With inflation at a record high, millions of its citizens fleeing the country, and a political opposition recognized by most Western democracies as the legitimate government of Venezuela, the regime of Nicolás Maduro seemed to be on the brink of collapse in 2019. But Maduro regime survived, thanks to a number of factors — among them the external support it received from malign state actors such as Russia and China.
Moscow and Beijing never wavered in their political support of the Venezuelan regime, or of Maduro himself, including by refusing to recognize the constitutionally mandated interim presidency of Juan Guaidó. Most analysis of Russia and China’s support has focused on the political and economic support provided to Venezuela, including close cooperation in energy, industry, heath, finance, and trade. But the support of the two countries has gone far beyond the political and economic realms, and encompasses military and defense cooperation that has helped harden Maduro’s dictatorship and enhanced its capabilities to cause chaos with its neighbors.
A long-term defense alliance
When Hugo Chávez ascended to the Venezuelan presidency 22 years ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Hu Jintao immediately began building a defense relationship with his regime. Over his 14-year tenure, Chávez visited Russia nine times and China six, in the process establishing a security and defense alliance that the Maduro regime maintains to this day.
Russia has sold more than $11.4 billion in military equipment and armament to Venezuela in the last 20 years, including fighter jets, attack and transport helicopters, air defense and naval platforms, tanks, armored personnel carriers (APC), self-propelled artillery, and various small arms to include surface-to-air-missiles.
The booming arms trade is complemented by Russia’s deployment of two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to Venezuela every five years since 2008. The Tu-160 bombers can carry conventional or nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and have been tested in combat in Syria, where they launched, for the first time, conventionally armed Kh-101 cruise missiles. The bombers last took the 6,200-mile flight to Venezuela in 2018,4 making 2023 the next expected deployment if Russia keeps to its five-year rotation.
China, while selling significantly less arms to Venezuela than Russia, has a hand in shaping the next generation of Venezuelan military leaders through defense education and special operations training. Since 1999, the 76th Group Army of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been training jointly with Venezuelan Special Forces on language, diving, sniping, and helicopter landing operations. Moreover, Venezuelan flag officers have steadily attended professional military courses and China’s military war colleges and the PLA National Defense University.
In the last 10 years, China has sold upward of $615 million in weapons to Venezuela, including K-8 trainer aircraft, VN-16 light tanks, anti-tank and anti-ship missiles, self-propelled mortars, and the infamous VN-4 light armored personnel carrier, nicknamed the “Rhinoceros,” which saw action on the streets of Venezuela when the Maduro regime quashed protests in 2014, 2017, and to this day.
Moreover, the three countries have been able to build interoperability and joint capabilities by regularly attending the International Army Games, an annual multinational military exercise organized by the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. Their participation includes joint military training for Special Forces and Marine Infantry units from Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, and Belarus. At the 2019 Russian Army Games, Venezuela’s Defense Minister, General Vladimir Padrino López, signed a strategic naval agreement with his Russian counterpart, General Sergei Shoigu, governing future port visits by the countries’ naval warships.
Building Venezuela’s hybrid warfare
Russia and China’s military support to Venezuela blends the use of conventional military equipment with irregular armed non-state actors. This strategy of hybrid warfare is consistent with similar strategies employed in Syria, Ukraine, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. And like in those other conflicts, the deployment of Russian and Chinese military contractors and companies is critical to augmenting the capabilities of the Maduro regime’s military while maintaining plausible deniability.
In 2019, according to Reuters, Russian private military contractors (PMC) with reported ties to the Kremlin were used to beef up security for Nicolás Maduro and his regime. Russian PMCs have also been reported to use Venezuelan military uniforms in the capital, Caracas, in the country’s mineral-dense eastern region, and along the Colombia-Venezuela border.
These Russian PMCs arrived in Venezuela aboard an Ilyushin Il-62M long-range jetliner and an Antonov An-124 cargo aircraft, Russian Air Force transport planes which had built a strategic airlift from Moscow to Caracas. Meanwhile, Chinese security companies (CSC) are spearheading the development of unconventional combat capabilities in the Bolivarian Armed Forces of Venezuela (FANB) and the Maduro regime’s repressive domestic apparatus. In November 2020, the U.S. Department of Treasury, through its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), sanctioned China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation (CEIEC), a service provider of defense and social security systems, for helping the Maduro government undermine democracy, including via “efforts to restrict internet service and conduct digital surveillance and cyber operations against political opponents.”
