Russia has positioned itself as the main supporter of Nicholás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, thus risking turning a crisis in a far-away country into an embarrassing political defeat. Official propaganda has amplified this issue. Yet, while 57 percent of Russian respondents in a recent poll confirmed that they were following the developments, only 20 percent of them expressed belief that a “provocation” by the United States was behind the crisis (Wciom.ru, February 8). Russia’s firm stance is determined by more than just “friendly feelings” toward Venezuela; therefore, the US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s appeal to Russia to change its course is unlikely to be heeded by Moscow (RBC, February 8). Though a third of the readers of the business-oriented daily Kommersant tend to believe that Russia’s approach toward Venezuela is primarily motivated by the goal of frustrating US policy, in fact there are at least four drivers underlying Moscow’s actions (Kommersant, accessed February 10).
First, Russian foreign policy pursues a committed ideological line against revolutions. President Vladimir Putin’s embrace of Maduro is not personal, much the same way as he has no fundamental sympathy toward North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, with whom he is planning to meet in Russia later this spring (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 7). Rather, what is a matter of principle for Putin is his self-serving proposition that authoritarian rulers, whether in Syria or Venezuela, cannot be removed from power by street protests (Carnegie.ru, January 25). The obvious challenge to this stance comes from Armenia, where a corrupt government was defeated by a popular uprising last spring, while Putin was busy orchestrating his reelection for a new presidential term. Armenia remains Russia’s key ally in the Caucasus, but Putin harbors deep resentment toward the new leadership of Nikol Pashinyan (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 24).
Second, Russia has invested some $17 billion in the Venezuelan oil sector and delivered on several arms export contracts, including Mi-37 helicopters and Su-30MK2 fighter jets (Kommersant, February 6). Moreover, Russian state oil company Rosneft has provided some $6.5 billion in credit to Venezuelan PDVSA and continues to accept payments in the form of oil despite the US sanctions against this Maduro-controlled company (RBC, January 29; see EDM, January 31). The money and the risky supplies of oil products are not that significant for Rosneft; but for Igor Sechin, who rules this business as a personal enterprise, Venezuela has become a personal priority (Novaya Gazeta, January 25). Sechin can pull many strings in the Kremlin. But it is unclear whether he was personally involved in the shadowy deals surrounding Russia allegedly agreeing to transport gold reserves out of Venezuela (Moscow Echo, February 2). What is certain, however, is that if post-Maduro Venezuela were to open its oil sector to Western investments, this would pose a major threat to Russian oil interests—not least because sudden spikes in Venezuelan petroleum production could lower the international price below a level sufficient to fill Russia’s budget.
Third, Venezuela has become a destination for showing the long reach of Russia’s power projection. The navy is presently not able to sail that far, but the visit of two Tu-160 strategic bombers last December was supposed to have symbolic significance (see EDM, December 13, 2018)—not that it has helped Maduro much (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 24, 2019). Subsequently, several inexplicable unscheduled passenger flights raised suspicions about the arrival to Caracas of Russian mercenaries from the so-called “Wagner Group,” which has become one of the Kremlin’s favorite instruments for carrying out clandestine military missions abroad (The Bell, January 29; Novaya Gazeta, February 4; see EDM, January 28, 31). Official denials are far from convincing, particularly given that the Russian Ministry of Defense never acknowledged the Wagner Group’s crushing defeat at the hands of US forces near Deir ez-Zor, in Syria, in February 2018 (see EDM, February 15, 2018). The support of the Venezuelan army is crucial for the survival of Maduro’s regime, and the appearance of a few hundred unpredictable Russian mercenaries could become a catalyst for eroding this already-far-from-rock-solid support (Russiancouncil.ru, February 8, 2019).
Finally, Russia seeks to be not only on the same page but even a step ahead of China, which has far greater stakes in Venezuela than Rosneft. Beijing, however, has opted for a more cautious course in securing its investments, expressing support for Maduro but abstaining from any interference or criticism of the US pressure (Carnegie.ru, February 1). The Chinese leadership is indifferent to the quasi-socialist discourse introduced by Maduro’s charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chavez. But Beijing is particularly attentive to the economic disaster in the country, perhaps concluding that a new government is necessary to sort it out (Moskovsky Komsomolets, January 28; RBC, February 2). The Kremlin is disappointed in this Chinese ambivalence, but Beijing has more reasons to be disconcerted with the Russian readiness to escalate the conflict (Republic, January 28). Fundamentally, China wants to see an increase in the oil output in Venezuela and is ready to cooperate with Western investors; whereas, Russia would much prefer a protracted crisis and contractions in the oil export.
Moscow is preparing its own draft resolution on Venezuela for the United Nations Security Council meeting, but the intention clearly is just to block any recognition of legitimacy of the opposition to Maduro’s rule (Kommersant, February 10). Russia also rejects the European Union’s efforts at establishing a Contact Group with the Latin American states concerned about the chaos in Venezuela (RIA Novosti, February 8). This stance resembles the Kremlin’s readiness to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who was entirely ostracized in spring–summer 2015 but is now increasingly accepted as the only real authority (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 10). Unlike the Syrian case, however, Russia has no capacity for a military intervention across the Atlantic. And its attempts at sabotaging the US sanctions against the Maduro regime are far from effective.
Putin’s stubborn stance might appear misguided, but it follows the conviction that the crisis inevitably calls for unleashing severe repressions against the protesters, and thus forcing all external “mediators” to back off aside from issuing some empty protestations. Putin also believes that he understands US President Donald Trump’s motivations and disinclinations better than most “experts”; therefore, he rules out any US military intervention. The Kremlin leader’s calculus quite probably will be proven wrong. And if it is, it could prove one setback too many for Russia’s passive-aggressive foreign policy.