While Vladimir Putin’s endgame in his standoff with the west over Ukraine remains uncertain, it’s clear he’s willing to escalate the situation. On Thursday, Russia announced it would consider deployment of its military to Venezuela and Cuba if tensions continue.
It’s most likely not a bluff. Both states remain close to Russia, despite the absence of the level of economic support that existed for such regimes during the Cold War. But the move shows the fundamental weakness of Russia’s hand, and the United States and its allies should not be distracted.
The presence of Russian troops in Cuba, 90 miles south of Florida, would be noteworthy. Keeping track of adversarial forces always is. But we can’t help wonder what it would actually matter. Close ties with Havana are not new. The presence of Russian military equipment isn’t either. This isn’t a particularly new play.
Nor does the presence of Russian assets in Cuba, even if enhanced by additional forces, fundamentally change the reality that Cuba is not about to risk direct military confrontation with the United States. The government in Havana is no more suicidal than it was under Fidel Castro. It will not engage in aggression it cannot survive.
The same is broadly true for Venezuela. Faced with a collapsed economy and an increasingly dictatorial government, the state has had to turn to Russia for aid as it alienates western sources of aid. But the Venezuelan regime is not in the kind of shape to act directly against the United States. It has shown little appetite to brawl with neighbors, either.
So, while the Russian government’s pondering about such moves is worth noting, it should probably be greeted with more of a shrug than a shift in position. This isn’t a show of strength, but an attempt to distract from the issue at hand: European security.
Russia continues to maintain a substantial military force near the Ukranian border, and it recently deployed forces to Kazakhstan to quell protests against that nation’s authoritarian rulers. There are clear echoes of Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968. Faced with a challenge to a puppet state’s rulers, Moscow responded with military force.
What Putin seems to have failed to learn is how badly those 20th century events wounded the Soviet Union. The actions laid bare the lie that the East Bloc was bound by anything more than compulsion and fear. In a stroke, communist leaders destroyed their claim to being a viable alternative to the west, setting the stage for their utter rejection in the late Cold War.
Putin’s message in his recent actions is simple. Russia is not positioning itself as a rival democratic state, but as a bulwark for bullies. It stands for autocracy, and will aid dictators who pay fealty.
This reality does not, of course, remove the need to focus on protecting those states Russia views as its next targets. Ukraine is not a formal ally, nor is it a member of NATO. But the alliance is offering an umbrella of protection to a fellow democracy.
It’s fair to ask why. The answer is that the west learned from the 20th century in a way Putin did not. Faced with an ambitious strongman, the west is not repeating the mistakes from the Rhineland crisis of 1936 or the Munich Agreement of 1938.
What Putin does not know, and indeed may not be known even by western leaders, is how far the resolve to avoid appeasement reaches. Would the U.S. and NATO be willing to commit troops to direct combat with Russia in the event of an invasion? It seems unlikely. But a shadow war on a digital front, with attacks on infrastructure and communications seems entirely possible. Sanctions that would cripple the already-fragile Russian economy are nearly a certainty.
There isn’t much Republicans and Democrats agree on, but neither side has reason to view Putin through a friendly lens. There’s space for debate on details, but the basic approach is clear. The United States must maintain its focus on Ukraine, reassure the newer NATO states, and underscore the message that we will not step aside while a democracy is threatened.
Russia’s musing about deployments to Venezuela and Cuba isn’t idle. But they’re a sideshow. The U.S. must stay focused on the main stage.