By Tim Sadov
Russia has sent troops to Venezuela while the US hasn’t. What explains the disparity in the American and Russian responses to the Venezuela crisis? Steely-nerved tactics in this “game of chicken” are to partly to blame. As the Maduro regime continues to brutally suppress political dissidents and starve its own citizens, the Trump administration continues to oppose the regime and its actions from a distance. Since 2017, the US has sent more than 70 million dollars of assistance to Venezuela, with most of which being rejected by the Maduro regime. The response so far has been limited to humanitarian aid and sanctions on the state-run oil company and those close to Maduro; there has been no military component as of yet. Russia, which supports the Maduro regime along with Nicaragua, Cuba and China, has taken a more aggressive military approach to entrench Maduro and oppose the US. In March, Russia sent 100 military officials to Venezuela (in addition to its already present forces). A US State Department labelled “Russia’s deployment of military personnel” a “reckless escalation of the situation”. These developments suggest that Russia and the US are employing tactics reminiscent of the Cold-War era. In the 1950s, Cambridge academic Bertrand Russel introduced the term “game of chicken” to explain the practice of nuclear brinksmanship by the US and the Soviet Union, a model of conflict in which one side’s optimal action should be predicated on the other side’s action: if side A yields, side B should not, but if side A fails to yield, side B should yield. US and Russian intervention in Venezuela can be modelled as a “game of chicken”. In an interview last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that he is unwilling to rule out the possibility of US military intervention. Game theorist Thomas Schelling labelled statements like the one made by Pompeo “threats that leave something to chance”. Pompeo’s statement signals to Russian officials that the US is not willing to completely yield just yet. In game theoretic terms, this means that Pompeo is leveraging uncertainty of US actions to provoke Russian officials to yield with the hope of reaching a yield/non-yield Nash equilibrium: a potential winning strategy in “game of chicken”. On one hand, the ambiguity of Pompeo’s response introduces uncontrollable risk, which could lead to a disastrous conflict if neither side yields and the US also sends troops to Venezuela. However, this same ambiguity could lead to a unilateral US success if the Russians choose to yield in order to prevent the mutually catastrophic non-yield/non-yield outcome. With a Russian yield, US intervention in Venezuela could increase the likelihood of a transfer of power from the Maduro regime to opposition leader Juan Guaido, a transition which would undoubtedly benefit US interests. For one, support for Guaido and opposition to Maduro would demonstrate to the world community that the US takes a tough stance on human rights issues despite its recent exit from the UN Human Rights Council. Ultimately, whether “threats that leave something to chance” are more effective than a “pure-strategy”, predictable response should be determined by a consideration of two factors: the risk-tolerance of Russian military officials and their commitment to Maduro’s regime. The less committed and risk-tolerant the other side is, the higher the expected utility of making a threat that leaves something to chance will be. Russia has a significant financial incentive to back the Maduro regime. The Maduro regime still owes Russia $6 billion dollars from a $17 billion dollar loan made in 2006: half would go to the Russian state-run oil company, Rosneft, and the other half would go to the Russian government. This repayment would be hard to secure if a regime change took place. In addition, Russian owns two offshore gas fields and has a stake in nearly 20 million tons of crude oil. Risk-tolerance is harder to measure, but recent military aggression suggest that Russian military officials are not entirely risk-averse. In 2014, Russia invaded Crimea, a territory belonging to the sovereign nation of Ukraine, despite the risk of severe backlash from the international community. The combination of these two considerations, high Russian risk-tolerance and its high commitment to the Maduro regime, produces the result that Pompeo’s current policy of breeding uncertainty is a dangerous and foolish strategic decision.