In the 1990s, some analysts dismissed Russia as “Haiti with atomic weapons,” and it was said that Russian nuclear submarines were less a military threat than a danger to the environment. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a huge humiliation for Russian nationalism, and Putin has been trying to recover Russia's image as a superpower.
The Russian news media is now highlighting the presence of its military in Caracas as a show of force in a distant region that proves it can compete with the United States. But 99 soldiers and two airplanes is really just propaganda, aimed at curing Russia's wounded pride and used by Maduro in his attempts to scare the Venezuelan opposition.
Having nuclear weapons, like India, Pakistan or North Korea, does not make Russia a superpower. This is a poor country that is making the same mistake of the Soviet era, spending on weapons at the expense of economic development and the quality of life of its people. It's currently engaged in series of conflicts that require it to provide military assistance or forces in Ukraine, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and Syria. That last country is the furthest away, but all are within its security zone-- on its border or close by.
Fighting distant wars is very expensive. Sending two airplanes and 99 troops as an investment in propaganda is cheap. Russia's military spending of $66 billion equals 5.4 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The U.S. military budget of $610 billion represents just 3.2 percent of its GDP. The certificate of superpower is not issued based on firepower, but on economic power. The communist-ruled countries of Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin wall had overwhelming superiority over NATO in tanks, airplanes, artillery and troops. But they collapsed because they could not compete economically.
The only power with the capacity to wage distant wars simultaneously continues to be the United States. Its military spending is higher than the combined spending of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, the United Kingdom, France and Japan. Russia is now a country that manufactures and sells the weapons that it gave away when it was called the Soviet Union and spent more than it produced. Russia is objectively a poor country, dominated by corrupt and corrupting oligarchs who dream of greatness. Its economy is the size of Spain's but it has triple the population spread across a territory 33 times larger, meaning that they have enormous needs for services.
Venezuelans should not confuse a propaganda move by Russian arms salesmen with a change in the geopolitical correlation of forces. If Russia was a superpower, they should fix Venezuela's energy crisis, hunger or the shortage of medicines, but that's expensive and the Russians are poor. The real military presence in Venezuela is Cuba's with thousands of soldiers who control the Armed Forces. There are objective reasons for this, because the Cuban economic is a parasite living off Venezuelan oil, and the Castroite regime knows perfectly well that if Maduro falls, they fall.
(Joaquín Villalobos was a Salvadoran guerrilla and now consults on international conflict resolution. This article appeared first in Spanish in El Pais.)