If Venezuela moves forward with a military campaign in neighboring Guyana, that would be a serious blow to Russia, which has spent significant time and money in propping up the struggling regime.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a session at the National Assembly, as a portrait of the late President Hugo Chavez stands in the background, in Caracas, Venezuela. Photo: AP

A tried-and-tested way for leaders of crisis-hit countries to solve internal problems and raise their ratings is a short victorious war, accompanied by the seizure of foreign territory. The latest president to go down this route is Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, whose country is on the verge of large-scale bankruptcy.

According to the Washington Post, the Maduro government is preparing a “great victory.” Venezuela believes that, back in the late nineteenth century it was unjustly stripped of territory along the Essequibo River, which now belongs to neighboring English-speaking Guyana. This territorial dispute has been blowing hot and cold ever since.

Under Hugo Chavez, the passions abated somewhat, and Venezuela even helped Guyana with oil under the Petrocaribe support program for Caribbean countries. But those days are long gone.

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Guyana’s leftist leader has been replaced by rightist David Granger, who is geared towards the United States and Britain. More significantly, Exxon Mobil recently discovered large oil reserves 200 kilometers off the coast of Guyana, near the disputed territories.

Maduro decided that it was time to take up arms and stake a claim to the land, which makes up no less than two-thirds of the territory of Guyana.

Dreams of war on the eve of default

Apparently, Maduro, a former bus driver, weak politician, incompetent manager and Hugo Chavez “yes” man, has nothing else to offer.

The Venezuelan economy is a step away from catastrophe. The country is experiencing food shortages across the board. Official inflation at the end of last year was 69 percent, and is now ten times higher. Whereas the official rate of the national currency, the bolivar, is 6.3 to the U.S. dollar, on the black market one greenback sells for a hundred times more. No other country can “boast” of such price-cutting. According to Bloomberg, "Venezuela’s inflation nightmare signals default may come sooner" than expected.

Interestingly, news of Venezuela’s claim to the oil and other mineral-rich lands of Guyana caused a stir in Russian media. For instance, the program “Vesti” (produced by federal TV station Rossiya) posted a piece on its website about the dispute between Venezuela and Guyana under the title (which was rather unexpected for a Kremlin-loyal online resource) “Essequibo: Venezuela’s Crimea.”

True, the external similarities, namely Maduro’s attempt to replicate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s land-grab populism, were not explored. But, as expected, the topic was picked up on by Ukrainian journalists. According to Kiev-based political analyst Ivan Yakovina, “The disappearance of food, beer and contraceptives has dented the popularity of the Venezuelan president, who has decided to rectify the situation by returning two-thirds of neighboring Guyana to its rightful owner.”

However, as Yakovina points out, the proposed annexation of a large slice of neighboring Guyana has left many Venezuelans bemused.

“There is little empathy for Maduro’s attempts to repeat Vladimir Putin’s trick with the Crimea, even in his homeland,” he writes. “Local opposition accuses the president of not giving a damn about Essequibo, describing the campaign as a ruse to distract citizens from the country’s more pressing economic problems in the run-up to the elections. Former Ambassador of Venezuela to the United Nations Emilio Figueredo told Vice News that Maduro was once again searching for an external enemy.

“Having failed to squeeze anything out of the confrontation with the United States and Spain, he took aim at Guyana,” explains the diplomat.

Perhaps comparisons with Crimea and Essequibo are not completely apt, given that Putin’s ratings were already high before the Crimean referendum on independence and accession to Russia. And, despite all its problems, Russia’s economy is in far better shape than Venezuela’s.

The lessons of the Falklands

It would be more pertinent perhaps to compare the unpopular Maduro’s territorial claims to a neighboring country with the adventurism of Argentine dictator General Leopoldo Galteri, who in 1982 attempted an armed seizure of the British-owned Falkland Islands. The general hoped to increase his popularity through a victorious war, taking advantage of Argentina’s air superiority at a time when Britain had no aircraft carriers off the coast of the Falklands.

The outcome is well known. Five weeks after a “crew of construction workers” raised the Argentine flag over the islands, British troops landed, the Argentine garrison capitulated, and the United Kingdom restored its sovereignty.

Galteri’s fate in the wake of such a shameful defeat was signed and sealed. A few days after Argentina’s surrender, he was removed from power. Today his name no longer features in the list of Argentine leaders, since it is recognized that he became president in circumvention of the law.

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History teaches us that it teaches nothing.

Most likely Maduro is counting on the overwhelming superiority of his armed forces over the army of neighboring Guyana, which consists of just one and a half infantry battalions, five patrol boats and several small patrol aircraft. However, it beggars belief that the international community would turn a blind eye to such aggression, even more so given the growing antagonism between Venezuela and the United States, coupled with Washington’s accusations of large-scale drug trafficking against political figures in Caracas.

Russia needs to draw its own conclusions from the ongoing saga. In years gone by, Moscow has supplied Venezuela with vast quantities of weapons. According to the publication Vzglyad, “In the period 2005-2009 Rosoboronexport concluded approximately 30 arms supply contracts with Venezuela. Caracas took delivery of air defense systems (Antey-2500, Pechora-2M, Buk, Igla), T-72M tanks, Smerch and Grad multiple-launch rocket systems, armored vehicles and artillery. A contract for the supply of 24 Su-30MK2 multirole fighters and 34 Mi-17V-5, ten Mi-35M and three Mi-26T helicopters was fulfilled.”

Who will be the target of this armada? Back in the day, Hugo Chavez enjoyed holding high-power military parades with Russian aviation and armored vehicles, thereby sending an unambiguous signal to neighboring Colombia, with which Venezuela came close to armed conflict in 2011-2012. But Colombia’s extensive combat experience of fighting leftist rebels, and its U.S.-equipped and trained armed forces, gave Caracas pause for thought.

Given the rapidly deteriorating economic situation and growing discontent of Venezuelan society, a military adventure against feeble Guyana could end in disaster. It is conceivable that the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela will suffer defeat in this December’s parliamentary elections, with opponents of Chavez-style populist experiments taking many seats in Congress.

Back to the USSR

Irrespective of how the Venezuelan-Guyanese entanglement plays out, what payoff can Moscow expect from its vast arms shipments and multibillion-dollar investments in the Venezuelan oil industry? As pointed out by National Energy Security Fund Director Konstantin Simonov, Russia is effectively repeating the mistakes of the Soviet Union, which pumped billions of dollars into other states on political grounds.

“Why did Russia write down $30 billion of Soviet-era Cuban debt? What’s the point of that? The same old mistake — pumping in money with no political dividend,” says the expert.

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What’s more, he notes that investment in Venezuela contradicts the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who says that the priority now is “deoffshorization” and the return of capital to the country.

“Billions of dollars are being invested in strange countries like Venezuela, where we get one slap in the face after another,” opines Simonov.

Furthermore, by keeping Caracas on life support, Moscow not only stands to lose billions of dollars (the bulk of Russian weaponry was supplied under a loan that has yet to be repaid), but also risks aiding and abetting the bellicose plans of the current government. In other words, it is indirectly provoking another international conflict in which Russia’s “most reliable partner in Latin America” is bound to lose.