Venezuela Is Just One More Card in Russia’s Geopolitical Game
While the tension between Moscow and NATO rises every day, we take a look at the depth and extent of the Putin regime’s interest in our country
Overlooking the Parque Central towers and green hills splattered with brick shacks, 77 Russian tourists toured the San Agustín del Sur slum in western Caracas. The group danced to Afro-Venezuelan sangueo music and tried local street food. While San Agustín welcomes between seventy and one hundred Russians every Sunday, a blond couple stands out: raising a Venezuelan flag, they both wore graphic t-shirts showing Vladimir Putin’s face wearing sunglasses and a text that read “Mr. President.” The next day, Putin recognized Ukraine’s separatist regions as independent republics.
Russian tourism in Venezuela was on the rise. In May, Venezuela’s state-owned airline Conviasa started to operate Moscow-Caracas flights. Russian airlines Pegas Fly and Pegas Touristik followed in August with flights from Moscow to Porlamar, in the island of Margarita, where German and Canadian tourists used to go but vanished with Venezuela’s crisis. In November, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced new flights from Saint Petersburg and Yekaterinburg to Porlamar. While flights can be over fourteen hours, almost 9,000 Russian tourists have visited the island, where they have given new life to the local economy: one month after the first flight arrived, hotel occupancy rose by 6%. There are even Cyrillic signs selling arepas. By February, Venezuela, where flights to neighboring Colombia and Miami are now non-existent, was trying to open flights to Minsk, in Belarus. Then, as Russian tanks rolled over Ukraine and Europe restricted its air space, Russia canceled all touristic flights to Venezuela.
Tourism isn’t the only Russian enterprise in Venezuela: years of chavista cozying up to Vladimir Putin has resulted in more than 260 bilateral agreements ranging from military equipment to gas and oil operations. The acquisition of Russian weapons has been common since Hugo Chávez started to ramp up his anti-American discourse. Between 2005 and 2012, Venezuela spent hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons, including 100,000 AK-103 and AK-104 assault rifles, 74 million cartridges, over 50 helicopters, 24 Sukhoi fighter jets, almost 100 medium-sized T-72B1V tanks, more than 200 infantry vehicles and thousands of other purchases, according to NGO Control Ciudadano.
Now, as cash-stricken Venezuela endures multilateral sanctions and Maduro’s government struggles to get international recognition, Russia—just like it does with the Syrian regime—has lent a hand to its ally through investments and loans: between 2006 and 2019, Russia spent a total of $17 billion in loans and credit lines and sold new military equipment such as 36 Russian Su-30MK2s fighter jets to Venezuela. Some commentators, like The Wall Street Journal’s Juan Forero, have even described Venezuela as a Russian “client state.”
Russia and Venezuela’s “strategic partnership” might resonate with some of the ideas of the Kremlin’s intelligentsia, such as those of Aleksandr Dugin: a Rasputin-like far-right Russian philosopher sanctioned by the United States who has served as an advisor to important pro-Putin politicians, said to maintain close ties with the Kremlin and Russian military forces and whose book on geopolitics has been used as a textbook by the senior staff of the Russian Armed Forces. In a 2016 Sputnik story, Dugin described the need of Russia counting on Venezuela as a “reliable stronghold” against “Anglo-Saxon Atlanticism.” For Dugin, this would be achieved by including Maduro’s Venezuela in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Russia’s post-Soviet equivalent to NATO) and in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (an economic, political and security alliance between parts of the former USSR and Asian countries). In his vision, Venezuela has a fundamental role in destabilizing the U.S.’ sphere of influence, and the rise of an anti-liberal Russia leading a Eurasian sphere in a multipolar world.
In fact, in recent years, Russia helped PDVSA circumvent U.S. sanctions: not only did Rosneft invest billions in joint ventures, it also served as a lifeline for sanctioned PDVSA by trading the country’s oil, which resulted in U.S. sanctions on Rosneft and TNK Trading, a subsidiary, in March 2020.
Rosneft then announced the termination of its operations in Venezuela and the sale of its assets to another Russian state-owned company. Reuters estimated Rosneft spent $9 billion between 2010 and 2019 in loans and PDVSA projects. The operations didn’t make profit.
Russian participation in our oil and gas industry has been happening for years: in 2006, state-owned Gazprom won the rights to explore offshore gas in Venezuela. Similarly, in 2010, the National Petroleum Consortium—made up of Gazprom and other firms—set up a joint venture with PDVSA to extract oil from the Orinoco Belt. In 2014, Rosneft bought out Gazprom and the other companies in the Consortium. These projects resembled the “apertura petrolera” of the ‘90s, in which PDVSA set up joint ventures with western oil companies, a project chavismo denounced as “neoliberal” and Chávez terminated in the early 2000s.
