Venezuela: The Kremlin’s “Aircraft Carrier”

Russia increases military cooperation with the Chavista regime to claim its role as a worldwide leader.
Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo | 31 January 2019

Transnational Threats

Russian-made tanks parade the streets of Caracas, Venezuela to show their repressive power to the people in July 2018, two months after Nicolás Maduro’s controversial re-election. (Photo: Federico Parra/AFP)

The National Bolivarian Armed Force of Venezuela seeks to empower its defensive capabilities as Venezuela goes through a deep economic and institutional crisis. Russia, a partner of the South American nation, is willing to supply them with weapons to gain military space in Latin America.

“The goal is to keep Chavista leader Nicolás Maduro in power at any cost to strengthen the military and economic influence of the new actor in the hemisphere,” Jorge Serrano Torres, an analyst in strategic intelligence and a scholar at the Peruvian Center for Higher National Studies, told Diálogo. “These two countries are not interested in the social, democratic, and human rights agenda.”

According to a Bolivarian Navy press release the “re-equipping represents a substantial increase in the defensive capabilities of marine units to be used in riverine operations, especially in border areas.” Serrano added that Russia is also interested in technical and military cooperation at an operational level.

Messages to the hemisphere

Since 2000, the Venezuelan naval component began to receive heavy investment to integrate vessels, helicopters, armored vehicles, communications systems, ammunition, and to refurbish its two submarines and expand its naval industry. Arming Venezuela sends clear messages to countries of the hemisphere.

“The Russian message is to reclaim the role of global leader. The Venezuelan message is twofold: show its capability to defend itself in case of external aggression—even though we know the chances of that happening are slim—and to present Russia as its close partner. In other words, Venezuela became a gateway for the Slavic country to set foot in the hemisphere,” Yadira Gálvez Salvador, a specialist in defense and security and a scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM, in Spanish), told Diálogo.

Russia is Venezuela’s main military weapon supplier. “Despite the arms embargo from the international community, Venezuela remains the main Latin American importer of weapons,” said Serrano.

Russia supplied Venezuelan military forces with rifles, transport helicopters, anti-air missile systems, tanks, vehicles, cutting-edge fighter aircraft, and warships. In addition, it funded the construction of the Russian helicopter maintenance center, which began operations in Venezuela in 2013, as well as the Kalashnikov rifle factory, which is scheduled to begin operations in late 2019. During his visit to Moscow in December 2018, Maduro signed several contracts, which included the purchase of a global satellite navigation system, and the assistance, maintenance, and repair of Venezuelan military equipment by Russian experts.

The Venezuelan riot police confronted anti-government protesters on January 21, 2019, after a group of soldiers took up arms against Nicolás Maduro. (Photo: Federico Parra/AFP)

As he swore in for a second term (2019-2025) on January 10, 2019, Maduro said he would increase the military power and capabilities of his armed force in the next six years. “A leader who provides arms to his military forces amidst the deep crisis that his country goes through, a humanitarian crisis that doesn’t allow access to basic needs, such as food, only protects the security of the [Chavista] regime, not of the people,” said Gálvez.

To project its military power in Latin America, Russia sent two Air Force bombers to Venezuela in December 2018. “It also plans to use Venezuelan maritime ports and airfields to strengthen the operational capabilities of its soldiers,” said Luis Gómez, sociologist and scholar at UNAM’s School of Political Science.  

Unlike Russia and Venezuela’s relationship, the United States and its partner nations’ armed forces carry out multinational exercises focused on humanitarian assistance, interoperability, and regional security, such as Ángel de los Andes and AMAZONLOG17. Thanks to this training, the System of Cooperation Among the American Air Forces responded promptly and efficiently when Ecuador asked for help following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on April 16, 2016.

Corruption and authoritarianism

After the United States and the European Union imposed economic sanctions on Russia, Venezuela became an important player for the Russians, not only in the military sector, but also economically. “The Latin American neighbors consider that the support of a superpower for the Venezuelan regime prolongs the dictatorial regime that keeps the country in the throes of extreme poverty, malnutrition, violence, and insecurity, and enables organized crime and related activities to increase in the country,” Gálvez said.

Russia granted millions of dollars to Venezuela in loans, in exchange for the country’s resources. The oil-dependent Venezuelan economy has undergone a serious crisis since 2010, when Hugo Chávez was president. However, Maduro says the country’s crisis is due to sanctions imposed. “The economic situation that befalls Venezuela is due to corruption, mismanagement, and the anti-democratic policies of Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Russian help is only a respite for the Venezuelan dictatorship,” said Serrano.

Humanitarian tragedy

International countries and organizations urge the Chavista regime to put an end to human rights violations, respect the autonomy of the powers of the state, and take responsibility for the serious economic and sectoral crisis the country experiences to restore order. Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Peru, Paraguay, and the United States were the first nations to reject Maduro’s new mandate and threaten to end diplomatic relations, along with the Organization of American States, following the May 20, 2018 elections, carried out through an electoral process lacking legitimacy. Only four Latin American nations attended Maduro’s inauguration: Bolivia, Cuba, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.

The challenging attitudes of the Russian and Venezuelan governments, which disregard political and democratic order, fueled the exile of thousands of Venezuelans, a humanitarian tragedy. “Now Venezuela is the main focus of political unrest and human security in Latin America,” Serrano said. “It’s the Russian ‘aircraft carrier’ that facilitates illegal operations of insurgents and terrorists that might affect social, political, and economic stability in other countries, even international peace and security.”

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