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Russia Denies Claims Of Convincing Maduro To Stay In Power


What is Russia doing in Venezuela? Not much, if you ask President Trump, which is what reporters did after he finished a long call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he'd like to see something positive happen for Venezuela.

CORNISH: That sounds different from what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday after the U.S. lobbied hard for regime change in Venezuela. Pompeo told CNN the Venezuelan president was this close to flying off to Havana.


MIKE POMPEO: He had an airplane on the tarmac. He was ready to leave this morning, as we understand it, and the Russians indicated he should stay.

CORNISH: The Russian government says that's false. To understand what's really going on between Russia and Venezuela, we called up Matthew Rojansky at the Wilson Center.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY: You know, Nicolas Maduro, who took over power for Hugo Chavez, has been in kind of a slow-rolling train wreck of an economic crisis. And so the single biggest step Russia has taken has been to basically float the regime, to give the regime the financing that it needs to pay public servants to the extent that it did and, of course, to pay feed, clothe, house the military, which is really the core of support for the regime. All of that has cost Russia money. But in effect, Russia receives in exchange control over Venezuela's energy assets, which is something of great interest to an energy power like Russia. Beyond that, of course, Russia has an ongoing political relationship with the anti-Washington camp in Latin America.

CORNISH: Let me jump in here. So you've talked about the financial investments, that kind of economic connection between these two countries. Does Russia have a bigger strategic reason to stay in Maduro's camp?

ROJANSKY: I think Russia's strategy here, the geopolitical perspective, is far more reactive than it is proactive, where Russia says, we don't like the potential economic fallout of a regime change in Venezuela, we would lose our property, but we also don't like the idea that the United States gets to run the table. We look at the precedent of American-backed regime change all around the world, going back to Kosovo, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, very close to home in the former Soviet region, as well as the Middle East and all throughout Latin American. And we say, we're drawing a line under it. It shall not happen again here in Venezuela. But of course, Russia's ability to impact that is more limited than it would be closer to their borders.

CORNISH: What do you think it would take to persuade Russia to withdraw support for Nicolas Maduro?

ROJANSKY: Well, there are already some indications that in the senior-level conversations between U.S. and Russian officials, there have been some conversations about what assurances are required. The problem is, you run headlong into the total dysfunction and distrust that characterizes U.S.-Russian relations today. And so to imagine that suddenly a deal that's based on trust where Washington gives or brokers some assurances from the opposition that Russia will get to keep its property in exchange for which Russia stands down and stops backing Maduro - to imagine that that is actually possible now, I think it's a stretch.

CORNISH: What are the implications of that? I mean, the U.S. has repeatedly said all options are on the table. How far would Russia go to keep Maduro in power?

ROJANSKY: Sitting here where we are now, it's easy for me to say, look, the Russian ability to go in on the ground is much less than what it was in Syria, much less than what it has been in the Eurasian region in the post-Soviet space. But we don't know what will happen on the ground tomorrow or the day after. There are any number of scenarios I could spin out, including large-scale bloodshed where it would become very unpredictable who would come out on top. And in that type of scenario, the Russian factor is really nontrivial. They have, in fact, sent troops, advisers and very significant military materiel. So even if they don't intend to wage a major, long-term military campaign, their intervention is quite significant.

CORNISH: Matthew Rojansky is director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute. Thank you for speaking with us.

ROJANSKY: My pleasure, Audie. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.