Russia’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries is continually being tested, first in Ukraine, then in Syria. And now, in Venezuela, Russia faces a number of difficult decisions of who to support.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, left, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin listen to speakers during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Photo: AP

In a recent interview with Venezuelan television, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed excluding from the international community any country, in which its president came to power in a way that was not constitutional, such as by means of a coup d’état. In particular, he proposed discussing at the UN the possibility of adopting a declaration that would clearly affirm the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

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“Given that the attempts of such loose interpretations of the principle of non-interference occur at regular intervals, including in the context of the Syrian crisis, we would like to discuss with all UN member states the possibility of adopting a declaration that would clearly affirm the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries," Lavrov said.

He also added that "any country, in which the transfer of power was carried out by unconstitutional means" such as a coup d’état cannot be "a normal member of the international community – as such methods are considered an unacceptable change of power.”

However, this idea proposed by ​​the Russian foreign minister led to some skeptical responses from several representatives of the expert community in Russia, who believe that in the past, Moscow has not always adhered to this rule, and it is unlikely that the Kremlin will follow it in the future.

The fear of “color revolutions” 

Some Russian experts saw in Lavrov’s appeal the Kremlin’s hostility to all kinds of “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet space, as well as towards the threat of forcible removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. To follow such logic, the Kremlin tries to find a way to prevent certain states from interfering in the domestic policy of other countries.  

However, many political experts saw a considerable amount of guile in Lavrov’s proposal. As Anton Nosik, a well-known Internet activist, points out – in the mid-1960s, there were five coups d’états in Syria, and the current Alawite government (which Moscow is now supporting) also came to power in the country via a military coup.

“With a few exceptions, such as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, all Arab regimes of the Middle East, including the already overthrown (in Iraq and Lybia), and those still reigning, came to power as a result of armed coups,” writes Nosik.

Now let us turn to the post-Soviet space. Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the Analytical Department at the Center for Political Technologies, gives several examples of how Moscow “surrendered” government leaders in favor of revolutionary opposition in the post-Soviet space.

In November 2003, the then Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov flew to Georgia, where he said that he did not consider the revolutionary actions of the opposition as a “coup d’état,” claims Stanovaya.

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“He went to a rally in the city center, talked to revolutionaries of Nino Burjanadze, and met with Mikheil Saakashvili [who became the third Georgian president since 2004],” writes Stanovaya. “Afterwards, the next morning, he went to the residence of the then President Eduard Shevardnadze, after which the Georgian leader announced his resignation. Soon afterwards, Mikheil Saakashvili was elected as the new president, who made ​​his first foreign visit to Moscow, as recognition of Russia being the priority foreign policy direction of his government.”

Another example, which Stanovaya mentions, is connected to the events that happened in Ukraine in 2013-2014. In the Crimea and eastern regions of Ukraine, “Russia’s own mini-revolutions were instigated, which brought to power pro-Russian forces – and this was not very legitimate or very peaceful,” she argues.

Meanwhile, Moscow places the main blame on America for the events that took place in Ukraine, believing that Washington was behind the unconstitutional overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych’s government.

Russia’s willingness to sacrifice Assad

In this context, the fate of Assad is interesting. After Russia began attacking the positions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) to support the Syrian leader and the current regime in the country, it would seem that this step shows the intentions of the Kremlin to support Assad, and not to leave one’s friend in a lurch.

However, many Russian political analysts believe that Assad might suffer the fate of Yanukovych.

“Russia is not interested in Assad, but in strengthening its influence on the coast of Syria and in its vicinity,” argues Fyodor Lukyanov, political analyst and head of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP).

At the same time, Stanovaya assumes that Putin might "put up for sale" the figure of Bashar Assad, as implied by the UN speech of the Russian president.

