A Russian task force of some 100 men has landed in the Venezuelan capital Caracas, arriving on two military planes—a super-large Antonov An-124 military transporter and an aging long-range Il-62M passenger jet, also belonging to the Russian Ministry of Defense. Both jets took off from the Chkalovsky military airbase, close to Moscow; they flew to the Russian airbase at Khmeimim, in Syria, and then on to Venezuela, with a refueling stopover in Dakar, Senegal. The An-124 dispatched its cargo (reportedly weighing some 35 tons) and took off back to Russia, while the Il-62M stayed behind in Venezuela. The deployed Russian force is reportedly led by the chief of staff of the Russian Army (Sukhoputnye Voyska), Colonel General Vasily Tonkoshkurov (59), a veteran of the 1980s war in Afghanistan and the Chechen wars. Until May 2018, he had served as the deputy chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (RBC, March 24). The fact that this mission in Venezuela is headed by such a prominent military commander indicates the importance of the engagement. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the Russian military specialists, experts and advisors will stay in Venezuela “as long as it takes and as long the Venezuelan government wants them” and will be helping to “realize [bilateral] military-technical cooperation agreements” (Interfax, March 28).
In Russian official military argot, “military-technical cooperation” signifies the arms trade. Thus, the decision to send around 100 military advisors, support staff and possibly some combat-experienced special forces personnel (as guards)—all led by the Army chief of staff—to market weapons to the insolvent and beleaguered government of President Nicolás Maduro at first glance appears wholly incongruent. Tonkoshkurov is a combat-experienced top Land Forces commander, not an arms dealer. Instead, his mission could be to thoroughly assess the current military/security situation in Venezuela, the deficiencies and real capabilities of the pro-Maduro military and security forces, and to prepare a list of concrete measures Moscow needs to take to ensure the survival of the regime and the defeat of the opposition, led by the self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido. Moscow views Guaido as Washington’s puppet and part of the alleged imperialist conspiracy headed by the United States to oust Maduro. According to Russian reports, the 35 tons of cargo just delivered to Venezuela was mostly food, but not for the starving locals. Rather, the foodstuff will feed the military mission in a situation where logistics have virtually collapsed. The Russian mission is apparently not a combat force per se, but will be assessing the situation and “taking measures” to mobilize and “put together” the pro-Maduro forces. It is preparing for a lengthy operation (Ura.news, March 25). The above-mentioned “measures” could involve additional shipments of arms, munitions and other equipment, the deployment of more Russian specialists and advisors and also a possible limited combat unit—presumably the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS) and anti-air assets—mirroring the Russian deployment in Syria in 2015 to keep in power the beleaguered regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The Russian entry into Syria nearly four years ago was preceded by similar high-level reconnaissance missions (see EDM, January 31). If and when the decision is made to transform the present Venezuela mission into something more serious, Tonkoshkurov could be appointed the commander of Russia’s Caribbean gruperovka (military force).
A decision to actually go in and actively prop up the failing Maduro regime seems highly risky—a practically impossible endeavor. But in 2015, the move to save al-Assad also seemed like a high-risk adventure, which Moscow today promotes as a resounding success story. On March 14, President Vladimir Putin attended the annual conference of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), a lobby group of Russian oligarchs. After a public speech, Putin attended a closed meeting of the RSPP Bureau and reportedly informed the oligarchs about current world politics. Putin described America as a nation in deep internal political crisis. Putin insisted that Maduro is supported by “over 50 percent of the population,” but the US could be preparing an invasion (Kommersant, March 15).
Nicolás Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, was indeed once quite popular in Venezuela, while the present “Chavista” regime is not; yet, Putin apparently has been convinced to believe differently. If Moscow in fact believes Maduro enjoys massive support but is threatened by a US-instigated regime change conspiracy and possible foreign intervention, a deployment of a limited Russian force could make sense in the Kremlin’s view as a move to deter the US and shift the scales in Maduro’s favor. In addition to advisors and specialists to increase battle-readiness, Russia might increasingly be inclined to send in more high-tech weapons in addition to what it had previously shipped to Maduro and Chavez; also possible would be some special forces and possibly a small number of VKS jets. Putin seems to believe that a successful deployment of forces to the Caribbean under the nose of a politically dysfunctional and split United States would surely propel Russia again into superpower status. At the same time, Moscow may be interested in trying to save the billions of dollars in investments the Russian state and the state-owned oil major Rosneft (controlled by Putin’s close associate Igor Sechin) have sunk into Venezuela and which could be lost if Maduro falls.
US President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Organization of American States (OAS) have been demanding the immediate withdrawal of Russian military personnel from Venezuela and that Moscow stop supporting the illegitimate and oppressive Maduro regime. Meanwhile, Guaido has asserted that the opposition-dominated Venezuelan national assembly did not approve the Russian military deployment, thus making it illegal and unconstitutional (Militarynews.ru, March 26). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in turn, has rejected the criticism, telling Pompeo, “The US is attempting to organize a coup [in Venezuela], is threatening the legitimate government [Maduro] and blatantly violating the [United Nations] Charter” (Militarynews.ru, March 25). Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Moscow, “Russia has the right to be where it is and do what it does [in Venezuela]. The US deploys where it wishes in the world and no one tells them where to be and where not to be” (Interfax, March 28). The stage seems set for an increasingly dangerous confrontation that could eventually lead not only to more acrimonious public exchanges and further sanctions, but to a possible direct military standoff between US and Russian soldiers (see EDM, March 27).