telegraph.
“It’s just a question of how to get out of this mess.”
Until recently Russia was thought to have seen Venezuela as a prized geopolitical gem, rich in resources and located at a valuable crossroads, and worth fighting for.
But Mr Putin is believed to have told President Donald Trump during their hour-long phone call on May 3 that he disliked Mr Maduro, and was prepared to negotiate for his departure.
As Robert Heinlein wrote, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, and certainly not with Putin. The Russian strongman won’t give up Maduro without a concrete quid pro quo. He wants a swap that will allow the US to enforce its Monroe Doctrine … as long as Russia can enforce its Putin Doctrine closer to home:
Vladimir Frolov, a Russian analyst and journalist known for his close connections to intelligence services, said that Mr Putin is willing to “give up” Mr Maduro, for the right price.
“Putin specifically mentioned that during his call with Trump,” wrote Mr Frolov. “Withdrawing Russian military support for Maduro should also be matched by the withdrawal of US military assistance to Ukraine.”
Well, isn’t that a conundrum. Which concerns the US more — a failed state in South America that’s creating a growing refugee and humanitarian crisis, or Russian hegemonic expansion in eastern Europe? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that question. The US is trying to moot that choice by default, but not having much luck:
The failure of the uprising has cast new uncertainty on the opposition’s months-long effort to oust Maduro. Guaidó made a surprise appearance with a handful of troops at a military base in Caracas at dawn on April 30 to announce that he had the support of key military units and to call on others to join in the “final phase” of the campaign against the strongman. But the broader military support never materialized, and Maduro’s forces moved against opposition protesters, killing at least four and wounding scores.
While U.S. officials still want Maduro out and say they remain engaged, they now say it probably will take longer than they initially believed. President Trump, meanwhile, has expressed frustration at his administration’s aggressive strategy, complaining he was misled about how easy it would be to replace Maduro with Guaidó, according to administration officials and White House advisers.
Moreno’s backing alone, opposition officials concede, might not have forced Maduro out on April 30. But the plotters were counting on Moreno to provide a vital lever to sway the military to their cause: a legal ruling that would have effectively acknowledged Guaidó as interim president and led to new elections. The fact that it never emerged, they believe, scared off key military and other loyalists.
They portray the chief justice, a former intelligence officer turned lawyer, as an angler with his own ambitions of power. The senior U.S. official confirmed that the version of events described here concurred with descriptions offered to the Americans by the Venezuelan opposition, which had been updating them on the progress of the talks.
With those avenues forestalled, at least for now, Putin’s offer of a trade might look pretty good. Add that to a presidential viewpoint that the US meddles too much abroad and perhaps especially in the former Soviet sphere, and it might make for a rather easy sale. US allies in Europe might balk at the idea, however, especially our NATO partners who might consider Russia an active threat in areas outside Ukraine and closer to home — say, in the Baltic states.
The deal may not be enough anyway. Putin may pull out and keep the terms of such a deal, but China and Iran are also backing Maduro. Would they exit and allow Maduro’s support to finally collapse? Or would they just fill the vacuum left by Russia’s exit and try to secure their own access to Venezuelan oil fields? Perhaps it’s just good enough at this point to know that Putin’s not all that keen on keeping Maduro in place to the bitter end, a revelation that might help change some minds in the military about their own investment in the Maduro regime.
Update: So far, no deal’s been cut on Venezuela, Pompeo just announced. The US thinks Russia should support Maduro’s resignation and hopes Putin “will end” his support for the dictator:
— CBS News (@CBSNews) May 14, 2019