In Depth

Why are Russian troops in Venezuela?

Tensions increase as Russia admits ground deployment in Caracas for first time

Officials from Russia and Venezuela have for the first time publicly confirmed the deployment of Russian boots on the ground in the troubled South American country.

“Military experts are there; they are tasked with the practical implementation of provisions of military-technical cooperation agreements,” said Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman.

The Venezuelan military attache in Moscow, Jose Rafael Torrealba Perez, offered a similar explanation, telling the Interfax news service that the Russian visitors were in the country for “discussion of military-technical cooperation”.

“The presence of the Russian military is in no way related to the possibility of military operations [in Venezuela],” he stressed.

The remarks came five days after photographs showed nearly 100 Russian servicemen disembarking from two military planes in Caracas, “stoking concerns in Washington that Moscow was increasing its support for Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro”, says The Guardian.

While Russia has in the past sent a few advisers to Venezuela, 100 is “more than routine”, CBS News reported. 

Some analysts suspect that Russia may be attempting to set up a base in Venezuela. CNN says the dispute appears to be shaping up “like a Cold War-style confrontation”.

Other experts believe Russia is merely trying to protect diplomatic and other staff in Venezuela, as well as perform maintenance on their military equipment in the country.

“In other words, the 100 or so Russians are in Venezuela to help themselves, not Maduro,” says Vox

Regardless the move has heightened tensions in a simmering war of words between the White House and the Kremlin following the implementation of increased sanctions on Caracas by the US.

State department spokesman Robert Palladino has responded by saying that the US “will not stand idly by as Russia exacerbates tensions in Venezuela”.

But Zakharova insisted: “Russia is not changing the balance of forces in the region and is not threatening anyone.”

Asked how long the troops would be there, she replied: “As long as they need. As long as the Venezuelan government needs.”

The Guardian says that Russian President Vladimir Putin has “a record of ordering his military – or paramilitary – forces into several theatres to challenge US strategies, notably in Syria and Ukraine”.

But how – and why – have the US and Russia shifted their tensions to the South American country?

Why did the US get involved?

The authoritarian reign of Maduro has “plunged Venezuela into humanitarian crisis” and caused food shortages, spiralling inflation and mass migration, says Time magazine.

When Maduro was elected for a second term in May 2018, the opposition refused to recognise the results and claimed there was vote rigging. As leader of the country’s National Assembly, 35-year-old Juan Guaido claimed in January that he was constitutionally bound to take charge if there was no legitimate president in the country. He declared himself president later that month but Maduro refused to step down.

Hot on the heels of the UK, Canada and the majority of other South American countries, the Trump administration declared its support for Guaido in January, adding further heavy sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry in an effort to oust Maduro. Trump, when pushed, has refused to rule out military intervention.

Ideological conflict?

Maduro says that the crisis is the result of economic sabotage by the US. He has described the US sanctions as “interventionism” – a word that evokes “a long and bloody history of American imperialism in Latin America”, says Time.

Maduro’s rhetoric appears to have won plaudits among officials in China, Russia, Turkey and, Bolivia, all of whom have expressed their support for him. According to the BBC, Moscow claims that the US has set the conflict on a “direct path to bloodshed” and says that “brazen attempts have been taken to artificially create a pretext for military intervention”.

Confounding the situation is the Trump administration’s refusal to distance itself from these accusations. Earlier in March, comments made by US National Security Advisor John Bolton contained a reference to the Monroe Doctrine, a controversial 1820s policy first enacted by then-president James Monroe that saw the US attempt to prevent European colonisation or intervention in the western hemisphere.

Bolton claims that Venezuela is “a country in our hemisphere and it’s been the objective of American presidents going back to Ronald Reagan to have a completely Democratic hemisphere”. Kremlin-backed broadcaster RT dubbed his words “imperialist”. They were also ridiculed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who said they were “arrogant” and “insulting” to countries in Latin America.

As a result of these battling perspectives, The Daily Beast suggests that Russia may be playing a game with the US “similar to the one [Putin] played with the Obama administration in Syria, first offering help to solve a crisis, then moving (together with Iran) to support an infamous ally in a campaign to crush his enemies”.

Russian bluff?

Some experts believe that Russia’s involvement is little more than a self-serving bluff. At a debate organised by the think-tank The Wilson Center, international relations expert Victor Jeifets said that Russia was not defying the US but instead fears a military coup in Venezuela and wants to have contacts there in case the country decides to change its president. He added: “I don’t think that Russia is going to protect the Venezuelan military in an armed conflict.”

The Daily Beast also says that independent polls show that public support for Putin in Russia has dropped “to a record low of 33.4%”, adding that “for his old friend and partner Maduro to lose power would be a huge loss of face”.

Russia owns substantial shares in Venezuelan natural gas and oil industries. Russia’s state-controlled Rosneft is one of the main joint venture partners of the Venezuelan national oil company PDV. It’s also one of the Venezuelan government’s main creditors and offtakers of Venezuelan crude oil.

To many, Russia’s attempts are too little too late. “China seems to be reducing its importance and Russia seems to be increasing its relative importance,” says Venezuelan political scientist Michael Penfold-Becerra. “But it’s still too small to make a difference.”

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