Russian Warships Move Farther South in Display of Power Meant To Undermine American Influence

President Putin is showing that his navy can “attack America if they wish,” a graduate fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Daniel Di Martino, says.

AP/Ariel Ley
Tthe Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov arrives at the port of Havana, June 12, 2024. AP/Ariel Ley

Russian warships departed from Cuba Monday morning and may be heading south to Venezuela — a muscle-flexing move, analysts say, that is meant to challenge American influence in its own backyard.

Whether the Russian ships dock at Caracas or pass through Venezuelan waters, the purpose will be the same. “This is a power move by Putin,” a graduate fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Daniel Di Martino, tells the Sun, “to threaten the U.S. that they can attack America if they wish.”

President Putin “regards Cuba and Venezuela as pawns in Russia’s competition with the United States, that is why he is sending warships,” the director of the Wilson Center’s Latin America program, Benjamin Gedan, tells the Sun.

It is unclear if the Russian ships will conduct military exercises with Venezuela. “Unlike Cuba, Venezuela’s military has very little experience and training, and the ports are also likely incapable of supporting such an exercise,” Mr. Di Martino says. 

Although the Russia naval demonstrations are perceived by some national security analysts as a response to the Biden administration allowing American weapons to strike inside Russia, they are also part of a larger strategy to erode American influence.

Last week, the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to challenging the American-led world order at the Brics summit, an international organization including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Venezuela intends to join the group this year; President Maduro says he will do so at a summit in Russia in October.

Despite Venezuela’s lack of formal membership in Brics, the Russian-Venezuelan military partnership has grown steadily in the past two decades, first under President Chávez in the early 2000s and then under Mr. Maduro, who has held office since 2013. 

In 2008, two Russian warships — one named after a famous tsar, Peter the Great, and another for a Soviet admiral, Andrei Chabanenko — conducted military exercises with the Venezuelan navy. Ten years later, Russia sent Tupolev Tu-160 bomber planes, which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, to Venezuela and conducted joint exercises. Mr. Maduro expressed strong support for Mr. Putin following his invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Will 2024 be the latest marker in the advancement of the Russian-Venezuelan partnership? The answer may depend on how America reacts.

Analysts tell the Sun that America responded appropriately to Russian activity at Cuba, namely by sending the USS Helena, a nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine, to Guantanamo Bay. A visit to Venezuela, though, will require a different response.

“The correct response to a visit to Venezuela would be to tighten U.S. sanctions on the Maduro regime, which is in the process of stealing the July 28 presidential election,” a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Elliott Abrams, tells the Sun. “Let’s show Maduro that when the Russian navy visits, his own situation gets worse.”

The Biden administration last year lifted sanctions against Venezuela, from oil and gas to metals and government bonds, in the belief that Mr. Maduro’s deal with the opposition signaled free and fair elections in the country. This relief was a sharp reversal of President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign to weaken Mr. Maduro.

A series of repressive measures — including allegedly detaining a leading human rights activist and barring an opposition candidate from holding office — quieted faith in electoral reform, and eventually led the Biden administration to reimpose sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry, albeit with significant delay.

The oil sanctions, while important, only scratch the surface. “The Biden administration should have never dropped sanctions on Venezuela or released Maduro’s family and allies from prison,” Mr. Di Martino says. America should be “limiting their economic resources through total sanctions on the governments, seizure of assets, and arrests of collaborators.”

Venezuela is scheduled to hold presidential elections on July 28. Although polls show an opposition candidate, Edmundo González Urrutia, in the lead, its seems unlikely that Mr. Maduro will release his grip on the presidency and hold truly free elections. America and its allies considered his 2018 re-election a sham.

The potential move by Russia to traverse Venezuelan waters highlights Mr. Maduro’s alignment with authoritarian regimes and Mr. Putin’s centers of power in the Western Hemisphere.

America should “remind friends in the region that the Russian naval deployment says a lot about the kind of company Putin keeps, as Russian ships visit some of the region’s most repressive and least prosperous nations,” Mr. Gedan says.

“This Russian gambit is very likely not over. Moscow’s small flotilla could well steam across the Caribbean to Venezuela in coming days, making port calls elsewhere in the region,” a former ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser, John Bolton, said. First Cuba, then Venezuela. It remains to be seen where Russia will flex its naval muscles next.

The New York Sun

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