At the February 27 meeting of Russia’s top military chiefs (the Defense Ministry Collegium), the minister of defense, Army General Sergei Shoigu, described mounting external military threats in an unstable and unpredictable world. In his opening remarks, which were reported by the defense ministry’s press department, he declared that tensions are growing between the “world centers of power, combat and chaos are growing worldwide, [and] conflicts are brewing in regions of traditional Russian interest.” Shoigu pinned the blame for this mayhem squarely on the United States, “which is attempting to sustain its superpower status by twisting international law and undermining Russian security.” Moreover, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is projecting its force structure into the Baltic region, into Eastern and Southern Europe, he contended. The scope and intensity of NATO military exercises is growing and they increasingly involve Georgia and Ukraine, which are not Alliance members. These mounting threats have forced Moscow to react by solidifying its strategic [nuclear] deterrent and, at the same time, to build up its conventional capabilities (Mil.ru, February 27).
The defense minister described the military buildup and modernization of conventional forces in the Western Military District (MD), the Southern MD and the Eastern MD. New weapons are being supplied, military exercises are being held, new tank regiments are being created, anti-ship and anti-aircraft defense units and land-based attack missiles are being deployed, and new military bases are being built in the Western, Southern and Eastern MDs. According to Shoigu, there are presently 23 permanently battle-ready army tactical battalion groups (TBG) deployed in the Western MD and 26 TBGs in the Eastern MD. Shoigu did not reveal the number of TBGs in the Southern MD, which includes Crimea and is in direct contact with the conflict zone in Ukrainian Donbas, but the number could be higher than 30. The more detailed reports at the Defense Ministry Collegium by the Western, Southern and Eastern MD commanders were not open to the press (Mil.ru, February 27).
Moscow is not content with only expanding its strategic nuclear deterrence capabilities and procuring new long-range super weapons, which President Vladimir Putin has been promoting during and after his February 20, annual address to the parliament (see EDM, February 21). Russia is also stepping up its conventional battle-readiness which could mean preparations are underway to face the threat of possible large-scale regional conflicts.
Russian officials and diplomats have been using increasingly harsh language to attack alleged US aggressive actions aimed at ousting the beleaguered socialist regime of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro. Moscow has announced it might veto the latest United Nations Security Council resolution on the Venezuelan crisis that Washington has tabled (Militarynews.ru, February 28).
The Federation Council (the upper chamber of the Russian legislature) passed a nonbinding resolution “strongly condemning the Venezuelan opposition [headed by the self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó] and foreign nations that are calling for the removal of the legitimate regime [of Maduro] in Venezuela.” The resolution accuses the US of creating the social and political crisis in Venezuela by imposing illegitimate sanctions, by staging an attempted coup and “organizing provocations aimed at unleashing a civil war and a military intervention.” According to the nonbinding resolution, Moscow will perceive “any illegitimate use of force by nations supporting the Venezuelan opposition as a blatant act of aggression against a sovereign nation and a threat to international peace and security.” The Federation Council insists the people of Venezuela support Maduro and “the Russian Federation is ready to provide sufficient help to the legitimate sovereign government [in Caracas]” (Interfax, February 27).
It is unclear whether Moscow will simply continue to denounce Washington and the Venezuelan opposition or genuinely act to keep Maduro afloat. Yet, it has been announced that Maduro’s vice president, Delcy Eloína Rodríguez Gómez, is arriving in Moscow with a Venezuelan delegation and will meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on March 1. Apparently, the two sides will discuss “sufficient help” Moscow might offer to keep Maduro in power. The Kremlin stated that Putin “does not plan to meet Rodríguez” (Izvestia, February 28). Nonetheless, Putin might change his mind and grant Rodríguez an audience. It is also possible Moscow could decide to supplement its harsh rhetoric with more serious actions. Illustratively, the Russian military intervention helped reverse the course of the Syrian civil war and restore the fortunes of beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad. Still, at present, there is no concrete evidence Moscow is preparing to risk any blood and treasure to prop up Maduro.
Of course, if Maduro is eventually vanquished, Moscow is highly likely to try to exploit this US-supported regime ouster. Foreign Minister Lavrov warned that the ruling leftist regimes in Nicaragua and Cuba could be attacked and overthrown by the US, if Washington is allowed to have its way with Maduro. According to Lavrov, “this new doctrine that allows the US to usurp the right to use force to overthrow any regime they do not like is more evil than the Monroe Doctrine of 1823” (Militarynews.ru, February 27).
In August 2008, Moscow used the so-called Kosovo legal precedent of Western countries recognizing the independence of the former Yugoslavian autonomous province, as an excuse to invade Georgia and permanently station troops in the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, after unilaterally recognizing their independence. If Moscow decides the stakes in Venezuela are too high and Maduro is beyond salvation, the precedent of regime change could still be used if and when Moscow decides to make a move to restore its influence in Ukraine—using military force and political/economic coercion. The Kremlin could also decide it needs to restore Russian bases on the island of Cuba, which, according to Lavrov, is under threat of invasion together with Nicaragua. Putin has been threatening to deploy missiles off the US coast to be able to launch short-notice attacks against US strategic targets and “decision-making centers.” Deploying missiles on land-mobile launchers, say in Cuba, would make them less vulnerable than on ships or submarines off the North American coast, where the US Navy is dominant. Putin, in fact, told journalists he hopes a replay of the Cuban [1962 missile] crisis may be avoided, “but if someone wants [a Cuban Missile-style nuclear crisis], we are ready” (Kremlin.ru, February 20).