There is a real question of why Moscow has chosen a country seeming of little strategic importance to spy on. The answer to this question should be understood against the background of Russia’s foreign policy.
Russia has already been involved in espionage and sabotage activities in the West for some time. The Russians penetrated the state structures in the former Soviet republics and satellites, but they also have managed to conduct cyberattacks in the United States, Germany, and other Western countries. They launched a disinformation campaign aimed at benefitting Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign and attempted to blackmail the former French president Francois Holland and hacked the current French president Emanuel Macron’s presidential campaign. They interfered in French social media by launching anti-immigrant campaigns, most probably to help the right-wing nationalist National Front party. They did the same in Germany’s elections. Alarmingly, Russians have also increased their spy networks in Great Britain to cold war levels.
Moscow’s support for illiberal candidates is part of a comprehensive strategy to undermine peoples’ confidence in democratic institutions. Russia has a problem with the expansion of world democracy, a policy the U.S. carried out from the end of the cold war until the presidency of Barack Obama.
Colombia is seen as a democracy and as an “enemy of my friend,” Venezuela. Russia has supported Nicolas Maduro and his cruel regime, along with China, Cuba, and Iran. Moscow resents the expansion of NATO that included former Soviet republics and satellites. Russia was immensely angered by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the idea of American unipolar domination. The Kremlin views America’s sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere as a target; mostly, it sought to take advantage of the emergence of anti-American regimes in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.
Certain factors played for the Russians. The first was Obama’s quixotic foreign policy that ignored the increasing military cooperation between Moscow and Caracas (Robert Gates, who most recently wrote an op-ed endorsing the idea of an alliance of world democracies when he was Defense Secretary under President Obama mocked and dismissed the joint Russian-Venezuelan military exercises and ignored the shipping of Russian weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The other factor was the former Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, who was eager to reach an agreement with the FARC and, as a result, weakened the Colombian intelligence and security apparatus.
Colombia is a U.S. ally and an enemy of Venezuela. Russia assists Maduro in sending Venezuelan spies and thousands of Venezuelan refugees arriving at the Colombia-Venezuela border, a destabilizing problem for the Colombian government.
The Russians were very much interested in spying on Colombia’s leading energy and oil company, Ecopetrol. Some intelligence sources have claimed that Russia is very concerned that Ecopetrol fracking activities may compete with the Russian oil industry to the latter’s detriment. It may well be. Some have said that Russia is behind the anti-fracking protests organized by Colombian environmentalists. However, there is something more ominous here. It could well be that Russia is trying to take over or have a presence in Colombian oil production to increase its influence in the area. In other words, this may be part of a macro-economic strategy to increase domination through soft-power, as China does.
Biden’s strategy needs to consider these factors. It is not clear to what extent his administration is aware of these challenges. If he is to confront Russian activities in Latin America, his administration will have to face Venezuela, too, as both countries work in coordination. Maduro will not agree to a transition to democracy as Biden wishes to be the case. Sanctions need to continue until the regime collapses from within, and American companies must continue to have a presence even in countries under a sanctions regime. There have been dissidents already (although not enough to topple Maduro). Likewise, a naval blockade to prevent Russian, Cuban, and Iranian ships from arriving in Venezuela is crucial.
Over the past several decades, China, Russia, and Iran have taken advantage of the existence of regimes unfriendly to the United States. This trend must not continue.