The two Russian nuclear-capable bombers that recently landed in Venezuela created an uproar in Washington and raised concerns in Curaçao considering our proximity to this South American country. While I think these planes will soon return to Russia, we need to realize that the presence of Russia and China in this region will continue to grow mainly to undermine US influence and as payback for US interference in Russia’s and China’s backyards. Presence of those bombers was no coincidence.
The US ambitions in Southeast Asia, increased presence in the energy-rich South China Sea, support for Taiwan and Tibet among others, irritate China. Just yesterday the US Congress passed an act to restrict travel to the US of Chinese authorities responsible for limiting foreign travel to Tibet. China’s main interest in our region is to seek natural resources for its economic growth. The number of nations that have swapped recognition from Taiwan to China reflects China’s increased influence in the region. The Dominican Republic just dropped Taiwan and embraced China after getting investments worth US$ 3.1 billion. China has also been investing in ‘soft power’ promoting Mandarin, cultural exchanges and Confucius Institutes. And totally surprising, it wants to build a space station in Argentina.
Russia’s interest in the region is mainly strategic. Vladimir Putin has been trying to come back from the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Warshaw Pact (a Soviet military alliance) by re-engaging old friends like Cuba, Grenada, Nicaragua and even Jamaica. Moscow has also sought to deepen ties with allies that share the resentment of US global leadership, such as Venezuela and Bolivia. While Russia doesn’t have deep pockets like China (Russia ranks 11th in overall GDP) it has leveraged other instruments such as arms sale, military cooperation and cyberwar to expand its presence.
I’ve spoken with people from different walks of life in Serbia, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Montenegro and other places and they all coincide that Putin’s Russia will never be able to forget the NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in the 1990s (see my picture of poster in downtown Belgrade), the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, disappearing importance of the Russian language in the ex-Soviet Republics and the rush of ex-allies to join NATO. Putin’s visit to Serbia in January 2019 should give more details as to Moscow’s strategy to deal with what it considers EU’s and US meddling in its backyard.
So while the Russian bombers will soon return home, Putin’s power projection in an attempt to erode US leadership will not dissipate soon. In addition, we should not underestimate the fact that China is both an ally and a competitor to Russia’s agenda in the region. So Russia’s show of power was not only meant for Washington but for Beijing as well. This means that it will not be the last time that we’ll witness such geoplolitical spats in our region.