An Enduring Relationship – From Russia, With Love
September 24, 2020
This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
The United States must consider Russia’s diplomatic, information, military, and economic (DIME) activities for a post-Nicolás Maduro Venezuela. Mr. Maduro eschews democracy, human rights, and economic prosperity, all while squandering away Venezuela’s vast natural resources and perpetuating instability throughout the region. Still, Russia continues supporting the Maduro regime and one wonders how far Russia will dig in. Has Moscow in fact laid the conditions to benefit from its entrenchment in the long term? For Russia, it is a gambit because, as Special Representative for Venezuela Elliot Abrams said “. . . It has taken 20 years for the Chavez and Maduro regimes . . . to destroy the Venezuelan economy . . . It is going to be quite a long time. . .” before Venezuela sees a return to economic prosperity. Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked his claim in Venezuela across the DIME spectrum and the United States must fully understand how Russia’s relationship with Venezuela can pose enduring challenges. If it does not, the United States may be ceding ground in shaping the future of Venezuela.
From Moscow’s perspective, with minimal investment, Venezuela is a perfect opportunity to maintain a foothold in the Western Hemisphere, promote its role on the international stage as a global power, and challenge a world order that Russia perceives as increasingly skewed towards U.S. interests. In the diplomatic realm, Russia’s intervention in Venezuela and its support for the repressive Maduro regime is reflective of the situation in Syria and the role Moscow plays there. Its role in Syria could portend Moscow’s desire to play a similar role as an interlocutor and ultimately serve as an obstacle restoring peace and prosperity in Venezuela.
This is an instance where we observe Russia’s actions as an extension of its foreign policy. There is a remarkable similarity between Russia’s interactions and its diplomatic actions with Syria and its relationship with Venezuela. Russia cannot, or does not desire to, bring Mr. Maduro into negotiations with the opposition. This is a close version of Russia’s role in Syria with President Bashar al-Assad. Like President Assad, Mr. Maduro depends on Russia for its military hardware, training, and continued maintenance of said hardware. Venezuela relies on Russia for the legitimacy Russia brings as one of the few global powers offering diplomatic support backed by military capability. However, Russia does not have unlimited resources and/or capacity in Syria, and with Covid-19 directly challenging Russia’s economic stability, it has even less to commit to Venezuela given its geographic location. Still, Russia is positioned to shape negotiations should Mr. Maduro step aside and gain further acknowledgment as a diplomatic broker beyond what it has achieved in Syria. However, as long as Mr. Maduro is in power, Russia—theoretically—is guaranteed debt repayments, will maintain its foothold in Latin America, and continue to upend U.S. and allied attempts to reestablish a democratic Venezuela.
Russia also serves as Mr. Maduro’s protector internationally, especially in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Russia, leveraging its veto power and acting as a spoiler at the UNSC and champion of Mr. Maduro, stifles attempts of the international community to remove his repressive regime and challenges the United States on its actions in Venezuela. In February 2019, both the United States and Russia proposed two competing resolutions. The United States proposed new elections and a recognition of Mr. Juan Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela until elections could be held. Russia, China, and South Africa voted against the resolution. Conversely, Russia proposed a dialogue between Mr. Maduro’s regime and the opposition, along the same lines as the Montevideo mechanism. Russia, China, South Africa, and Equatorial Guinea voted for the proposal and seven voted against. Ultimately, neither proposal passed. In May 2020, Venezuela sent a letter to the UNSC requesting the council hold discussions on the incursion into Venezuela and named the United States and Colombia behind the events. Russia then called a UNSC meeting to gain adoption of a draft press statement about the incursion. The United States blocked the statement, but again, Russia acted as a diplomatic backer of Mr. Maduro and his regime.
When the U.S. plan to oust Mr. Maduro backfired, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Mr. Maduro had been on his way to the airport but Russia convinced him to stay – though Russia denies it. During that chaotic time, Russia increased its information operations against the United States to counter its support for Mr. Guaidó. These actions have reaffirmed Russia’s alignment with the Venezuelan regime and ensured its status and position for the long haul.
Russia is renowned for its subversive exploitation of the information environment through its influence operations and information warfare tactics. Russia operates no differently in Venezuela and Latin America than it does in the rest of the world and its informational presence is extensive. It has established an information footprint throughout the region, to include media agreements, and television and social media news services. Russia uses its involvement in Venezuela as an information tool promoting Russia’s actions as beneficial, and U.S. actions as deleterious.
Russia’s Federal News Agency (FNA) (formerly the Internet Research Agency) is another tool Russia employs to espouse false narratives regarding Venezuela’s economic and food situation, such as: “There are five times fewer beggars in Caracas than in Kiev,” or that there are no shortages of food in Venezuelan stores.
In 2018, as an example of Russia’s targeted information operations, it appeared as though Russian-linked social media accounts attempted to stir up civil unrest in South American countries—countries that had called for the resignation of Nicolás Maduro (chiefly Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Chile). Several protests broke out in these countries, as a confluence of several events, but Russian trolls were found to have exacerbated the discord.
Russia leverages its two Spanish language news organizations—state-financed Russia Today (RT) Español and government-run Sputnik Mundo—to actualize its information warfare campaigns throughout the Spanish speaking world. In the days preceding and following the October 2017 Catalonian independence referendum in Spain, Mr. Javier Lesaca of the George Washington University analyzed over five million social media messages and determined that Russia’s RT and Sputnik spread pro-independence disinformation. Russia used accounts related to Venezuela and chavismo to further fuel the Catalan crisis and project a negative image of Spain.
