Latin America’s Geopolitics: Why Russia Sent Troops to Venezuela

On March 28, Russia acknowledged that the country has sent “military experts” in order to deal “with the practical implementation of provisions of military-technical cooperation agreements,” a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman said in a televised briefing.

White House officials have warned Moscow to stop interfering in Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in light of the recent developments that “the Russians have got to leave Venezuela.” It seems so far that Russia has other plans.

“Russia sees Venezuela as an opportunity in ideological and economic terms. In order to remain in opposition to the US, which rejects Maduro, Putin continues to support the president of Venezuela and deny recognition of the self-proclaimed Juan Guaidó, explains journalist Lucas Berti, specialist in Latin American politics.

Guaidó, 35, was the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, the last state body under the control of the opposition to the government of Nicolás Maduro. He emerged as the most visible face of the national and international movement that seeks to remove Maduro from the presidency, whom the opposition deems as “illegitimate”. The opposition leader proclaimed itself president and was recognised as such by several countries, including the US, the European Union and the Lima Group, which brings together the majority of Latin American countries.

Recently, the OAS recognised Gustavo Tarré, sent from Guaidó, as the legitimate representative of Venezuela – and not the representative sent by Maduro, Asbina Marín Sevilla.

To journalist and PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of São Paulo, José Antônio Lima, there are three reasons for the interest of Russia in Venezuela: Oil, Guns (in other words, money) and the geopolitical battle with the US.

“Venezuela owns the world’s largest oil reserves, which makes it a fundamental part of geopolitics. [Russian state-owned oil company] Rosneft is an important partner of Venezuela and is Caracas’ creditor of more than US$2 billion. [There’s also] the intense trade in arms between Venezuela and Moscow, generally with Russia selling equipment and long maintenance contracts for them. Venezuela owes more than US$3.15 billion to Russia on account of purchases made on credit, a significant part of them in arms,” he said.

Lima adds that “Russia certainly sees in Venezuela a bridge in a region generally dominated by the US. Venezuela has given diplomatic support to Moscow in the crises of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and also Syria. So, in addition to entering the U.S. area of influence, Moscow manages to get a relevant country to give its actions a cloak of legitimacy.”

Brazilian foreign minister Ernesto Araújo aligned with the US and, to Reuters, he said that “Anything that contributes to the continuation of the suffering of the Venezuelan people should be removed,” making a clear reference to both Russian troops and Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. Brazil has sided with the Venezuelan opposition since the election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, though due to the constant pressure of the Brazilian military, the country has decided not to engage in any kind of confrontation with the neighbouring country.

To Berti, “the sending of Russian soldiers to Caracas mean a Russian message to the rest of the world. In the eyes of the world, Moscow signals that it will not fail to support Maduro, especially now that Juan Guaidó already has the support of at least 50 countries in the world.”

Lima, however, doesn’t think Russia has a real interest in projecting its power over Venezuela like the country did in Syria. “The military presence thus seems to me a message from Moscow to the US, South America and Guaidó that Moscow wants to be heard at the end of the crisis and to guarantee its vast interests in Venezuela (access to oil, payment of debts, maintenance of military equipment contracts)”.

Both Lima and Berti agree that it is hard to imagine an armed conflict in the region and even if Maduro’s overthrown, Lima says he doesn’t believe “that a new Venezuelan government can have stability without at least a reasonable relationship with Moscow.”

In other words, even though Maduro may not resist, a new Venezuelan government wouldn’t be able to automatically align the country to Washington, and Russia is doing everything they can to have a privileged place at the negotiating table of a new government.

To Filipe Figueiredo, historian and editor of the podcast Xadrez Verbal, “there are two factors to this equation: Political cost and money. China, Turkey and Russia have Money invested in Venezuela, a lot of money, and the US wants to get rid of such foreign influence of their backyard, and there’s a political cost to it. Some countries are aligned with the US, such as Brazil and Colombia, other countries are aligned with Venezuela, such as Bolivia, and there are those who support a negotiation table, as Uruguay and the EU.”

“How much any of the countries involved in the crisis is willing to sacrifice in terms of political cost and money?” he asks.