The presidents of Russia and Venezuela discuss bilateral relations. Photo Credit: The Kremlin.
During the Cold War, Soviet foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere was based out of Cuba, which housed Soviet naval, ground, and intelligence assets that projected Moscow’s influence in the Americas. The Soviet Union used its position in Cuba to lend support to revolutionary leftist movements across Latin America and gather information on the United States. In short, Soviet military activity in the Western Hemisphere would not have been possible without the foothold that Cuba provided. Fast forward to the 21st century: Cuba no longer serves as a base of operations for post-Soviet Russia. While Russia’s current military presence in Latin America is not as substantial or formidable as it once was during the Cold War, its relationship with Venezuela provides Moscow with a new foothold to maintain its foreign policy interests in the region. Venezuela under former socialist strongman Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has benefitted immensely from this Russian foothold, with Moscow providing military aid and economic investment to the Bolivarian regime.
Russia’s military support to the Chavista government reflects a transactional relationship that Moscow originally pursued to fill a vacant niche in Venezuela’s defense imports market. However, amidst greater geopolitical competition with the United States, Russia has translated this economic enterprise into a strategic opportunity to challenge US predominance and reassert its own influence in the region. Moscow will not be able to deploy or field the massive contingents of troops, aircraft, or ships in the Western Hemisphere that it once did during the Cold War. However, Russia will most likely continue to maintain a low-level, low-cost presence in the form of advisers, technical specialists, mercenaries, and aircraft to support its interests in the region.
The defense relationship between Venezuela and Russia largely began in the early 2000s in the opening years of both Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chávez’s tenures as leaders of their respective countries. Venezuela’s military inventory heavily relied on Western exports with little input from Russian sources, but two key factors reversed this trend. First, US opposition to Chávez’s leftist policies led to the imposition of an arms embargo against the new Bolivarian regime. In addition, an attempted coup against Chávez in 2002 and the role of loyal military units in the regime’s defense convinced the Bolivarian government that it needed to bolster its forces with new equipment.
Thanks to oil revenue from newly nationalized petroleum industries, Venezuela now had the financial means to acquire Russian weaponry and began to stockpile military equipment from Moscow over the next several years. Between 2002 and 2005, Russia sold a wide array of weapons to Venezuela, including 100,000 AK-103 rifles and a new Kalashnikov factory in the country. In 2006, Russia and Venezuela signed one of their most ambitious arms agreements up to that point, which permitted Moscow to sell $1 billion worth of Su-30 MK2 fighter aircraft and 53 helicopters to the Venezuelan Air Force. Between 2008 and 2009, Venezuela also purchased new air-defense equipment and armored vehicles from Russia at a total cost of $6.5 billion. These lucrative agreements enabled Russian defense firms to establish a solid foothold in the Venezuelan market and replace the United States as the country’s arms supplier.
Venezuela’s acquisition of Russian arms also translated into opportunities for both countries to engage in joint military exercises. In December 2008, the Venezuelan and Russian navies conducted training maneuvers in the Caribbean Sea, where four Russian and 12 Venezuelan vessels with 1,600 sailors and 700 sailors, respectively, practiced air-defense, drug interdiction, and counter-terrorism. A decade later, Venezuela conducted aerial exercises alongside two Tu-160 bombers deployed to the country by Russia. These exercises gave both countries, now with the same equipment and hardware, the opportunity to increase their interoperability with one another.
Whereas the Chávez era saw Caracas’s shift from a Western-based armory to one heavily dependent on Russian equipment, the current Maduro era emphasizes this continued reliance and the need to maintain and upgrade this hardware. Russian advisers and mercenaries have frequently come to Venezuela to sustain their client’s defense assets, but beyond this bilateral security relationship, Russia sees this partnership as part of a broader pushback campaign against the United States.
The Maduro phase of the Russia-Venezuela defense relationship has witnessed several moves and actions by Russia beyond the scope of arms sales. Russia has repeatedly dispatched Tu-160 bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons to Venezuela, with these aircraft visiting the country in 2008, 2013, and, most recently, 2018. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that his country would continue these Tu-160 deployments and also hinted at the possibility of visits by Russian guided missile cruisers and the establishment of a long-term Russian airbase in the country. Russian advisers have also visited Venezuela frequently to repair and maintain Caracas’s military equipment and vehicles. Initial reports suggested that substantial numbers of Russian advisers would be withdrawn due to Venezuela’s inability to pay for the these specialists. However, as recently as September 2019, another group of advisers arrived in the country to carry out general maintenance tasks as had been conducted normally in months prior. Reports also indicate that Russian military contractors serve as part of Maduro’s security detail in the face of ongoing demonstrations against his rule.
Overall, the Russia-Venezuela security relationship has provided advantages for both countries, with Venezuela benefitting domestically and Russia benefitting geopolitically. On Venezuela’s end, Russia’s military support provides reassurance and support to a paranoid, isolated regime fearful of demise at the hands of foreign intervention and international pressure. The Bolivarian regime’s alignment with Russia provides Maduro with an international ally that can stand up to the United States, the Chavista government’s most feared adversary.
