On March 23, a Russian defense ministry Ilyushin Il-62 passenger jet and an Antonov An-124 military cargo plane arrived at Simón Bolívar International Airport, having departed from the Chkalovsky military airbase (with an intermediate stop in Syria). Carrying 35 tons of cargo, the two aircraft delivered 99 Russian military specialists, headed by the first deputy commander-in-chief of the Land Forces, Colonel General Vasily Tonkoshkurov (Noticierodigital.com, March 23; see EDM, March 28).
Yuri Ushakov, an aide on international affairs to the Russian president, described the arrival of the Russian personnel as “part of normal relations with Venezuela’s legitimate government” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 28). In turn, foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated that the Russian military specialists will remain in the Latin American country “as long as they need, and as long as they will be needed by the Venezuelan government” (TASS, March 28). Notably, Vyacheslav Nikonov, a parliamentarian from the ruling United Russia party, declared, “It is symbolic that Russian jets arrived on the 20th anniversary of NATO’s [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] war against [former] Yugoslavia… [U]nlike in Yugoslavia, our support for Caracas will not be just political or moral” (Regnum, March 25). At the same time, Venezuelan authorities confirmed that the recently arrived Russian personnel will not be employed in any military operations (TASS, March 28).
The appearance of Russian military specialists in Venezuela sparked an intense debate within Russia’s expert community. One analyst, Alexander Sharkovsky, reasonably asks, “If [Russia is simply engaging in] military-technical cooperation, why were military personnel sent instead of representatives of the defense-industrial complex?” Sharkovsky’s article, in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, suggests that Moscow’s true goal was to land a “reconnaissance group” tasked with “general reconnaissance, planning and comprehensive preparation of the Venezuelan Armed Forces for a potential incursion of US Spetsnaz [Special Forces]” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 25). Whereas, the head of the “WarGonzo” Telegram channel, Semen Pegov, speculates that the arrival of Russian personnel does not portend a military mission. Rather, the real aim is primarily concerned with the Russian government sending a powerful message to President Nicolás Maduro’s opponents that Moscow will not abandon the “legitimate” political regime. Pegov presumes that the cargo delivered to Caracas might include “reconnaissance equipment to be delivered to the Venezuelan-Columbian border, which will help to monitor the situation” (Kaktus2.mirtesen.ru, March 27).
Media coverage of the Russian military planes landing just outside Caracas intensified following reports that the military personnel who disembarked included a number of “cyber experts” (Business-gazeta.ru, March 27). This detail deserves to be examined more closely. First, it is likely that the Russian experts sent to Venezuela will be employed in both information and cyber operations. Indeed, that presumption was implicitly corroborated by Russian defense analyst Aleksey Leonkov. On the one hand, he stated that local Venezuelan social media outlets “are likely to be used by the Americans” to drum up anti-Maduro forces and to “prepare the foundation for a color revolution,” which, according to Leonkov, “is American’s usual method for dismantling adverse political regimes” (Tsargrad.tv, March 27). To respond, Russian personnel would need to undertake both defensive and counter-offensive information operations (employed in Ukraine, Syria and domestically), as explicitly emphasized by Russia’s Information Security Doctrine (Sergey Sukhankin, “Russia’s Offensive and Defensive Use of Information Security,” Russia’s Military Strategy and Doctrine, The Jamestown Foundation, 2019, pp. 302–345). At the same time, Leonkov has argued that when it comes to information-technological cooperation with Venezuela, the recently arrived Russian cyber specialists will presumably concentrate on two main tasks (Tsargrad.tv, March 27):
- Protection of civilian objects and critical infrastructure. This will primarily include warding off potential cyberattacks against major electric power plants (to prevent further blackouts, which “could be used to ignite anti-Maduro protests”) and oil extraction complexes (which could paralyze the local economy);
- Establishing coordinated control over Venezuela’s system of anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense (PVO). As noted by Leonkov, virtually all components of the local PVO system are of Russian origin, which means that it would not be a major issue for Russian cyber experts to carry out the above-mentioned task in a rapid and efficient manner.
Leonkov also argued that, “If the Americans are not able to achieve their objectives through non-military measures, including cyberattacks, they could launch a proxy armed conflict using the forces of other Latin American countries and later join the operation… We have seen this mode of operation in Bosnia and the [self-proclaimed] Republic of Serbian Krajina [during the Yugoslav War]” (Tsargrad.tv, March 27).
On March 28, Venezuelan journalist Germán Dam reported that 28 of the Russian soldiers who had arrived less than a week earlier “have been redeployed to Ciudad Guayana” (Noticierodigital.com, March 29). If correct, this information is of great importance: Ciudad Guayana is crucial for the whole Venezuelan electricity sector—it hosts the headquarters of CVG Electrificación del Caroní (CVG Edelca), Venezuela’s main electricity producer. Moreover, the area contains two dams Tocoma and Guri, with the latter, known as the Simón Bolívar Hydroelectric Plant, being the fourth-largest hydroelectric power station in the world in terms of generation capacity.
Russia’s deployment of military personnel to Venezuela raises two additional issues. First, as argued by the Cuban media, the arrival of the Russian experts was apparently initiated by the vice president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, Diosdado Cabello—a person with huge ambitions and once seen as heir apparent to Hugo Chavez. It thus might be assumed that if Maduro’s popularity continues to plunge, Cabello could step in as his successor or replacement (Periodicocubano.com, March 26). Such a prospect, if it is not already being discussed behind the scenes, would not be totally unexpected for the Kremlin.
Second, on March 30, Cuban media reported that Caracas received 65 tons of aid from China (Periodicocubano.com, March 30). Given the fact that Beijing has already invested $50 billion in the Venezuelan economy and Moscow has injected $17 billion, neither government is presumably ready to lose this Latin American country. This opens the prospect for exploitation of the “African playbook” in the Western Hemisphere—yet, on an even greater scale. In Africa, Russian private military contractors are said to be financially supported by the Chinese (Rosbalt, January 19). Thus, in Venezuela, Beijing may also attempt to challenge Washington by using Russia as its willing or inadvertent proxy.