Venezuela Becomes Hotspot for Geopolitical Showdown Between U.S. and Russia

By Abby Neiser

While it oftentimes feels as if the world has stopped turning in the face of COVID-19, the importance of global politics is at an all-time high.  One relationship that has drawn particular attention even in the age of the virus is that between Russia and Venezuela.  The tie between these two countries recently attracted international attention when Russia supplied Venezuela with a COVID-19 vaccine called Sputnik-V (Reuters Staff, 2020).  Venezuelans are expected to participate in clinical trials of the vaccine, and President Nicolás Maduro has hinted at the possibility of giving candidates running for office the vaccine so that they can campaign without fear (Reuters Staff, 2020).  This development comes even after over 35 scientists around the world, including some from Venezuela and one from Russia, signed a letter casting doubt on the veracity of the earlier promising results on the vaccine, raising questions of whether Russia is using the vaccine as a political tool or conducting experiments on Venezuelans (Cara, 2020).

The Sputnik-V vaccine is only the latest episode in a deep and fascinating relationship between Venezuela and Russia that has oftentimes clashed with the interests of the United States.  The United States, especially under President Donald Trump’s administration, has made no secret of its animosity toward the Maduro regime and has employed sanctions with the intention of ousting him (Reuters Staff, 2020).  Russia, on the other hand, has been instrumental in helping Venezuela withstand these sanctions and keeping Maduro in power.  As a result, Venezuela has been caught in the crosshairs of yet another political game between the two superpowers.

The South American country’s rich oil reserves help to explain why it has been such an important piece in this geopolitical puzzle.  It has been the key to Russia gaining influence in Venezuela.  For example, the oil company Rosneft, which is partly owned by the Russian government, had been responsible for the processing and transport of much of Venezuela’s crude oil (Goldwyn and Clabough, 2020).  Oil is likewise the primary target of U.S. sanctions, which ultimately forced Rosneft’s hand in selling its Venezuelan assets (Goldwyn and Clabough, 2020).  While U.S. government officials were quick to declare victory, the transfer actually gave Russian President Vladimir Putin even more control over Venezuelan oil than before—the entity that Rosneft sold to is entirely owned by the Russian government (Goldwyn and Clabough, 2020).  Russia now owns over two-thirds of Venezuela’s crude oil, the centerpiece of the country’s economy (Donati et. al, 2020).

Russia’s heavy hand in Venezuelan affairs extends far beyond their involvement in the oil sector.  Since 2006, Venezuela has received $17 billion in loans and credit lines from the Russian government and Rosneft (Ellyat, 2020).  The Russian government also restructured their massive debt in 2017 (Ellyat, 2020).  This included an injection of approximately $300 million into the Venezuelan economy over the latter half of 2018 through the beginning of 2020 (Donati et. al, 2020).  Russia has committed to investing an additional $6 billion in the Venezuelan oil and gold industries (Faiola and DeYoung, 2018).  Beyond money, Venezuela has also purchased military supplies valued at billions of dollars from Russia, and Russia has agreed to keep these weapons up to date (Ellyat, 2020; Faiola and DeYoung, 2018).

Despite pouring so much money into Venezuelan economic interests, evidence suggests that Russia’s goals are geopolitical rather than economic.  Russia did not emerge from the Cold War as an economic powerhouse in the same way that the United States and China have, and Russian leadership seems to accepted that they will not dominate economically on the world stage (Ellyat, 2020).  Rather, Russia is trying its hand at matching the United States’ geopolitical prowess (Ellyat, 2020).  The current low price of crude oil suggests that Russia’s investment in Venezuela’s crude oil is not actually about gaining access to oil (Goldwyn and Clabough, 2020).  After all, Russia is itself a petrostate.  Rather, Putin’s interest in Venezuela appears to be part of a broader strategy of flexing his muscles and inserting Russia into places that will be a thorn in the side of the West, just as frequently occurred during the Cold War (Faiola and DeYoung, 2018).  Venezuela hits a particular nerve for the United States because of the longstanding Monroe Doctrine, which essentially claims U.S. dominance over the Americas.  Moreover, the United States once had a much more favorable relationship with Venezuela, and Russia has effectively replaced them in many areas, such as security forces, rubbing salt on the wound of “losing” Venezuela (Faiola and DeYoung, 2018).