On one hand, Russian security collaboration with Venezuela is not necessarily profitable for Moscow in the long-run due to the fact that the Chavista regime has purchased many Russian weapons with the very loans that the Kremlin has provided the Bolivarian government. On the other hand, Russian state firm Rosneft now possesses close to 50% of Citgo, a US oil firm acquired by Venezuela, as collateral in exchange for Russian financial aid to the Bolivarian government. This ownership has also provided Russia with access to Venezuelan oilfields and refineries, offsetting some of the financial risks to Moscow’s support for the regime. In short, Russia’s acquisition of such resources clearly benefits the country economically and emboldens the Kremlin’s continued presence in Venezuela.
Russia’s continued military support to Maduro also reflects Moscow’s belief in the geopolitical advantages of the security relationship. The Kremlin is deeply uncomfortable with the presence of U.S.-led NATO forces in former Eastern Bloc states close to Russia’s borders. As a result, one could argue that Russia is acting reciprocally by placing its own military assets in a country such as Venezuela that sits relatively close to the United States geographically. This tit-for-tat exchange allows Russia to try to put pressure, albeit limited, on the United States in its own sphere of influence.
However, Russia’s current military activities in Venezuela will continue to remain either minimal or deniable and will not reach levels as seen during the Cold War. Moscow cannot risk provoking a negative response from Venezuela’s other neighbors in the region, most of whom reject the legitimacy of the Maduro regime. Most importantly, Russia’s relationship with Brazil, a fellow member of the BRICS group, has already stagnated due to the former’s support for Maduro. Russia will most likely continue to provide the minimum aid necessary just short of the threshold of active assistance in order to fulfill a two-fold purpose: maintain its foothold in the Western Hemisphere as a stakeholder while simultaneously reducing the costs of military support.
The United States should continue to monitor Russia’s provision of military aid to Venezuela and note any continuities or changes in Moscow’s level of support. In addition, US diplomats should urge Russia to scale back its support for the regime and highlight the economic costs of continued association with Maduro’s government. Members of the Lima Group should also pressure Moscow to reconsider its military support for the Maduro regime and work alongside the United States to coordinate a unified policy towards Russia’s relationship with Venezuela.
 Julia Gurganis, “Russia: Playing a Geopolitical Game in Latin America,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 3, 2018, https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/05/03/russia-playing-geopolitical-game-in-latin-america-pub-76228
 Sergey Denisentsev, “Russian-Venezuelan Defense Cooperation,” Center for Naval Analyses, June 2019, 8-10, https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/IOP-2019-U-020309-Final.pdf
 Jeremy Wolland, “Venezuela, Russia Sign Weapons Deal,” Arms Control Today 36, no. 7 (September 2006), 39.
 Denisentsev, “Russian-Venezuelan Defense Cooperation,” 16-17.
 “Russia-Venezuela Exercises Begin,” BBC News, December 2, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7759892.stm
 Mariana Zuñiga, Anthony Faiola, and Anton Troianovski, “As Maduro Confronts a Crisis, Russia’s Footprint in Venezuela Grows,” Washington Post, March 29, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/as-maduro-confronts-a-crisis-russias-footprint-in-venezuela-grows/2019/03/29/fcf93cec-50b3-11e9-bdb7-44f948cc0605_story.html
 Pavel Felgenhaeur, “Russia Following ‘Syria Playbook’ in its Approach to Venezuela,” Jamestown Foundation Eurasia Daily Monitor 16, no.12 (January 31, 2019), https://jamestown.org/program/russia-following-syrian-playbook-in-its-approach-to-venezuela/
 Thomas Grove, “In a Blow to Maduro, Russia Withdraws Key Defense Support to Venezuela,” Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/in-a-blow-to-maduro-russia-withdraws-key-defense-support-to-venezuela-11559486826
 Tom Balmforth and Angus Berwick, “Russian Military Specialists Arrive in Venezuela to Service Equipment: Interfax,” Reuters, September 25, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-venezuela-specialists/russian-military-specialists-arrive-in-venezuela-to-service-equipment-interfax-idUSKBN1WA2FJ
 Maria Tsvetkova and Anton Zverev, “Exclusive: Kremlin-Linked Contractors Help Guard Venezuela’s Maduro-Sources,” Reuters, January 25, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics-russia-exclusive/exclusive-kremlin-linked-contractors-help-guard-venezuelas-maduro-sources-idUSKCN1PJ22M
 Alexander Sitenko, “Latin American Vector in Russia’s Foreign Policy: Identities and Interests in the Russian-Venezuelan Partnership,” Politics in Central Europe 12, no. 1 (2016): 46.
 Anthony Faiola and Karen DeYoung, “In Venezuela, Russia Pockets Key Energy Assets in Exchange for Cash Bailouts,” Washington Post, December 24, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/in-venezuela-russia-pockets-key-energy-assets-in-exchange-for-cash-bailouts/2018/12/20/da458db6-f403-11e8-80d0-f7e1948d55f4_story.html
 Vladimir Rouvinski, “Russian-Venezuelan Relations at a Crossroads,” Wilson Center (Latin America Program and Kennan Institute), February 2019, 14, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/russia-venezuela_report_rouvinski_final.pdf
 Ibid., 19.
 John E. Herbst and Jason Marczak, “Russia’s Intervention in Venezuela: What’s at Stake?” Atlantic Council (Eurasia Center and Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center), September 2019, 8, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Russia-Venezuela-Policy-Brief.pdf
 Ibid., 14.