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‘Anything’s Possible’ Says Head of Southern Command on Russia in Venezuela

Speaking exclusively in his first in-depth interview since taking command, Navy Admiral Craig Faller told VOA that Russia was acting like a “wounded, declining bear that’s just lashing out” against democratic interests in the region.

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The United States should not rule out Russian military involvement in Venezuela, according to the new head of U.S. Southern Command. VOA

The United States should not rule out Russian military involvement in Venezuela, according to the new head of U.S. Southern Command.

Speaking exclusively in his first in-depth interview since taking command, Navy Admiral Craig Faller told VOA that Russia was acting like a “wounded, declining bear that’s just lashing out” against democratic interests in the region.

“I think with Russia, anything’s possible,” he said. “We’ve seen what they’ve done (in Syria), and I think we have to be prepared for what might happen in the future.”

Below are excerpts from the interview:

QUESTION: “Admiral, let’s start with Venezuela. What options have you been asked to provide for the situation in Venezuela.”

NAVY ADMIRAL CRAIG FALLER, COMMANDER OF THE U.S. SOUTHERN COMMAND: “We’re focused on supporting a political and diplomatic solution and as you’d expect from a combatant commander we’re working to ensure that U.S. citizens and property, our diplomats that are there are safe, and so that’s where we’ve been, our efforts have been centered.”

 

Kamila, daughter of Yenymar Vilches, a Venezuelan migrant, is attended by personnel of the ship of the United States Navy Hospital USNS Comfort at Divina Pastora High School in Riohacha, Colombia, Nov. 26, 2018.
Kamila, daughter of Yenymar Vilches, a Venezuelan migrant, is attended by personnel of the ship of the United States Navy Hospital USNS Comfort at Divina Pastora High School in Riohacha, Colombia, Nov. 26, 2018. VOA

QUESTION: “Are you working with your regional partners on a potential peacekeeping mission plan should the need arise?”

FALLER: “We’re focused on what you’re seeing right now, the human suffering, the day to day alleviation of that suffering. We did our part earlier this year with the United States Naval Ship Comfort.”

QUESTION: “But is peacekeeping forces, are those an option right now?”

FALLER: “We were looking, as I mentioned Carla, we’re at what’s happening today and the long-term efforts beyond government transition, I’ll leave that to policy and the diplomats, and we’ll be ready and on the balls of our feet to support when asked.”

QUESTION: “Since former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, when we were traveling together, he mentioned the importance of identifying a problem first. So with Venezuela, what is the problem for the United States there, and can it be solved through a military solution?”

FALLER: “Well I think looking more broadly at this hemisphere, this is our neighborhood, and we share a lot across this neighborhood: values, a respect for law, democracy, for the most part democracy, and we have common sea, land, air, cyber, space, all of the domains right here in our neighborhood and so we look at our neighborhood and there are some glaring examples of countries that aren’t democracies. Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua to name the three most glaring examples. And what you see common in these cases is the influence of Russia, and Cuba, and to some extent China.”

Members of Russian and Syrian forces stand guard near posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province, Aug. 20, 2018.
Members of Russian and Syrian forces stand guard near posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province, Aug. 20, 2018. VOA

QUESTION: “Are you concerned that Russia might do something in Venezuela like it did in Syria? Like we saw how they propped up the (Syrian President Bashar al-)Assad regime there. Could that happen again?”

FALLER: “I think, with Russia, anything’s possible. The national defense strategy calls out competition with Russia and China specifically as areas of focus. We’ve really aligned and done a lot of thinking, planning and resourcing to those. Different cases though. China is an economic powerhouse on the rise, and they have a legitimate economic and business interest around the world. They don’t play by the rulebook though. Russia, on the other hand, is almost, you know, a wounded, declining bear that’s just lashing out, and I couldn’t predict what Russia will do, and I wouldn’t want to. We’ve seen what they’ve done, and I think we have to be prepared for what might happen in the future.”

QUESTION: “The defeat of the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq. Your predecessor had warned of the potential for these foreign fighters that came out of your area of responsibility coming back in. Have you seen that?”

FALLER: “So we are, we’re watching that very closely. We had a significant number of foreign fighters come out of some of our Caribbean nations and go over to Syria. We’ve seen some come back. We’ve worked with partner nations to thwart some attacks, and very successfully. And we’ve got our eye on that ball every day. And we have elements of Lebanese Hezbollah. …

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives opening remarks during the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS meeting, at the State Department in Washington, Feb. 6, 2019.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives opening remarks during the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS meeting, at the State Department in Washington, Feb. 6, 2019. VOA

QUESTION: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that there are active cells in Venezuela. Have you seen that as well?”

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FALLER: “The long arm of Iranian malfeasance is everywhere around the world and their surrogate Lebanese Hezbollah is right at the end of that arm.”

