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The Russians and the Rogues

In July 2008, shortly after the dictatorial Robert Mugabe regime killed dozens of people in a brutal pre-election crackdown, Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution that would have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe. Not only that, but Moscow convinced Beijing to veto the resolution as well. “The key thing is that the Russians decided to vote against it,” Britain’s U.N. envoy told the New York Times. “The assessment here is that China would not have vetoed it on its own because they have a range of conflicting interests at stake.”

Then–U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the Security Council that “the U-turn in the Russian position is particularly surprising and disturbing.” More recently, in August 2012, Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov visited Zimbabwe and promised that Moscow would continue to “support it on the international front.”

Closer to home, the Kremlin has been propping up a Belarusian government that is rightly known as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Belarus was on the verge of economic collapse last year, until Russia intervened with a $3 billion loan from its Eurasian Economic Community Crisis Fund. In January 2012, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko went skiing with Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev and affirmed the strength of their bilateral partnership. “Emboldened by the renewed Russian support,” Belarusian scholar Ilya Kunitski wrote a few weeks later, “Lukashenka has redoubled his crackdown on civil society and sought to completely eliminate the political opposition.” (Not surprisingly, the two largest Belarusian opposition parties boycotted last month’s parliamentary elections.) Writing in the New York Times this past summer, Belarusian journalist Andrej Dynko said that his country would not gain true political freedom until Russia stopped supporting the autocratic Lukashenko regime.

In Latin America, the Kremlin has financed a massive -- and massively destabilizing -- Venezuelan arms buildup. Last year, no other country imported more Russian ground weapons than Venezuela. All told, the South American nation imported 555 percent more arms between 2007 and 2011 than it did between 2002 and 2006, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. During the first period (2002–06), Venezuela was the world’s 46th biggest arms importer. During the second period (2007–11), it was the 15th biggest importer.

The newly reelected Hugo Chávez is using Russian weapons, not simply to beef up the official Venezuelan armed forces and to frighten neighboring Colombia, but also to equip the pro-government paramilitary fighters that comprise his Bolivarian militia. Indeed, the pro-Chávez militia members carry Russian-made assault rifles and function as Venezuela’s equivalent of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. During the country’s recent presidential campaign, they attacked opposition rallies, intimidated supporters of Democratic Unity candidate Henrique Capriles, and guarded polling stations on Election Day.

Elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, Moscow is in talks with the Castro regime about establishing a Russian naval base in Cuba. (Four years ago, Russia held Caribbean naval exercises with Venezuela.) The Kremlin has also increased strategic cooperation with Chávez disciples in Bolivia (Evo Morales) and Ecuador (Rafael Correa), both of whom have trampled democracy and antagonized Washington.

At this point, the United States should not have any illusions about Russian foreign policy. Moscow has offered support to virtually every dictatorship and anti-American regime on the planet. President Obama tried to change Russian behavior with the “reset.” It hasn’t worked. (Witness Moscow’s recent expulsion of USAID and its withdrawal from the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.) Regardless of who wins the election on November 6, it is time for U.S. policymakers to consider a different approach.

(You can read this article in Spanish here.)