In the early morning of April 30, in Caracas, opposition leader, speaker of the National Assembly and the self-proclaimed interim president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, declared that the Venezuelan Armed Forces had abandoned the socialist autocratic president Nicolás Maduro. The “usurper” would be ousted, he added. Yet, Guaidó’s pronouncement was only supported by a relatively small group of armed Venezuelan personnel who had defected to the opposition (Caracas Chronicles, April 30).
The acute standoff between the opposition-controlled National Assembly and the Maduro regime has continued since January 2019. On one hand, Guaidó has been recognized as interim president by the United States, most Latin American countries, the European Union and a large portion of the Venezuelan populace. On the other, Maduro is supported by Russia, China, Cuba, Turkey, Iran, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Mexico, and by left-wing Chavista activists in Venezuela (supporters of the left-wing political ideology of Chavism, based on the ideas, programs and governing style of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor). The severe political, economic and social crisis in Venezuela has greatly diminished the popular appeal of Chavism, but the military and security forces have remained loyal to the Maduro regime. The attempt to remove Maduro on April 30 failed as rebel military personnel did not attract much active support within the ranks. Clashes between pro-Guaidó protesters and security forces ensued, and at least one protester was killed in the streets of Caracas. Nevertheless, the regime survived, and Maduro boasted about crushing the attempted coup. The pro-Kremlin media in Moscow also cheered the outcome (Vzglyad, April 30).
As indicated by sources in Washington, Moscow and Caracas, the story of the apparently futile anti-Maduro uprising is complicated. Allegedly, the uprising’s top Chavista military and regime figures were in communication with Guaidó and with Washington on organizing an orderly transfer of power, on flying Maduro into exile to Cuba and Guaidó taking power for a brief period before calling new elections. But on April 30, something apparently went wrong, and the top brass Chavista conspirators refused to help remove the embattled sitting president. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo accused Russia of persuading Maduro to stay and cling to power instead of fleeing to Cuba. Russian officials have angrily denied any accusations of involvement as “fakes.” Moreover, sources in Moscow imply Guaidó acted prematurely, and the well-orchestrated plan of regime change fell apart (Moskovsky Komsomolets, May 2).
Midday, on April 30, as the dramatic events in Caracas were just beginning to unfold (there is a seven-hour time difference between Caracas and Moscow), Russian President Vladimir Putin convened a meeting of the permanent members of his Security Council. The Kremlin announced that the Security Council had discussed the situations in North Korea and Venezuela, though it provided no further details (Kremlin.ru, April 30).
Washington and the Venezuelan opposition have been hoping to persuade Moscow and Beijing to stop resisting regime change in Caracas. They suggest that the best way for Russia and China to secure their considerable investments in Venezuela—primarily in oil production—is to help organize an orderly transition of power and dismantles the bankrupt, incompetent, corrupt and unpopular leftist autocratic regime.
Following the failed uprising, the US government announced that Pompeo would soon speak over the phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. On May 1, the conversation did happen, but any hope that Moscow could be convinced to lessen its support for Maduro was ultimately frustrated. According to a short communiqué issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lavrov berated Pompeo, accusing the US of supporting an attempted coup by the Venezuelan opposition and of “totally illegal interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs.” Lavrov warned Pompeo, “The continuation of aggressive actions may result in the gravest of consequences” (Mid.ru, May 1). Lavrov had taken part in the above-mentioned April 30 Security Council meeting in the Kremlin; thus, it is safe to assume he was speaking to Pompeo under direct authority from Putin and the entire Russian leadership.
At the end of March 2019, Moscow deployed a force of some 100 military personnel to Venezuela. This force is led by the chief of staff of the Russian Land Forces (Sukhoputnye Voyska), Colonel General Vasily Tonkoshkurov (59), a veteran of the 1980s intervention in Afghanistan and the Chechen wars. Until May 2018, Tonkoshkurov was the deputy chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. The Russian embassy in Venezuela announced, “[O]ur military personnel are in no way involved in the clashes in Caracas.” Moscow insists the Russian military contingent in Venezuela is not a fighting force, but rather a group of advisors and technical specialists helping refurbish the Venezuelan military. The Russian contingent is also assisting in implementing the military hardware Russia had previously sold the Chavismo regime (over $11 billion worth in all) that has been collecting dust during the Venezuelan economic, political and social crisis (Vesti, May 1).
To date, Russia has provided Venezuela with modern Su-30MK2V fighters, T-72 tanks, heavy guns, and a variety of missile and anti-aircraft systems, including S-300VM (Antey-2500) long-range interceptors, shorter-range BuK-M2 and S-125 Pechora-2M anti-aircraft missiles, as well as Smerch long-range missiles. Moscow has also provided Caracas with modern shoulder-launched Igla-S anti-aircraft missiles. Russian military analysts believe that with that hardware, Russian advisors and specialists can build a well-organized multi-layer anti-aircraft and missile-defense system in Venezuela that could inflict serious damage on any US-led forces if they “dare to invade to change the regime.” Colonel General Tonkoshkurov and his group were apparently sent to Venezuela specifically to organize, build up and lead a comprehensive multi-service defense force ready to inflict heavy casualties and repel the Americans. This may explain why such a high-level, combat-experienced general was sent to lead the mission in Venezuela (RT, May 1).
Moscow seems ready to take on the US and any possible allies in Venezuela, seeing it as part of a global “geopolitical” standoff with Washington. Russia wants to show it is ready to stand up to the challenge and possibly engage the US military in a direct military confrontation (Moskovsky Komsomolets, May 2). Lavrov’s threat of “the gravest of consequences” may not simply be a bluff.