In the old days Moscow had no choice if a régime took power with Communist Party backing. Moscow had to stand four square behind it; the internationalist commitment warping into overdrive, heightening tension with the United States as an unavoidable matter of course. These days, however, liberated from the trammels of Marxism-Leninism the Kremlin can in principle choose friends more wisely on the basis of utility. However, rather in the manner of backing Saddam Hussein of Iraq well after his innings were over and everyone else had left for tea, the Russians stand resolutely by their man in Venezuela: the hapless Mr Maduro.
All for the sake of potentially 33 votes in the UN and the tiresome pleasure of irritating the Americans. After all, as the head of the Latin American Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Aleksandr Khokholikov openly acknowledged in a not very diplomatic display of candour: “this region is scarcely going to decide the fate of the world.”
Back in the days of Hugo Chavez, who squandered untold billions of oil income on lunatic left wing causes, Moscow somehow thought Venezuela a useful fly in the American ointment. Just as the oil money was splashed around Venezuela’s neighbours like there was no tomorrow, countries like Brazil and Argentina appeared heading in the same populist left-wing direction. But certainly since Chavez lay on his deathbed, as Moscow reiterated its mantra that Venezuela was its main ally on the subcontinent, prospects have dimmed considerably along with world oil prices. As with the regularity of El Nino, the cycle turned once more. The discredited left soon gave way to a free market revival with our former heroes arrested for cooking the books.
Yet Moscow is still stuck with Maduro’s Venezuela, propping up the drunk in the corner long after the party is over. Today Caracas is defaulting on $586 million of debt, hoping to pay principal and interest of $841 million next week and $1.2 billion due on 2 November. If it fails to pay the $841 million the state oil company PDVSA loses its crucial retail arm in Houston as collateral. Moscow has helped out by rescheduling the paltry debts the Venezuelan Government owes Russia, but it is not in a position to offer much more. So what value the continued “alliance”? Just how rational is the Kremlin’s foreign policy?