Venezuela’s affair with the Kremlin has recently taken more geopolitical proportions. As the crisis in Ukraine’s border escalated in January, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said that military deployments to Cuba and Venezuela were a possibility if the United States didn’t curtail its support to Ukraine. While U.S. National Security advisor Jake Sullivan called the threat a “bluster” he also said the United States would “deal with it decisively” if this were to happen. A month later, Maduro assured “powerful military cooperation” with Russia. Now, as the invasion unfolds, Maduro has expressed his “firm” support to Russia and has backed the Russian recognition of Ukraine’s separatist regions. Yet, his government hasn’t recognized them officially, like it did with the Russian-backed separatist regions of Georgia in 2009. In fact, while a proposal for a “support agreement” on Russia’s recognition of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk separatist republics was included in the proposed agenda of the 2020 Maduro-controlled National Assembly, this proposal was eliminated in an updated version as the West announced its first post-invasion string of sanctions against Russia.
“Russia can count on Venezuela and Venezuela can count on Russia as an ally,” says Jason Marczak, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. For him, Maduro’s phone call to Vladimir Putin following the invasion and Maduro’s own speech at the UN reinforce what both countries call their “strategic partnership.” Nevertheless, the oil spending quagmire, Maduro’s lukewarm support to Russia during the invasion of Ukraine and the actual scope of its military cooperation seems to indicate the partnership is built on shaky foundations.
The Kremlin Goes to Apure
While Russia’s recent threat of military deployment in Venezuela caught the attention of American media, the presence of Russian forces in the country has intensified in the last three years, aggravating tensions with the United States and Colombia—a NATO global partner. Nevertheless, Russia’s presence has been mostly limited to technical support for Venezuela’s security forces in its unraveling fronts as the territorial control of the Venezuelan State quickly falls to local gangs, drug cartels and Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary groups that now rule over big swaths of the territory.
Since March 2021, the state of Apure—a rural region that borders Colombia—has seen armed clashes between Venezuelan security forces and two dissident FARC groups: Frente Décimo and Segunda Marquetalia. The conflict has resulted in thousands of refugees and in human rights atrocities, including alleged “false positives” murders. Days before the conflict began, Iván Márquez, the leader of Segunda Marquetalia, appeared in a video surrounded by AK-103 rifles, a model Russia sold to the Venezuelan Armed Forces. The previous day, Colombian media had published leaked emails that purportedly talked about guerrilla groups seeking to access Russian weapons through the Venezuelan Armed Forces.
“We don’t have all the clarity on why Russia is directly supporting actions in Apure or to what extent it’s supporting those actions in Apure,” says Andrei Serbin Pont, an Argentinian-Venezuelan analyst who specializes in Russian-Latin American relations and leads the CRIES think tank. “They had special forces that were likely helping train Venezuelan special forces units and then helped operationally by deploying Orlan-10 drones in the area.” In April, the photo of a Slavic-looking soldier helping Venezuelan soldiers in Apure was leaked on social media. While his identity is unknown, the man used expensive military accessories and guns not used by the Venezuelan Armed Forces, including a Russian Kalashnikov rifle of a higher caliber. Yet, “we don’t have evidence that proves they are actually directly supporting the actions against guerrilla groups,” says Serbin Pont.
“There’s information going around and indicators that electronic reconnaissance units of the Venezuelan army are being at least technically supported by the Russians and most of these units are on the border with Colombia.”
In early February, Colombian defense minister Diego Molano said that these electronic reconnaissance units were being used to spy on Colombian forces patrolling the border with Iranian-made drones, calling it “foreign interference.” Russia dismissed it, they said those were “baseless accusations.” Yet, for Serbin Pont, having a greater understanding of Colombian aircraft activity is in Venezuela’s interest and “is also of use for Russia and its allies.” In fact, some days after the statement, U.S. undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was worried about the increase of Russian influence on the Venezuelan border, denouncing “risks by external actors and authoritarians” to Colombia as well as cybersecurity threats and propaganda campaigns.
“Increased military spending and influence is being done in order to sow instability in the Western Hemisphere,” says Marczak. “It’s an additional opportunity for Putin to threaten a strong U.S. ally by ramping up Russia’s own interest and assistance to Venezuela.”
Russian technical assistance has been reported in other areas of the country, like Táchira and Canaima National Park, where Venezuelan security forces clashed with the Pemon people in 2019. As the conflict unfolded, pictures of Russian soldiers in Venezuelan uniforms arriving at the national park in a Russian aircraft were leaked by journalists. “The presence of Russian troops in Canaima is most likely linked to a technical Russian team that went there. We’re still unsure exactly why,” says Serbin Pont, “there’s a lot of talk regarding it being possibly linked to airspace operations.” Pont thinks the armed component of that technical team was likely just security for them as “there’s no evidence they actually took action against the Pemon.”
A Russian Base in Caracas?
