When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. Few understand this better than Latin America, which has been drawn into disputes between great powers in North America and Eurasia before, and might again. The focal point of the latest standoff between the U.S. and Russia is Ukraine, in Russia’s own front yard, but Moscow sees an opportunity to level the playing field by supporting destabilizing forces in Latin America. Russian diplomats in recent weeks have talked up the possibility of deploying weapons in the region, but the likelier danger is that violence along the Colombian-Venezuelan border could escalate and draw in Moscow and Washington.
Shades of the Cold War
Russia and Venezuela have for years found kinship in their mutual disdain for the United States. Recently, however, there has been a clear shift, particularly from Russia, from a loose friendship to a closer alliance with bellicose undertones. It started when Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, proposed deploying military infrastructure to Venezuela and Cuba. Two weeks later, Russia’s ambassador to Venezuela again raised the issue of Russian-Venezuelan military cooperation. Venezuela’s constitution prohibits the hosting of foreign bases, the ambassador noted, but it doesn’t rule out collaboration at ports. (He also compared the Venezuelan government’s 2019 political crisis to the sorts of color revolutions witnessed in Russia’s near-abroad, while Venezuela’s defense minister complained – without evidence – that NATO is gaining ground in Latin America and using Colombia – which is only an observer in the alliance and thus does not influence discussions or operations – as a pawn.) The Kremlin has also made it a point to draw attention to high-level talks between the two countries, including a call last week between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolas Maduro.
This shift has not gone unnoticed in the U.S. and Colombia. Though neither has advocated a joint response to Russia’s moves, both have made clear that they reject the Kremlin’s influence in Venezuela’s affairs. Colombia, which closed its border with Venezuela over Caracas’ alleged support for Colombian guerrillas in the border area, said it would not be blackmailed by Russia into reopening the border. For its part, the U.S. said it would respond decisively if Russia deployed military hardware to the area, as Ryabkov suggested. It also warned in December about foreign interference in Colombia’s 2022 presidential election – a favorite Russian tactic. But otherwise, Washington’s response has been subdued. Immediately after Ryabkov’s remarks, the U.S. Air Force flew a reconnaissance aircraft over the Caribbean, but Washington did not widely publicize the move. Similarly, Washington has preferred not to put too much emphasis on Russian activities and collusion with the Venezuelan government and guerrilla groups, instead letting unofficial figures do most of the talking.
It’s all very reminiscent of the Cold War. Ryabkov’s remarks in particular called up memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the idea of Russia moving significant military assets to Venezuela is impractical and should be considered a reminder of American vulnerabilities rather than a specific threat. This kind of deployment would require substantial funding and logistical capabilities that are already tied up in Russia’s near-abroad. Further, Venezuela’s general volatility discourages Russia (or anyone else) from placing major valuable assets there.
But Moscow doesn’t need to deploy major military assets to draw Washington’s attention to dangers closer to home. During the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the exception. Most of the Soviet Union’s moves in Latin America involved supporting radical left-wing political and guerrilla movements – the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, and the original Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – that threatened U.S. interests in the region. The strategy was extremely effective, even leading the U.S. on several occasions to sponsor coups in the region to bring pro-American governments to power.
Russia is more likely to repeat this strategy of supporting guerrillas and criminals in Latin America than it is to deploy major military assets. Both would divert U.S. attention and resources and give Russia leverage in negotiations, but the former involves far lower costs and risk.
With that in mind, recent clashes near the Venezuelan border between Colombian guerrilla groups, and between those guerrillas and the Venezuelan military, take on new significance. Smuggling and crime is a mainstay of the Colombian-Venezuelan border area. Occasional struggles over territory have been known to occur. But since the start of 2022, the neighboring states of Apure, Venezuela, and Arauca, Colombia, have seen a notable increase in violence. In January alone, Colombia’s Arauca department has registered armed clashes in the municipalities of Saravena, Tame, Fortul, Arauquita and Arauca (as well as Cubara municipality in neighboring Boyaca department). The fighting has left at least 34 people dead and has displaced nearly 1,000 more. In the most notable incident, a car bomb detonated on Jan. 20 in Saravena in an attack the Colombian defense minister blamed on a dissident FARC group. The bombing was planned in and financed by Venezuela, he said.