(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In Venezuela, it looks like Russia is once again playing a weak hand well. The U.S. has imposed crippling sanctions on the state-owned oil company and lifted them on officials who have joined the opposition, such as the intelligence chief. And yet, with the support of Russia, Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro survives.
So when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives this week in Sochi, his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, will undoubtedly be looking to exploit the situation by using a familiar Russian ploy: Enable a geopolitical crisis, and then offer to help solve it.
This is what Lavrov did in Syria. While Russian mercenaries and bombers pulverized civilians with the help of Iran’s militias, Lavrov met with then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to negotiate a political process to end the conflict. For nearly two years, the charade continued. Only after the Russians bombed an aid convoy in September 2016 did Kerry realize that he had been played.
The Russians are planning a similar move with Venezuela. The Russian foreign ministry’s official statement summarizing a May 1 phone call between Pompeo and Lavrov calls for “the dialogue of all political forces in the country.” U.S. officials tell me they expect Lavrov to propose talks between Maduro and the opposition whereby the autocrat would remain in power as the two sides negotiate conditions for a new election.
This is not a novel idea. Maduro himself has conducted talks with his opposition before, only to renege on his commitments later on. In January, Senator Chris Murphy and former Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes floated the idea of a kind of political peace process for Venezuela, excluding Russia but including two other predator states, China and Cuba.
Any kind of negotiation with Maduro is a trap. To start, he will use the time he purchases at the bargaining table to divide the opposition that has rallied behind the interim president, Juan Guaido. That opposition has numerous factions, including many disenchanted supporters of Maduro’s mentor, Hugo Chavez. A drawn-out process plays to Maduro’s advantage. It also undermines the constitutional claim to power of Guaido, who assumed the presidency after Maduro won an illegitimate election.
There is still some question, however, whether this Russian strategy will work. In a briefing with reporters last week, a senior State Department official downplayed expectations that there would be a deal to get Russia to cooperate in Venezuela. What’s more, U.S. officials say there are plans to impose new sanctions on Russia.
Pompeo has accused Russia’s state oil company, Rosneft, of violating new U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s state-run oil company. (Rosneft has denied the accusation.) Pompeo has also put the blame squarely on Moscow for urging Maduro to stay in Caracas and not depart for Cuba when Guaido called for a day of street protests.
Of course, there is still the matter of President Donald Trump, whose public comments have not exactly aligned with Pompeo’s. Earlier this month, after a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump echoed the Russian line about how Russia only wants “to see something positive happen for Venezuela.”
Despite Trump’s history of cringe-worthy public deference to Putin, however, he has shown a willingness to confront Russia when necessary. He has held firm on sanctions imposed on Russia after the 2016 elections, for instance, and has twice ordered major air strikes on Russia’s client in Syria. Also it’s worth noting that U.S. special operations forces remain in Syria, despite Trump’s promise in December to precipitously withdraw them.
That’s why it matters that Trump and his top advisers have said publicly that all options remain on the table for Venezuela. And it’s yet another reason to be skeptical that the Russian playbook will succeed in Venezuela as it did in Syria.
(Updates second paragraph to reflect new location for meeting between Pompeo and Lavrov.)
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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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