Initial Observations and Thoughts on Venezuela/Russia Cables

What excited me the most about diving into this project was the chance to test and scrutinize the broader theories of political science, a lense through which I had viewed Latin American politics in several courses at Swarthmore, on the micro-level through a cache of diplomatic documents. In previous years the joint NSA internship has looked at US and Latin American relations, focusing on certain subsets of cables leaked by Chelsea Manning in 2010 in a dump labeled “cablegate.” This year, the focus will be on relations between Russia, China, and Iran, and several “Pink Tide,” or socialist-leaning and socialist governed Latin American countries.

Over the past six months, the world has been confronted with a myriad of complex theories, both domestic and international in their scope, on how, exactly, the 2016 presidential election ended in a victory for Donald Trump. Undoubtedly, one of the most enduring aspects of this tale has been the specter of Russian meddling in the presidential election; from the Democratic National Committee email hacks to potential Trump campaign collusion with Russia, and now, obstruction of justice on the part of Trump in blocking the investigation of the former.

The background noise of our present news cycle certainly weighed heavily on my initial thoughts going into this project and its particular focus on Russian, Chinese, and Iranian economic, political, and military connections in Latin America. Latin America, of course, has a long (and troubling history) as ‘America’s backyard,’ stemming from the Monroe Doctrine and its traditional conceptualization of the western hemisphere as a domain of American hegemony.

I think it’s worth admitting here, before getting further into this, my own biases about the importance of Russian meddling in the US election and, in general, the foreign policy establishment’s heightened worries about Russia that certainly show up in this first batch up cables involving Russian-Venezuelan connections. While I think that potential meddling is worthy of investigation, and some of what has been revealed is quite concerning, I question how much it could have impacted the outcome of the election. For starters, why should we complain about heightenedtransparency within the DNC and the knowledge we gained from those leaked emails? Any observant citizen would have already known that the DNC was actively stacking the table for the Clinton campaign. In this sense, I think the ongoing Russian investigation serves as a convenient distraction that keeps the Democratic Party from analyzing its own internal failings. I think it also feeds into much broader attempts from a range of career foreign policy specialists who seem intent on jumpstarting a new cold war and furthering the revival of a neoconservative and persistently interventionist foreign policy, a model they see as threatened by the Trump administration.

With the above in mind as my own personal lens through which I will be viewing these documents, and the recognition that it is neigh impossible to eliminate all elements of personal bias, it’s time to go over some initial observations from this first batch of cables.

Primary focus #1: Arms Deals

There were three primary areas of focus in these initial cables. The first, starting in November of 2004, was a keen US interest in a series of arms deals between Russia and Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela. The initial sale was a planned exchange of 40 MI-17 Russian transport helicopters, which mustered a great deal of concern from the US embassy. This concern seemed to reach its apex in July of 2005 when the embassy sent a Demarche to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Latin America specialist Dmitriy Yakushev, expressing US discontent at a proposed sale of both AK-103 rifles and MANPADS (shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles).

The US embassy was clearly unsuccessful in its attempts to limit the rifle sale, despite appeals that Venezuela was acting as a destabilizing force, to which Yakushev responded that “he was unaware of any evidence supporting the contention that the GOV (government of Venezuela) permits foreign terrorist groups to operate within its territory or that it is supporting efforts to destabilize its neighbors.”

It was also clear from this exchange the great deal of sensitivity that the Russian government has to diplomatic approaches that fail to treat it as an equal power at the negotiation table. “He (Antonov) also commented that the tone in parts of ref A points (the demarche) was demeaning to Russia. The U.S. should not “speak to us like we are Gabon or Mali,” he remarked. Antonov said that Russia does not and will not give out specific information, such as serial numbers of AK-103 rifles, to others.”

After this exchange, the US seems to accept, grudgingly, arms sales from Russia to Venezuela, perhaps realizing that the State Department had little leverage on this front, at least with the parties at play. At a later point, the US does launch a challenge to Germany for not properly vetting shipments of undeclared weapons through the country, from Russia and destined to Venezuela, but the US was not successful in making inroads against a June 2006 Spanish sale of arms to Venezuela.

Primary Focus #2: Security Council Representation

Another primary point of recurring concern in this first batch of cables is the competing 2007-2008 candidacies of Venezuela and Guatemala for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The US made a concerted effort to garner the support of several countries for Guatemala’s bid, including Greece, Russia, Mexico, Argentina, and others, with varying degrees of success.

Primary Focus #3: Oil and Energy Independence from Russia

The third main point in the first batch of cables was an acute focus on the bankruptcy and sale of the Lithuanian oil refinery, Mazeikiu Nafta, which produced approximately 90 percent of the oil used by Lithuania. The company’s manager, a British expat, repeatedly reached out to the US embassy for advice and guidance. The Russian oil conglomerate Yukos owned a controlling stake in the refinery, but went bankrupt in 2007, and the US was keen on making sure that the shares were sold to a Polish oil company, (which they successfully were in 2008, after a long managerial struggle).

Simultaneously, however, several Russian suppliers cut off their deliveries to Mazeikiu Nafta, and in a bid to regain control and stability, the refinery’s manager sought out contracts with Venezuela, but first sought the approval of the US. The initial cable on this subject included a request from the author for clarification on whether or not this was something that the US could support, and while there was no explicit follow up, opposition was never raised in subsequent cables, only neutral factual follow-ups on the progress of the deal.

In this scenario, it’s quite interesting to witness Russian and Venezuelan oil interests in direct competition, especially within the context of additional cables that assert that joint Russian-Venezuelan oil projects in Venezuela have been almost purely symbolic, with little actual potential for oil revenue at the sites leased to the foreign Russian companies. While it seems clear that the volume and value of the arms deals between the two countries is beyond simple symbolism, this may not be the case on the oil front because of deeper, non-ideological economic factors at play.

Things to look at moving forward:

There are three really interesting and distinct categories that showed up here. The first is a focus on military connectivity and arms deals between Russia and Venezuela, and it will be interesting to see how this topic develops in future cables and involving other countries. The second is the ever-important category of international institutions and their role as a lever for maintaining hegemonic power, another trend worth keeping an eye on. The final piece is the importance of oil for both Venezuela and Russia as petro-states, and the ability of this economic reliance to trump actual cooperation and actual ideological connectivity in challenging US hegemony in Latin America.