Tensions Escalate in Venezuela with Russian Military Deployment

Tensions Escalate in Venezuela with Russian Military Deployment

By Gustavo Arias Retana/Diálogo
May 03, 2019

Hundreds of Russian service members deployed to Venezuela in late March 2019, increasing tensions in the country and at the international level. The move confirms that Russia keeps up its attempts at securing economic and military influence in Latin America, even if that involves supporting dictatorships such as Nicolás Maduro’s.

“The administration condemns Nicolas Maduro’s continued use of foreign military personnel in his attempt to remain in power […]. We strongly caution actors external to the Western Hemisphere against deploying military assets to Venezuela, or elsewhere in the hemisphere, with the intent of establishing or expanding military operations,” U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton told the press on March 29. “We will consider such provocative actions as a direct threat to international peace and security in the region.”

Fragmented army

According to Carlos Murillo, a geopolitical analyst at the National University of Costa Rica, Maduro’s illegitimate regime uses Russia to appear stronger in the military arena, especially as his leadership falters before the National Bolivarian Armed Forces. Since the international community recognized Juan Guaidó as interim president in February, more than 600 service members left the Venezuelan military forces.

“Maduro seeks to discourage any attempt at a military operation from Colombia or Brazil. He knows that he wouldn’t be able to confront them with the disheartened Venezuelan troops, so that’s why he tries to reconfigure the scenario with Russia in the picture,” Murillo told Diálogo. “The question is how far Russia’s commitment will go; whether it will maintain their support when Venezuelan troops turn their backs on Maduro, or if a land and naval blockade will be imposed on Venezuela. We have to see if those troops would be willing to engage in combat for a military position that isn’t so valuable in the current situation.”

José Ricardo Thomas, political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela, argues that support will continue as long as Russia can take economic advantage of the Venezuelan crisis. The analyst believes that Russian service members’ arrival has more to do with their antimissile system business deal than genuine support for Maduro and his illegitimate administration.

“Russia’s business in the world is to sell its weapons, and the S-300 is its best product. The problem is that Russia sold it to Venezuela without training the military personnel on operations and without maintenance. If the Venezuelan troops had tried to use it [the S-300 system], first it would have killed them and then it would have become low-performing military garbage,” Thomas told Diálogo. “There are many speculations about the Russians in Venezuela. The truth is that they came to secure their weapons trading business.”

Elliot Abrams, U.S. Department of State special representative for Venezuela, also mentioned the Russian missile system as one of the possible reasons for Russia’s military deployment. “In our opinion, one of the things the Russians are doing there is to help the authorities with the S-300 systems that suffered from the blackouts,” Abrams told the press.

The situation again demonstrates Russia’s interest in expanding throughout the Caribbean, an area of military strategic importance that makes Venezuela an attractive country for Moscow. “The Russians consider Venezuela as part of a strategic triangle in the Caribbean: Managua, Havana, and Caracas. That guarantees their military and political presence in the region; in other words, Russia’s support is not for Maduro,” Murillo said. “Instead, it’s interested in the anti-U.S. discourse and taking advantage of the country’s strategic position in the Caribbean. It doesn’t want to lose space in the region; rather, it wants to expand.”

China’s mercenaries

Thomas also pointed out that China might be involved in the Russian military deployment. “Russia doesn’t have the ideal economic conditions to afford sending military personnel. China supports Maduro because of the access he provides to oil resources and the dictatorship’s debt with the Asian country,” he said.

“Venezuela is important to China, because the Chinese want to consolidate their position in Latin America as a superpower, but they don’t send military, like Russia. They work together; one has money, while the other executes what China can’t do because of [its policy to] tackle international relations,” Thomas said. “The Russians are China’s mercenaries around the world.”

Such move isn’t Moscow’s first. In December 2018, Russia sent two Russian Tu-160 supersonic bombers to Venezuela. “The United States’ focus toward the region is different from Russia’s. Amid the tragedy, Russia sends bombers to Venezuela, while we send a hospital ship. Most importantly, we are on the side of the Venezuelan people in their time of need, and that’s what the USNS Comfort stands for,” said U.S. Army Colonel Robert Manning, director of Defense Press Operations for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Tensions in Venezuela grow and the ongoing deployment of Russian troops further complicates the situation of a country undergoing an unprecedented social and economic crisis. The power outages and shortage of basic products, such as food and medication, are still rampant in the country, but that doesn’t concern Moscow. Rather, Russia sees its economic interests as more important than the wellbeing of Venezuelans.
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