Monday, February 4, 2019

Russia is playing a high-stakes game in the mounting crisis in Venezuela, where socialist President Nicolas Maduro has been mortgaging part of the country’s oil resources in exchange for financial and military support from Moscow.

Latin America is far from Russia, and Venezuela is impoverished, surrounded by hostile neighbors and squarely in the crosshairs of the Trump administration. But for a variety of reasons, the government of President Vladimir Putin sees in Caracas an ally worth cultivating.

The Kremlin has managed to maintain a decades-long relationship with Cuba’s communist regime, whose intelligence services have worked closely with Russian advisers to make inroads into Venezuela’s military and its reserve-rich oil sector. The U.S. estimates Russia’s total investment in Venezuela to be $30 billion.

Under anti-U.S. populist leader Hugo Chavez, Mr. Maduro’s late predecessor and political mentor, Russia became one of Venezuela’s strongest allies with economic ties including crude oil, loans and arms sales.

That helps explain why Moscow has emerged as one of Mr. Maduro’s most vocal defenders and one of the biggest critics of the pressure campaign waged by Washington and a number of countries in Latin America.

The pressure grew Monday as France, Germany, Britain and 13 other European countries announced that they were withdrawing their recognition of Mr. Maduro and called for new national elections as soon as possible. The EU powers held off in joining the U.S. pressure campaign to see whether Venezuela would agree to new elections.

“We are working for the return of full democracy in Venezuela: human rights, elections and no more political prisoners,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told reporters in Madrid on Monday.

But Russia shows no signs of abandoning its increasingly beleaguered and isolated ally.

Mr. Putin has called Mr. Maduro to relay his support for the regime, and Russian officials reacted angrily to President Trump’s suggestion Sunday that U.S. military action was an option to resolve the crisis.

“The international community’s goal should be to help [Venezuela], without destructive meddling from beyond its borders,” Alexander Shchetinin, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Latin American department, told the Interfax news agency Monday.

Russia has repeatedly opposed U.S. suggestions of foreign intervention to install opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president, and supported Mr. Maduro’s calls for mediation on the crisis.

The arrival of 400 Russian military contractors after Mr. Trump’s Jan. 23 recognition of Mr. Guaido, the head of the National Assembly, triggered speculation that Moscow was reinforcing Mr. Maduro’s personal security or even preparing his evacuation.

But with Mr. Maduro defying calls to step down, the Russian mission may be more extensive than reported, said John Marulanda, a U.S.-trained intelligence officer and adviser to conservative Colombian President Ivan Duque, an opponent of Mr. Maduro. Mr. Marulanda said the recent Russian arrivals are special forces — Spetsnaz — who are being embedded among Venezuela’s elite military units to better resist any U.S. intervention or internal coup against Mr. Maduro.

The strong support for Venezuela has another motive for Moscow, analysts say: to increase the diplomatic, economic and military cost of any campaign by Washington to oust Mr. Maduro.

Joseph Humire, a lecturer for the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, said in an interview that Russia wants to “draw the U.S. into a quagmire,” which Mr. Maduro has warned that would be “worse than Vietnam.”

Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino recently announced that he was inviting Russian combat pilots who fought in Syria’s civil war to “share their experience” with Venezuela’s air force.

Playing the long game

Mr. Marulanda said Moscow is playing a long-term game aimed at pressuring the U.S. along its southern borders to counter NATO moves along Russia’s border with the Baltic states and Ukraine. Recent visits to Venezuela by nuclear-capable Tupolev 106 strategic bombers represented a clear show of force and support.

“Russia wants to at least have a ‘symbolic involvement’ in Latin America as payback for U.S. intervention in the [Russian] ‘Near Abroad,’” Vladimir Rouvinski, a foreign policy analyst at Icesi University in Colombia, recently told the Al Jazeera news website.

Then there’s the money aspect.

Venezuela, with the world’s largest proven oil reserves helping fill government coffers, is Russia’s second-biggest arms client after India, the Pentagon said. U.S. analysts calculate that Caracas has purchased more than $11 billion in Russian hardware over the past decade.

Acquisitions include high-performance Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets equipped with cruise-type BrahMos missiles; Mi-35m attack helicopters; surface-to-air SS-200 and Pechorev missile batteries; T-72 tanks; and production plants for AK-103 rifles.

Russia is also building a cyberwarfare base on the island of Orchila off Venezuela’s northern coast operated by Cuban technicians. Through military leverage, Russia has gained major oil concessions in mainly offshore drilling blocs between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago. Russia is interested in keeping Venezuelan oil production at reduced levels to maintain high world prices for its own oil, energy analysts say.

Russian companies also have been using Venezuela to penetrate the U.S. and other energy markets closed off to them by sanctions. Russia’s main state oil company, Rosneft, has lent $6 billion to Venezuela in recent years through negotiations in which Venezuela’s state-owned oil firm, PDVSA, offered its U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, as collateral, according to U.S. intelligence sources.

The Trump administration has tried to head off such maneuvers by placing PDVSA’s U.S.-based assets under control of the alternative government that Mr. Guaido is trying to form.

Some say the Kremlin isn’t looking for a “win” in Venezuela so much as it is trying to entangle the Trump administration in another long, grinding foreign policy crisis with no resolution in sight.

“It would demonstrate the failure of the American strategy of unlawful regime change and the success of the Russian line of supporting legitimate power,” Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign policy analyst, wrote in a recent commentary on the Republic.ru news website.

Mr. Marulanda said Russia is building an anti-U.S. “tripod” in the Caribbean region linking leftist governments in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. The strategy is unlikely to please military planners in Washington.

“Russia has taken a big gamble,” said Evan Ellis, a Latin America specialist with the U.S. Army War College.

“If Maduro falls, Moscow’s position in the Western Hemisphere would collapse, as its other allies would soon be equally pressured by democratic revolts.”

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