A particular point of tension over which the two superpowers are taking sides is the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela.  Russia has sided with Maduro, while the United States has sided with Juan Guaidó, the President of the National Assembly who assumed the role in response to calls that Maduro’s reelection was fraudulent.  The United States was in fact so invested in Guaidó that Trump invited him as a special guest to the State of the Union address in 2020 (Madhani, 2020).  On this front, Russia seems to be winning the battle, as Maduro has continued to grip onto power in spite of growing U.S. pressure.  U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even suggested that Russia’s support is the primary reason that Maduro has continued to stay in power (Goldwyn and Clabough, 2020).  Maduro also boasted that Russia has built a “fortress” around him to counter any attempts at military intervention by the United States (Faiola and DeYoung, 2018).  Guiadó’s legitimacy, on the other hand, has dwindled, and he was recently blocked from so much as entering the National Assembly building (Donati et. al, 2020).  The United States has recently shifted its approach to call for both Maduro and Guiadó to step down in their Democratic Transition Framework, but this has thus far not gained much traction, likely from how much political capital was used in backing Guiadó (Abrams, 2020).

Relics of the Cold War have guided, and even sometimes held hostage, the American strategy in Venezuela, especially under the Trump administration.  Anti-communist and anti-socialist rhetoric still reigns supreme for much of the country.  Trump has gone on Twitter rants against “socialism,” advocating for “FREEDOM and LIBERTY” and using his anti-Maduro stance as a contrast with his opponents on the “radical left” (O’Connor, 2020).  Former National Security Adviser John Bolton described Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, all socialist nations, as the “troika of tyranny” and vowed to topple these regimes (Rogin, 2018).  Bolton’s comment, interestingly, came in South Florida right before the 2018 midterm elections, likely an attempt to pander to the largely staunchly anti-communist Cuban American population of the Miami area (Rogin, 2018).  The stakes of Florida in the electoral college and the sway of this population have made this so-called attempt at “combatting socialism” a top priority for politicians like Trump, especially as the Democratic Party continues to inch leftward.

Comments similar to Bolton’s often work right into the rhetorical playbook of politicians like Maduro, the successor of Hugo Chávez, whose popularity largely stemmed from his anti-imperialist agenda.  Russian leadership, perhaps somewhat ironically, has echoed these sentiments.  For example, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “We have firmly expressed our support to Venezuela's sovereignty, our solidarity with the Venezuelan leadership and nation in their battle against illegal pressure which is being imposed by the US and its allies” (Russia to boost Venezuela ties amid US pressure, 2020).  In this way, it appears that Russia is working with what already exists within Venezuela and what the current regime wants, while the United States is trying to impose a regime that conforms with its desires.

Meanwhile, as these two powers are duking it out for influence as if it were 1965, the Venezuelan people have been trapped in the middle.  In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. State Department estimates that there are only 84 intensive care unit beds in the entire country (Cohen, 2020).  Around 4.5 million people have fled the country as a result of an economy in free fall, crumbling infrastructure, and shortages of basic necessities (Donati et. al, 2020).  Not only is COVID-19 a major problem, but many preventable diseases like malaria and diphtheria are becoming increasingly widespread (Taladrid, 2020).  By attempting to intervene in such selfish ways, both the U.S. and Russia are contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.  Though the U.S. maintains that its sanctions have not negatively impacted the average Venezuelan, it has indirectly made supplying humanitarian aid significantly more difficult, which in turn has harmed people (Taladrid, 2020).  On the other hand, Maduro’s reign has clearly been detrimental to the Venezuelan people, and Russia’s self-interested prolongation of his tenure has prevented any improvements to the humanitarian situation.  It is time for both powers to take a step back and shift what, if any, policy they have in Venezuela to prioritize what is best for the Venezuelan people.

Abby Neiser is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science and Spanish with a minor in Portuguese and a Certificate in Latin American Studies.  During the summer of 2019, she studied abroad in Cuba as part of the Pitt in Cuba program.  She is also the President of the Luso-Brazilian Student Association at Pitt.  Abby is primarily interested in Latin American politics, international relations, social movements, and the intersection between politics and artistic expression.  Upon graduating, she plans to pursue a career in public service or international relations.


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