MOSCOW—In Russian eyes, Venezuela is becoming a proxy battleground between Moscow and Washington.
For the moment the fight is political, financial, and diplomatic. World War III headlines like one that ran in the British tabloid The Daily Express are way overblown. But there are disturbing hints of potential military escalation, with reports of Russian military contractors on the ground and Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, weirdly flashing a yellow legal pad at a press briefing that bore the scrawled note “5,000 troops to Colombia,” Venezuela’s neighbor.
With President Trump repeating the mantra that “all options are on the table,” and Putin’s spokesman being coy about whether Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenaries have been dispatched to Venezuela, a lack of clarification on both sides only makes the situation more volatile.
The scenario of most concern to Moscow at the moment is one in which the government of self-declared President Juan Guaidó, backed by the United States and most of Latin America, moves against Russian personnel in Venezuela. Meanwhile, the United States warns against measures against U.S. diplomats by the Kremlin-backed government of Nicolás Maduro, who has occupied the presidential palace for almost six troubled years.
The Kremlin is calling for the Guaidó faction not to become “pawns in a dirty criminal game of strangers,” when Moscow supposedly is the real friend of the Venezuelan people. Trump’s intervention in support of Guaidó is “destructive,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday.
To reinforce its statements, Russia teamed up with Iran—another Trump target—warning Washington to keep hands off and offering to mediate: an alliance and a proposition that is all too familiar from the recent history of the Middle East.
Conceivably, Russian President Vladimir Putin could play a game with Trump in Venezuela similar to the one he played with the Obama administration in Syria, first offering help to solve a crisis, then moving (together with Iran) to support an infamous ally in a campaign to crush his enemies.
Any way you cut it, Putin has a lot at stake in Venezuela. Independent polls show public support for him in Russia has dropped to a record low of 33.4 percent. For his old friend and partner Maduro to lose power would be a huge loss of face.
And then there’s the matter of money.
Russia owns substantial shares of five major oil fields and a huge stake in Venezuelan natural gas. Maduro also cut a deal with Moscow that gives it effective control of 49.9 percent of Citgo, which operates three large refineries on the Gulf Coast of the United States.
Last month, Maduro visited Moscow for three days and firmed up several deals. “We have signed contracts to guarantee investments of more than $5 billion with our Russian partners in joint ventures to raise oil production,” he told Venezuelan state television. “We are also guaranteeing an investment of $1 billion for mining mostly in gold.”
Note that Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, Iran ranks No 4, and Russia No 8. Working together, their potential power in the market is enormous.
Add to all that the matter of arms sales. Between 2001 and 2013, under Maduro’s predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez, Venezuela imported Russian weapons worth $14 billion. The country’s military is equipped with Russian artillery and armored vehicles. In 2008, Rosvooruzheniye, Russia’s state owned arms exporter, supplied Venezuela with 24 Sukhoi strike fighters.
The Russian defense ministry sees Venezuela as a perfect base to influence Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, which also are clients of Rosvooruzheniye and and Rosoboronexport.
Russian military experts have been debating for years whether Moscow should have a permanent base in Venezuela, although many thought such a project too expensive, needlessly provocative, and superfluous.
Now, the Kremlin may be recalculating.
Sergei Markov, a political analyst close to the Kremlin administration, confirmed to The Daily Beast that Moscow has sent private security contractors to boost the security for its own people and for some of Maduro’s strategic installations.
“We have an airport for emergency landing for the Russia military in Venezuela, [a country] where we have invested about $17 billion,” said Markov. “Of course Russian private units provide security for the gas fields, where [Russian state oil company] Rosneft experts work, and for our military experts, who’ve been training the local army.”
Such are the public ties between Maduro and Putin that last week, when crowds of protesters flooded the streets of the Venezuelan capital, debates erupted on the Russian social network Vkontakte about whether, if Maduro falls, Putin will be the next to go.
“America’s march of death, which ousts elected leaders, is a serious threat for Russia, where the fifth and sixth columns in the political elite are deliberately strangling Putin’s popularity to bring a pro-American leader to power,” Markov told The Daily Beast.
“Trump is Putin’s enemy in Venezuela, where we have been investing billions of dollars, trading weapons, exploring gas fields, training local military and buying oil,” said Markov, adding significantly, “Our experts working there are veterans of the war in Syria.”
Another analogy quickly comes to mind for many in Russia, who are comparing the situation in Venezuela to the events in Ukraine in 2014. Half-joking, perhaps, they suggest the Kremlin will wind up rescuing Maduro the way Russian spetsnaz forces evacuated Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed leader of Ukraine, after the Maidan uprising.
In the past, Moscow’s efforts to shore up Maduro have not met with great success. Last year a delegation of experts from Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development worked in Venezuela as Maduro’s advisers trying to help combat hyperinflation by creating a cryptocurrency called the “Petro.” It flopped.
“It’s hard to imagine a worse situation, with total corruption and crime, than in Venezuela,” Georgy Bovy, editor-in-chief of Russkiymir.ru magazine, told The Daily Beast. “One would think that it would be in the Kremlin’s interests to establish close ties with the opposition; but our guys are always late, they come to the political scene, when all strong positions have been taken over by pro-Western powers.”
Perhaps, but if Syria is the model, that’s when the real fighting begins.
Christopher Dickey also contributed reporting to this story.