According to OFAC, CEIEC provided Venezuela with the commercialized version of China’s “Great Firewall.” The use of private contractors and private companies with ties to the military allows Russia and China to protect their oil, mining, and infrastructure investments while collecting tactical and strategic intelligence — and, most importantly, providing the Maduro regime with military logistical and intelligence support to manage the myriad irregular armed non-state actors operating on Venezuelan territory.
The paramilitary approach is augmented by high-level technical intelligence collection that allows the Maduro regime to improve its internal and external espionage. In 2018, China’s ZTE Corporation, once sanctioned for its role in espionage and cybersecurity risks, built a Venezuelan surveillance system that monitors citizen behavior through the “fatherland card,” a new Venezuelan national ID. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has close ties to two firms that partially own ZTE, which has become critical to the PLA’s military industrial complex. This includes a PLA offshoot at the Capitan Manuel Rios military airbase in the Guárico state of Venezuela that tracks military operated, Chinese built satellites in orbit.
The technical and paramilitary support from Russia and China has benefited many Venezuelan military commands, but none more than the Venezuelan Aero-space Defense Command (CODAI). The CODAI has the mission of executing defensive aerospace operations, and Russia’s P-18 mobile radar system and China’s JY-11B 3D electronic radar have enhanced the Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C4I) systems that are actively used to monitor and surveil Venezuela’s borders.
Threatening Venezuela’s neighbors
Since 2018, Russian military aircraft have routinely arrived in Venezuela, while Russian military advisors regularly appear at military installations, carry out training exercises, and provide logistical support to the Maduro regime’s military. China, for its part, has a less visible but equally impactful on-the-ground presence, training Venezuelan Special Operations Forces and managing military technology. Combined, these “global powers” are turning Venezuela into a serious front for gray zone conflict — one that provides a strategic and operational challenge to U.S. partners in the region, namely Colombia and Guyana.
In March 2021, the Maduro regime launched an offensive in the Apure state on the Colombia-Venezuela border. This offensive provoked a direct clash between the Venezuelan military and irregular armed actors (a faction of the FARC) operating on the border. The Maduro regime reacted by deploying a stronger military presence on the Venezuelan side of the border, complete with Chinese-made K-8 combat planes and Russian-made Orlan 10 unmanned aerial vehicles, which are reconnaissance drones used for electronic warfare.
This was complemented by a robust disinformation campaign that sought to draw a moral equivalence between the democratically elected government of Ivan Duque Marquez in Colombia and the undemocratic, authoritarian regime in Venezuela.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry chimed in by praising the Venezuelan military efforts to combat against drug trafficking and violence on the border, and urged the Colombian government to engage its Venezuelan counterparts to “solve the border conflict.” Meanwhile, in offshore Guyana, ExxonMobil recently discovered massive oil deposits, reviving a historic border dispute that was supposedly settled in 1899.
Located west of the Essequibo River, the disputed region consists of 61,600 square miles, and although the Maduro regime previously did next to nothing to recover the disputed territory, it is now deploying Venezuelan warships to conduct naval exercises in the maritime border zone. China is well-positioned to exploit this maritime border dispute, providing anti-ship missiles to the Venezuelan Navy. If a conflict erupts between Venezuela and Guyana, China will likely reap the benefits by leveraging its bilateral agreements with both countries to access the Essequibo’s burgeoning oil and gas resources.
Marriage of convenience
This century has seen Russia and China create and exploit gray zone conflicts in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Venezuela represents an example of this same strategy in Latin America, a region with vast strategic natural resources that is increasingly vital for Russia and China’s global positioning. While not a natural alliance, Russia and China have found common ground in Venezuela in partnering with the Maduro regime. Moscow provides the weapons and manpower, while Beijing provides the military technology, to the Maduro regime. This assistance helps Venezuela’s strongman to persist, and to continue projecting power throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
*Jose Gustavo Arocha is a senior fellow for the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), a national security think tank based in Washington D.C., and a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Venezuelan Army. In 2018, he graduated with an MPA from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
** This article was first published on the December 2021 issue of the Defense Dossier (The Americas Influx), a publication by the American Foreign Policy Council.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government, Diálogo magazine, or its members.