And finally, Clint Watts, at the launch of the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard, stated that the “idea of Russian active measures is to win through the force of politics, not the politics of force . . . Hamilton 2.0 allows us to identify how the Russian government seeks to divide . . . the themes and narratives they push and the audiences they target.” The dashboard, in this case and without further context, is a snapshot that illustrates the reach of Russia’s influence operations in Spanish speaking countries. Searching on Twitter alone resulted in 3,482 related tweets, from 324 accounts, across 66 countries. This is not illustrative of direct linkages to the Russian state, but it does highlight the reach of Russian-sponsored, Spanish language social media (Twitter only).
Since 1999, Venezuela has borrowed billions of dollars from Russia to finance the buildup of its military arsenal. Though not a comprehensive list, Venezuela has purchased S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, Igla-S man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), and multiuse aircraft, helicopters, and T-72 tanks. Throughout 2019, Russia continued to send maintenance specialists and technicians to service previously purchased equipment even after Rostec, a Russian state-owned military-industrial corporation, withdrew key defense advisors from Venezuela.
As always, there is a crossover between each element of the DIME spectrum. An example of this is Russia’s use of private military contractors (PMC) as part of its foreign policy toolkit. It is reported Wagner group PMCs operated in Venezuela in January 2019 to provide protective security to Mr. Maduro. The United States’ continued pressurization strategy, Venezuela’s worsening economic situation, and continued instability increase the likelihood that Maduro may again seek out PMCs for protection against regime change pressure. Drawing another correlation to Syria, Russia deployed the Wagner Group to secure the Assad regime in exchange for economic benefit. PMCs offer Moscow plausible deniability; Russia can employ military type action without going head to head with the United States, United Kingdom, or other allied military powers. Venezuela offers fertile ground for this.
Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu remarked in December 2018, that Russia deployed two nuclear capable TU-160s to Venezuela and would continue sending military aircraft and warships to visit Venezuela as part of the military to military cooperation. In doing so, Moscow signaled to the United States its ability to project power into the Western Hemisphere—the presence of Russian TU-160s in Venezuela puts the United States in their range. Russia and Venezuela also signed agreements in August 2019 allowing reciprocal warship visits to each countries’ ports. Russia again reminds us of its ability to increase its military access in the region and power projection in the Western Hemisphere.
Even if Mr. Maduro were to step aside and allow a transition government to step in, there is still the question of Russia’s existing military contracts and the continued maintenance, security, and training for these military articles. Any party involved in transition government negotiations will need to factor in Russia’s military cooperation and arms sales from over the last 20 years and into the future.
Venezuela ranks as one of the 10 richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources; approximately $14.3 trillion worth of natural resources, including gold, iron ore, and oil. And while Maduro’s ineffective and corrupt government policies have led to astronomical levels of hyperinflation and near economic collapse, Moscow still stands with Mr. Maduro. Oil production has decreased from a peak in 1970 of 3.8 million barrels per day (BPD) in 1970 to its lowest production rate of approximately 13,000 BPD in July 2020. Venezuela’s cash reserves are dwindling, and the government has reportedly turned to drug trafficking, illicit gold and iron mining, fraudulent oil sales, and other black-market activities to fill its coffers.
Yet, as recently as February 2020, Russia reaffirmed its support for Mr. Maduro and signaled its intention to boost ties. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Mr. Maduro in Caracas and stated, "We have agreed to deepen our economic, commercial and investment co-operation in several areas despite the illegitimate sanctions . . . The most promising sectors are energy, natural resources and industry.” Though Russia’s investment in Venezuela is only $10 billion, this is an exorbitant amount for Venezuela. However, if Russia maintains its role in Venezuela, it can play a role in, and gain from, Venezuela’s economic recovery through its investments in Venezuela’s energy sector.
Russia has decided that rather than abandon its ally and cut its losses, it will stay in the fight against U.S. “interference” for the long run to recoup its debt and maintain or even increase its foothold in Venezuela. Russia has employed measures across the DIME spectrum – UNSC interference, information warfare, military support, force projection, and military access, and economic investment in the country. Moreover, Russia has laid the foundation to play arbiter in negotiations for Mr. Maduro to step aside and to establish a transitional government. The United States will have to factor into its calculus a continued Russia presence in Venezuela, including its economic stranglehold over Venezuela that can be traded for additional access to the country’s oil and mining sectors and potentially a permanent military footprint through a material-technical support point (PMTO) or increased military flights or out of area deployments. As Russia’s support to Mr. Maduro and a failing Venezuela increases regional instability, the United States will need to focus more attention and resources in the region to prevent this from impacting the United States. While the United States cannot eliminate Russia’s role in Venezuela, the United States must endeavor to contain it.
Ms. Alison Brown is the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) Russia Campaign Planner and leads planning efforts to provide U.S. SOUTHCOM-oriented objectives in the Russia Global Campaign Plan. Ms. Brown leads initiatives promoting and advocating on behalf of U.S. SOUTHCOM, developing the strategic approach for countering and competing against Russia in the U.S. SOUTHCOM AOR. All ideas presented in this commentary are solely the perspective of the author and do not represent the views or position of U.S. SOUTHCOM, Department of Defense, or the broader U.S. Government or of CSIS.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).