Four days after Russia threatened to deploy forces in Venezuela, Manuel Christopher Figuera—the now-exiled former director of Maduro’s intelligence service SEBIN, who defected in May 2019 to support Juan Guaidó—released a public letter in which he mentioned the existence of two Russian “military bases” in Venezuelan territory: one supposedly located “within the 41st Armored Brigade” in Valencia and another for “communications and intelligence exploration” in Manzanares, a middle class neighborhood in eastern Caracas bordered by the Fuerte Tiuna military base. Based on the description of the “bases” as located within pre-existing Venezuelan military spaces, it seems they are rather operation centers for specific tasks.
“There’s no actual Russian military bases or installations in Venezuela,” says Serbin Pont. For the analyst, the Russian forces are rather “staying with specific military units” to train them or assist their operative systems, such as in June 2019 when a Russian maintenance team came to Venezuela to get the S-300VM anti-ballistic missiles back up and running. Yet, “of course there’s a geopolitical interest in Venezuela in terms of being present in the region and knowing that this causes at least a certain level of grievance in the U.S.,” says Serbin Pont. “It’s a low-cost way to maintain a presence far away from its own borders,” an unusual move by Russia since it “usually stays near its own border.”
“Russia is seeking to use Venezuela as a partner in trying to flex Russia’s muscles beyond Europe,” says Marczak.
Similarly, in December 2018, Russia’s state-owned Tass news agency reported that Russia was planning to build a military base in La Orchila, an island in the Caribbean only accessible to army personnel, the president and his family and friends, and deploy Tupolev Tu-160 ‘white swan’ strategic bombers. Yet, Diosdado Cabello, back then the president of Maduro’s National Constituent Assembly, denied this the next day. The base was never built. “Beyond the possible interest,” says Serbin Pont, “it would be too difficult to install a Russian Navy base on a Venezuelan island.” For Marczak, “Russia’s ability to really project force beyond its theater is limited.”
Annoying the U.S.
So what happens with Dugin’s dream of Venezuela as the birthplace of an anti-American “decolonization wave” led by “a new political theory (populist, latinist, beyond left and right – a kind of fourth political theory),” evoking his own Eurasian ideology, “against all pro-U.S. and pro-globalist structures—above all against liberals of all kinds”? While Dugin has had theoretical influence on Russia’s strategic and national thinking, Serbin Pont considers he “doesn’t have the relevance in everyday policy making that some people attribute to him.”
For Serbin Pont, Venezuela doesn’t “pose a military threat to the U.S.” but “is useful to Russia by being an ally that annoys the U.S.” and could be used in “an eventual increase of tensions on the Venezuela-Colombian border as it might turn into a sort of flashpoint geopolitical dispute channeled through Colombia and Venezuela” as proxies of the United States and Russia.
Yet, for Marczak, “Maduro has destabilizing effects beyond Venezuela itself,” he says, “it’s an entry point for U.S. adversaries in a hemisphere that’s largely democratic.” The decrease of international attention on Venezuela, he believes, “cannot continue.”
Nevertheless, for now, “Venezuela does not seem to be particularly relevant in the Ukraine conflict” and “there’s nothing that leads us to believe a significant impact on Venezuela, at least not in terms of its military relations to Russia or on getting Venezuela involved in a larger geopolitical dispute.”
In fact, says Serbin, there’s been “tons” of comments similar to Russia’s recent threats “that have never gone beyond nuclear bombers visiting Venezuela and things like this,” he says referring December 2018, when Putin showed his support by sending two Tu-160 bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons to Venezuela. This resulted in a spat between Russian and American officials.
Economically, it might be different. “The actions against Russian banks and the Russian financial system have already increased pressure on Venezuela,” says Marczak, as the Maduro regime has been “using Russian banks to try to subvert U.S. sanctions.” Yet, for him, while Russia is an important partner of the recent round of negotiations between Maduro and the opposition, the increased international isolation of Russia won’t affect a possible new round. “If Maduro was willing to restart,” he says, “Russia would be more ready to flex its own political muscle and accompany Maduro as part of those negotiations.”
An extension or escalation of the conflict could open new possibilities: “Venezuela could serve Russia as a bargaining chip, but for that, Russia will have to really make Venezuela be worthy,” says Serbin Pont, which would mean going from just using the country to “annoy” the U.S. to “increase military presence in Venezuela,” which would make it “a more expensive tool of Russian geopolitical strategy.” While Venezuela currently pays for the services provided, a real deployment of Russian military units in the country would signify new Russian costs. “And then,” he says, “it’s going to be very expensive.”
For Marczak, “what is concerning is the increased attempts of Russia to provoke instability and disinformation to threaten democracies in the hemisphere,” especially regarding the upcoming Colombian and Brazilian presidential elections, where chavismo-friendly candidates are leading the polls. For him, Russia along with Venezuela, seeking to influence the results in their favor, “will try to sow disinformation around those elections.”
Thus, for now, with its electronic reconnaissance units and Orlan-10 drones gliding over Apure, Venezuela will bark at an annoyed Washington and will spill Russia’s web of disinformation over its neighbors. But, free of bases in La Orchila and of significant military deployments—sinking Russia in unpaid loans—Venezuela might not fulfill Dugin’s dream of ending the end of history.
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