Ukraine, for many Americans is way out there – somewhere in the nowhere land of Uzbekistan or North Korea. Ukraine is very far away from our daily lives.
And yet, it may be worth our while paying a little attention to what’s going on in Ukraine right now. It might just have consequences for all of us down the line.
A friend went home to spend Christmas with family in Venezuela – a much closer geography. He tells me that the dollarization of the Venezuelan economy is to all extents and purposes done. Motorcycle delivery guys can now make change for a $20 US bill with 20 US $1 bills. The bolivar is history. The surprise was that, in addition to paying for goods and services in dollars, in Venezuela my friend could now also pay with Russian rubles.
It’s a small, but pertinent, detail.
Venezuela, along with the rest of Caribbean, Central and South America, were once unequivocally considered to be under the umbrella of US purview. Let’s not forget the Cuban Missile Crisis as an earlier attempt to disrupt that way of the world. And yet, quietly, and somewhat menacingly to a distracted US, Russia has in recent years again begun to spread its tentacles into the economic heart of one of our neighbors immediately to our south.
How many rubles go about their daily lives in Venezuela? Nobody knows.
Food is once again abundant in Caracas, at least and perhaps not only, in its better neighborhoods. There are whispers of hope in the air. The dollar is now king. If you have dollars, you can not only just get by, but also even live well. The caveat, of course, is that you have dollars. Those millions of Venezuelans who had, out of necessity, to flee Venezuela in recent years are not in that column. After you force the poor, the needy and the undesirable out, you can aspire to a thriving society, apparently. Regrettably, we’ve seen attempts at that scenario before in our history. When you muscle any segment of your population out, you are veering far away from accepted norms of decency.
Almost suddenly, after years of waste, destruction and damage to the lives of its citizens and the infrastructure of the country, Venezuela is now signaling an economic shift. By the end of December 2021, the country had doubled its petroleum output from just a year before – not back to when Venezuela was a major force in petroleum production worldwide, but a long way toward a surprising and flag-waving celebratory candle cake for the Maduro regime.
Money is once again flowing, if not into Venezuela – at least not from the known Western world, then definitively round and about within its borders. What kind of money, again we don’t entirely know. So many Venezuelans have been sanctioned by the United States that now those very same Venezuelan citizens may just have decided to keep their enormous wealth home and plow it back into their country’s economy. Sanctions are flawed, and in this case, perhaps, counter-productive to US interests. Money needs a sanctuary. And just maybe, Venezuela is now a sanctuary for its own and odd money in general.
And in this repositioning of Venezuela, the ground has shifted.
Russia and China are now firmly ensconced, along with Iran, as Venezuela’s allies, protectors and supporters.
Why is that important?
Because this is happening in the Americas, just a little less than 2,000 miles south of Key West. This is not some distant Ukraine, Belarus or Uzbekistan.
For better or worse, for decades after WW2, it was taken as a given that the Americas were within the United States general sphere of interest and influence. We had sometimes benign and at times harmful relationships with nations within that domain.
Russia, on the other hand, had all of Eastern Europe, and not coincidentally, Ukraine and the Stan countries at its southern borders, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan et al to do with whatever it wished.
East was East, and West was West.
Except that many of the countries under Russian overview weren’t happy with that division. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, those nations grabbed at the chance of change. Ukraine wanted autonomy from its overseer, Russia. Ukraine wanted to shift its essential values westward. As did Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Estonia and many of the former Russian affiliates.
And Europe opened its bosom.
Europe said, Come on in!
Ukraine was a big fan of the EU, and Ukraine said, Let’s do it.
And all was good, for a while.
Then came Putin, a Russian ultranationalist, a man obsessed with Russian power and superiority, a man with an exaggerated ego rarely seen in history – Thump not withstanding, a man focused on a Soviet-style view of the world as a greater Russia reinvigorated, a man who feels Ukraine’s aspirations as somehow a threat to his nationalistic manhood.
Cuba means nothing to Putin. He has done nothing to alleviate Cuba’s pain. Venezuela, on the other hand, sitting atop the world’s largest oil reserves -greater even than Saudi Arabia’s, means a lot.
And if Ukraine can be European, maybe Venezuela can be Russian, if you will.
Welcome to Putin’s worldview.
In Venezuela, Putin gets to mess with America like never before.
Almost overnight in the Ukraine crisis now upon us, all bets are off.
On Jan 14th, the BBC reported that …
“… a senior diplomat in the Kremlin described two recent rounds of talks with the US and NATO as “unsuccessful.” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, who led negotiations with US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, said he didn’t want “to confirm anything, won’t exclude anything here either”. When asked whether Russia might consider establishing a military presence in Washington’s backyard, Mr Ryabkov said it depended “on the actions of American colleagues”
Russia is not excluding a presence in Cuba or Venezuela; quite the opposite, in fact. Russia is positioning itself for a major confrontation that may just include the Americas.
Putin’s focus is far beyond Ukraine.
So we might just think about projecting ourselves a little bit (or a lot) into our near future.
Russia invades Ukraine.
The US imposes unprecedented sanctions on Russia’s banks and ways of doing business with the rest of the world.
Russia reacts. Russia sends military equipment and/or troops to Venezuela and Cuba.
The US sends troops to Colombia?
A young Colombian friend of mine was already thinking about that possibility in a conversation with his friends at lunchtime here in Bogotá today.
Those with upcoming military service are worried, he told me.
And so, Ukraine has come home to roost.
Ukraine is not so far away at all, as it turns out. In fact, perhaps Ukraine is already here.
So now what?