QUESTION: “So they are in Venezuela.”

FALLER: “The secretary of state, I have ultimate respect for him, and he speaks truth to power.” (VOA)

Next Story

Russia’s Alternative to Western Credit Card Debuts in London

Russia will next year diversify its foreign currency holdings in its National Wealth Fund

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Employees demonstrating a payment card
Employees speak while demonstrating a payment card during a tour at a branch of VTB bank in Moscow, Russia. VOA

A Russian backed bank payment card, introduced after Western sanctions upended Russia’s financial system five years ago and prompted Visa and Master card to deny electronic services to some of the country’s leading banks, is set for its European debut on London Wednesday, when a pilot project will be launched in collaboration with the Dutch global payment company PayXpert.

Moscow authorities hoped to get the MIR card accepted eventually in foreign markets, but progress has been slow outside Russia for the MIR payment system,  which operates outside of Western-controlled international financial systems such as Swift, which banks use to transfer money.

The pilot project with PayXpert “will lay the foundation for new promising trends in the foreign expansion of Russian payment cards,”  according to Vladimir Komlev, the head of Russia’s National Card Payment System, which operates the MIR system.

De-dollarization efforts

The effort is seen by analysts as part of the  Kremlin bid to de-dollarize the Russian economy to lessen the sting of Western sanctions. A Russian Finance Ministry official this month told Reuters that Russia will next year diversify its foreign currency holdings  in its National Wealth Fund, which supports Russia’s public pension system, aiming to lower the share of dollars in the fund’s reserves.

Dmitry Dolgin of the Dutch banking group ING said in  a report this month that de-dollarization efforts are now obvious across most sectors, including local business loans and bank-held international assets, although he said the dollar’s role  has actually increased in company and household savings and cash assets, partly because dollar interest rates have been higher than those offered for euros.

Credit Cards offers unique features
American Express, Visa and Master Card is displayed in this image. Each Credit Card offers unique features and benefits, along with unmatched privileges. Pixabay

U.S. authorities have been able advance sanctions by targeting companies that use dollars, and the establishment of electronic payment systems not tied to the dollar or largely controlled by U.S. businesses is one way for the Kremlin to reduce the impact of the West’s serial punishment of Moscow. Washington and the European Union have imposed a wave of sanctions since 2014 to punish Russia for the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, and the poisoning of a defected Russian spy in England.

Komlev told Reuters this year that “In the next three years we want MIR cards to be operational in countries where Russians are used to traveling.” He projected MIR cards would be operational at some banks in at least a dozen countries by the end of this year. Turkish banks started to conduct transactions this year with MIR, which means both “peace” and “world” in Russian.

MIR was launched initially as a national payment system, with the first cards issued in December 2015. Russia’s leading bank, state-owned Sberbank, started issuing them in October 2016, and by the end of last year more than 70 million MIR-based cards had been issued by 64 Russian banks. The Kremlin has mandated that state welfare and pension payments must be processed through the system by next year, along with salaries paid to civil servants.

The card has a long way to go before it rivals VISA our Mastercard internationally. It is not accepted by international shopping platforms or major online booking services for airlines and hotels, although APEXX Fintech, a British start-up global payment company, said Thursday it would now start working with the MIR system. Among smartphone applications only Samsung has concluded an agreement with the MIR system.

Meanwhile, de-dollarization has been moving quickly. Russia’s Central Bank has currency swap deals in place with Iran, China and Turkey, allowing direct trade to be conducted in local currencies instead of U.S. dollars. Russia reportedly lost $7.7 billion in its bid to reduce dollars held in its reserves. Some of the dollars were turned into gold, and since January the bank has purchased 96.4 metric tons of gold.

People stand in line as they wait to enter the bank with their card
People stand in line as they wait to enter a branch of Sberbank of Russia bank. VOA

Alexei Zabotkin, head of the Russian Central Bank’s monetary policy department, has conceded that it would be impossible to completely empty the country’s foreign exchange reserves of dollars, as this would be  “fraught with excessive risks.” According to central bank data the  National Wealth Fund has $45.5 billion, 39.17 billion euros and 7.67 billion British pounds.

In August, the state-controlled Rosneft oil giant announced it would stop using the U.S. dollar for its export contracts.

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Nonetheless, analysts say there are limits on how far Russia can de-dollarize – the ruble is highly volatile and remains unattractive for investors and de-dollarization brings additional and sometimes prohibitive trading costs.

European regulators will be watching the London project closely. EU officials have been sympathetic about Russia’s de-dollarization bid, suspecting that as a spin-off the euro will be boosted as an international currency. In June the European Commission concluded that “the euro clearly stands out as the only candidate that has all the necessary attributes of a global currency that market participants could use as an alternative to the U.S. dollar.” (VOA)