This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
With Russian contractors reportedly active in Venezuela, how far will Moscow go to protect its regional interests and ambitions?
In the eyes of Russia’s ruling elite, the mass protests currently shaking Venezuela form part of an anti-Russian conspiracy organised by the West. Moscow appears to have responded to this perceived threat in a grimly familiar manner: according to foreign media reports published on 25 January, Russian mercenaries – members of the notorious Wagner Group, which has taken part in the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts – travelled to Venezuela to protect the country’s sitting president, Nicolás Maduro. With Moscow afraid that it may lose Caracas as a strategically important ally, this begs an important question: how far is Russia willing to go in Venezuela to protect its regional interests and ambitions?
Russia’s comeback in Latin America
During the cold war, Soviet leaders saw Latin America as a geopolitical and ideological back door into the United States. Yet, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow quickly began to lose its influence in the region. The last phase of this process seemed to come with the closure of the Russian Lourdes signals intelligence facility, near Havana, in 2002.
However, the exile did not last long. By the late 2000s, the Kremlin had started to reassert itself in the region: its 2008 Foreign Policy Concept identified “fostering political and economic ties with countries of Latin America and the Caribbean basin” as a key priority. Political transitions towards left-leaning governments and growing anti-American sentiment across Latin America – inflamed by the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, which dealt a severe blow to economies there – made this task much easier. As a result, by 2010, Russian policies in the region focused on Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, which was the crucial link in the chain. Since then, Russia’s advances in Latin America have prompted one Russian lawmaker to describe them as “perhaps, the most effective vector of Moscow-conducted foreign policy.”
Russia’s interest in economically ravaged Venezuela stems from a peculiar, frequently illogical combination of pseudo-economic calculations and a desire for prestige. In the last 12 years, Russian energy giant Rosneft has invested $17 billion in the Venezuelan economy, leaving Caracas with an outstanding debt of more than $3 billion (not counting interest repayments). Despite the Kremlin’s generosity, Igor Sechin – head of Rosneft and President Vladimir Putin’s man in Venezuela – failed to convince Maduro to openly support the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Moreover, Sechin’s titanic effort to interest foreign energy firms in Venezuela ended in failure.
The second major Russian player in the country is arms company Rosoboronexport. The Venezuelan army is fully equipped with Russian weaponry, seemingly making Caracas the Russian arms industry’s biggest Latin American customer. But this is mostly an optical illusion: Venezuela’s acute economic crisis caused the value of its bilateral arms trade with Russia to fall to just $79m during January-September 2018. Worse, Caracas owes Moscow $1 billion for weaponry it has already received (a debt due for repayment by 2027). Indeed, in 2017, Rosoboronexport Deputy Director Sergey Ladygin described only Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico as being Russia’s main trade partners in Latin America. In all, the economic aspect of the Caracas–Moscow relationship raises many questions about its benefits for Russia.
Moscow seems to see its ideological and military-strategic ties with Caracas as the most important aspects of the relationship. In December 2018, Russia deployed two nuclear-capable Tu-160 bombers to Caracas – a gesture Russian propagandists described as a “good lesson” for the West. The collapse of the Venezuelan regime would severely damage Russia’s strategic position in Latin America. And it could have implications for broader US foreign policy, perhaps convincing Washington that if economic sanctions can be an effective tool against one resource-dependent economy, they can be effective against another – Russia’s.
A transatlantic voyage
The information about Russian private military companies (PMCs) that appeared in the foreign press stemmed from Yevgeny Shabaev, ataman (head) of the Khovrino Cossack community and one of the staunchest advocates of the legalisation of PMCs in Russia. As someone with close ties to Russian veterans’ organisations and members of PMCs, he claimed that a group of “military contractors who had previously worked in Gabon and Sudan” were sent to Venezuela, via Havana, in two charter planes. Russian civil activist and investigative reporter Mitya Aleshkovsky later confirmed this, after reportedly tracking the plane. According to Aleshkovsky, “the Il-96 RA-96019 of Rossiya Airlines flew from Moscow to Dakar on 19 January, where it remained for two days. From Dakar, the airplane headed to Ciudad del Este [in Paraguay] and later to Havana. The final destination – Caracas – was reached by regular commercial flight.” Russian officials have either remained silent or joked about the matter.
On 28 January, Nordwind Airlines Boeing 777 carrying no passengers left Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport bound for Caracas. This suggested two possible scenarios: either Moscow was planning to pick up figures linked to the Venezuelan regime (the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs remains silent on this) or to collect Venezuelan gold reserves. For now, it remains unclear what happened.
Five days earlier, Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s communications director, had added to the controversy over the use of entities such as the Wagner group abroad, openly admitting that “Russian private security companies, unrelated to the state, are acting in Sudan.” Yet she emphasised that these were not PMCs, but provided consulting and training services to the local military. This statement diametrically opposed comments from Vladimir Tomsky, press attaché of the Russian embassy in Khartoum, who said on 15 November 2018 that rumours of such groups operating in the country were “yet another example of fake news”. Against this background, Venezuelans may have reason to worry: these groups were allegedly involved in the violent suppression of anti-government demonstrations in Sudan on 19 December, which led to the deaths of some local political activists and journalists, and mass arrests of many others.
The Syrian experience in Venezuela?
Current developments in Venezuela resemble the initial stages of other conflicts in which Russia has played a crucial role (in various ways). Some Russian military strategists loosely define this practice as hybrid warfare: the use of an external private architecture for forcefully replacing or backing an incumbent political regime through military and non-military means. And PMCs have proven to be one of the most effective types of hybrid force tested in the Syrian conflict, as Moscow can sacrifice them while taking very little responsibility for their actions. It is possible that Russia will take a similar approach in Venezuela.
As yet, there has been no corroboration of the activities of Russian mercenaries in Venezuela. Yet the situation there is likely to evolve into one of three scenarios. In the first of these, the PMCs will provide guiding and consulting services while physically protecting Maduro – with the protests subsiding as the majority of Venezuelan militia and military forces remain loyal to the regime. In the second scenario, the PMCs will take part in a wider conflict, forming part of an integrated hybrid force that includes pro-regime military and police personnel. In the third scenario, the groups would play a key role in maintaining regime control over oil deposits, critical infrastructure, and major cities – which would require an estimated 400 contractors. In this case, there is a distinct possibility that Russian PMCs would help escalate Venezuela’s civil strife into a regional conflict.
Sergey Sukhankin is a Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and an Associate Expert at the International Center for Policy Studies (Kyiv). His areas of scientific interest primarily concern Kaliningrad and the Baltic Sea region, Russian information and cyber security, A2/AD and its interpretation in Russia, as well as the development of Russia Private Military Companies (PMC) after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.