“And the issue here is not whether Moscow will surrender Assad or not. The issue is exclusively at what price," she wrote. "Thus, when commentators quote the leaders of France, Germany or the United States, who do not want to have any dealings with the current Syrian regime, as a position opposite to that of Moscow, we should not look at this as a given certainty. Putin is ready to discuss Syria after Assad’s departure, but on the condition that Russia is no longer isolated, the current sanctions are removed and NATO stops treating Russia as a bogeyman. Thus, Assad is just a stage in the path, which will soon be passed.”

Venezuela threatened by a coup

Curiously enough, Lavrov proposed to punish countries where coups d’états have been carried out in an interview with a TV station in Venezuela. This country – which after the death of the popular leader Hugo Chavez and the transfer of power to Nicolas Maduro, a leader who does not enjoy support from Venezuelan society or the political elites – is on the verge of a military coup.

According to the latest public opinion polls, 70.4 percent of people in the country have extremely negative opinions about the president’s performance, with 46.1 percent believing that Maduro is personally responsible for the severe economic and social crisis that has seized the country.

The main problems in Venezuela are a severe deficit of all types of food products, rapid growth in the cost of living, and rampant street crime. Meanwhile, forecasts for the near future are completely dismal. Independent Venezuelan economists believe that by the end of this year, inflation could reach 200 percent.

Unprecedented is also the “spread” between the official exchange rate of the local currency, the bolivar, against the U.S. dollar, and quotations on the “black market”. Officially, one dollar is worth 6.3 bolivars, while “on the street,” one can get over 700 bolivars for a dollar.

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It is not surprising that more and more people are ceasing to trust the authorities. According to the surveys of the Dataanalisis Sociological Center, if parliamentary elections were held next Sunday, 57.7 percent of the voters would support opposition candidates.

Elections for the National Assembly have been scheduled for Dec. 6. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles says that he is “absolutely certain that opponents of the current government will come out victorious in these elections.”

What can Maduro’s government do under these conditions? Foreign observers, writes the Spanish newspaper El Pais, have every reason to fear that, in the absence of international supervision over the election process, the results may be completely falsified.

However, in Venezuela, there is a third force, which has the power to intervene in the course of events. This is the military. Last year, 45 former officers and generals in Venezuela issued a statement in which they accused the Maduro government of having “severed the constitutional thread.” They also claimed that, “Military action against the regime, aimed at restoring democracy, was justified by the constitution of the country.”

Murmurs of discontent about the government have been coming for a long time from the Venezuelan Army. However, before this, the army leadership could not oppose the voluntarist politics of Chavez, who enjoyed wide popularity among the population. And any dissatisfaction Chavez was able to squash with the help of petrodollars, generously showering them on his party’s activists in the armed forces. However, now the situation has changed.

“The authorities have done nothing to increase oil production or to improve the performance of the entire oil sector, Diego Moya-Ocampos, analyst IHS Global Insight, told Russia Direct. "And there is no other place from where to get the needed money. Maduro is stymied. Everyone can see that he is an extremely weak leader, unable to solve the acute social and economic problems that the country is facing. However, as his position becomes steadily weaker, the influence of the army leadership in the country keeps steadily growing.”

Is the Kremlin ready to punish its ally?

Will the Kremlin be willing to punish its chief ally in Latin America if the military stages a coup d’état? Russian oil companies have been active in Venezuela for many years already. In May of this year, Maduro, after meeting with the Rosneft President Igor Sechin, announced that Russia and Venezuela have agreed to invest $14 billion into oil and gas projects in this South American country.

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Moreover, Venezuela is the world’s largest buyer of Russian weapons. The volume of agreements already implemented, and future deliveries of Russian military equipment to Caracas in 2012-2015, has been estimated at $3.2 billion. Russia has granted Venezuela export credits worth over $5 billion.

It is doubtful that Moscow would demonstrate a desire to punish its key ally in the event of coup in Venezuela. It is possible that in case of a sharp destabilization of the situation in the country, Russia will prefer to play – together with Cuba – the role of mediator in finding a peaceful solution to the crisis, with the participation of opposition forces. That is, to use the experience that it has gained in the post-Soviet space.