Photo: Bloomberg

Venezuela's Embarassing Participation in the Olympics of Illiberal Army

This is no Copa América nor a Serie del Caribe. Created by Russia, the Army Games are a military show-off and team-building exercise for the forces of the multipolar world order

The liberal hegemony is dead. Not only did we see Trump’s protectionism and nativist populism get elected, we saw Brexit, the humiliating withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan or the ascension of China as a world power. Today, as we’re writing this, everyone sees how the most powerful country in the world lacks the deterrence to influence the international policies of China and Russia.

One of the countries where this is more visible is Venezuela, where chavismo has fostered the relationship with China, Iran and Russia since 1999, to the point that Russia is sponsoring the eight edition of the so-called “Russian military Olympics” or Army Games (Армейские международные игры) in Venezuelan territory, the first time such event is held in the Western Hemisphere. The chavista military delegation, among other teams from Serbia, Belarus, Angola, Kazakhstan, Iran or China, have been participating in this event since its first version in 2015.

The Army Games were created by Moscow with the goal of promoting its military equipment, improving its combat capabilities and expanding its influence on other countries. The rest of Latin America has had a minuscule involvement at the events until now. Besides Venezuela, which has sent competitors to each edition of the Army Games, only Cuba (2019), Nicaragua (2015, 2016, 2017) and Peru (2021) have officially participated. This year Bolivia is joining the games.

Compared to other editions, in which NATO members like the U.S., France or Germany took part as observers or when members like Greece competed (Greece has been the only one), no NATO members are competing in the 2022 edition. Even after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, twelve countries (Russia, Azerbaijan, Algeria, Armenia, Belarus, Venezuela, Vietnam, Iran, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and Uzbekistan) are hosting the 2022 Army Games, held between August 13th and 27th. Over 270 teams and 37 countries are also taking part. Countries like Niger and Rwanda are participating for the first time. More than 300 professional Venezuelan soldiers are competing in the event. 

One of the sieges, this year, is Fort Terepaima, close to Barquisimeto, Venezuela. The military facility in Lara had to be prepared for five months to meet the international standards to carry out the activity called Sniper Frontier, one of the 36 competitions of the Army Games. Other competitions are Tank Biathlon, a race with those T-72 we’ve seen burning in Ukraine; Army Scouts Masters, in which the participants’ skills of  army reconnaissance on the battlefield are evaluated; and Sea Cup, with combat ships.

Sniper Frontier is an individual and team competition evaluating shooting skills using Makarov K59 pistols, AK74 automatic rifles and 7.62 mm SVD Dragunov sniper rifles. For this occasion, FANB selected six out of 500 soldiers to compete against 80 shooters from 14 countries.

Colonel José Linárez, coach of the Venezuelan sniper team, told Telesur: “It’s not just a competition, but it’s creating friendship ties, camaraderie, exchange of ideas, knowledge and technologies with developed countries and the criteria is, well, above all, being Venezuelan, patriot and loving the [Bolivarian] revolution.” A few days later, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López warned that “all you’ll see here are delegations competing in one specific discipline, whose name is Sniper Front… Everything else is noise, conspiracy theories.”

Padrino López is reacting to some suspicious broadcasts in the media. One month ago, in an interview with Colombian network NTN24, Joseph Humire, the director of the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), acknowledged that even though army competitions are usual, the participation and growing presence of foreign militaries in South America represents a threat for the international order. According to Humire, this will “normalize” the presence of the military capabilities of China, Iran and Russia in Venezuela.  Ironically, Russian military presence in Venezuela has existed for a long time.

Russia has sent military planes supplying large amounts of equipment and specialists in the last years, as well as military warships that have joined military exercises along the Caribbean Sea. Additionally, although not officially confirmed, the private military company Wagner could have been active inside Venezuelan territory.

On the contrary, the former director of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) and retired Army Major General Manuel Cristopher Figuera exiled in the U.S., assured in the same interview that the event is only a “propagandist maneuver”. According to Figuera, there’s already a long-existing presence of Iran, Russia, the Colombian guerrilla, and Hezbollah in Venezuelan territory. In the words of Figuera “the games are not a menace themselves. It’s just one discipline because Venezuela does not have the polygons for other armaments. I think some media outlets have fallen into the trap of the regime.” 

Besides that, we know one thing. That Venezuela is co-hosting this event reaffirms the long-traced network of influence promoted by Russia, Iran, and China in the region formerly known as the U.S.’ backyard. This influence translates into the strategic move seeking to pre-position military assets deployed in Latin America and the Caribbean, as the Center for Secure Free Society (FSF) pointed out. But on the other hand, this doesn’t represent the mobilization of a significant amount of military capabilities, since only dozens of soldiers from these countries have been mobilized and are carrying out Sniper Front activities in Venezuela.  

What counts here is the gesture, the message sent by the Maduro regime: not only are we staying friends with a country that invaded a European State and imposed a grain embargo against the rest of the world by brute force; we’re playing at shooting targets with them. Not with a lot of luck, however: the first week of the Tank Biathlon went very badly for Venezuela’s Crew 1, who finished last 12 minutes behind third place (Vietnam). Additionally, a few days after the first disastrous performance, Crew 2 finished last again, even though they were five minutes quicker than their teammates. Downcast and visibly disappointed, the Venezuelans in the crowd saw their team finishing last, once again.