Rus­sia cul­ti­vates Venezuela al­liance by trad­ing mil­i­tary sup­port for oil

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY MARTIN AROSTEGUI

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 decades­long 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 last week 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.

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 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.

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.”

Maduro

Putin

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