In the past five years, Russia has engaged in two major military actions abroad, one in Ukraine and the other in Syria. In both cases, Russia began with a limited and unofficial force structure, only to ramp it up into a larger, more official and more sustained military presence.
Similarities between Russian interests and actions in these theaters and Venezuela suggest Moscow is poised to ramp up its small initial military deployment in the troubled South American country — though strategic and tactical considerations will limit the extent of Russian actions in Venezuela. But any Russian military intervention could lead to increased U.S. sanctions against both Russia and Venezuela, and to even greater U.S. efforts to support the Venezuelan opposition.
In a bid to preserve its interests and gain strategic leverage over the United States, Russia has been increasing its security and military presence in Venezuela. Previous Russian military interventions in Ukraine and Syria offer clues on how such an intervention might evolve in Venezuela, and elsewhere around the world.
Moscow's Motivations for Intervening
Russia's reasons for intervening in Ukraine and Syria varied widely. In Ukraine, the Russian intervention came in direct response to the Euromaidan uprising in Kiev that ousted the pro-Russian government of then-President Viktor Yanukovich, but in a broader sense Moscow's actions stemmed from a growing geopolitical competition between Russia and the West over the former Soviet periphery. Russia's intervention, first in the Crimean Peninsula and then in Eastern Ukraine, was intended to push back against the Western-backed government that replaced Yanukovich and undermine Ukraine's efforts to integrate with the European Union and NATO under the new Euromaidan regime. Russia also sought to maintain its Black Sea Fleet headquarters on the peninsula in Sevastopol.
In Syria, Russia intervened in response to the Syrian government's request for aid against rebel and jihadist groups in the Syrian civil war, but had its own strategic considerations, too. These included preserving its naval facility at the port of Tartus, which Moscow feared regime change might threaten. Moscow also feared that jihadists in Syria, some of whom hailed from the North Caucasus, might find their way back to Russia.
But Russia's interventions in Ukraine and Syria share many strategic factors. In both cases, Moscow sought to counter the U.S. position: in Ukraine, to push back against the U.S.-supported government in Kiev, and in Syria to push back against U.S.-supported rebel groups fighting the government of President Bashar al Assad. Russia's rejection of the U.S. pursuit of regime change in defense of human rights and democracy — something Moscow feels threaten its influence in Russia proper — underpinned both interventions. Russia also feared more of the regional destabilization that U.S.-backed interventions in places like Iraq and Libya spawned. A presence in Ukraine and Syria also offered Russia a beachhead for influence in strategic regions, and leverage in its broader competition with the United States. By directly intervening in theaters of strategic interest to the United States, Russia improved its negotiating position with the United States, and enhanced its status as a regional and global player.
In Venezuela, Moscow's desire to maintain the government of President Nicolas Maduro stems from its desire to preserve Russia's existing energy and arms sales agreements with Venezuela. Also unlike Ukraine and Syria, Russia does not have a military installation in Venezuela it is trying to preserve. But like Ukraine and Syria, Russia has an interest in pushing back against U.S. efforts at regime change in Venezuela and to boost its leverage with Washington.
Interpreting and Anticipating Moscow's Moves in Venezuela
Russia's interventions in Ukraine and Syria — where it gradually built up its military forces into a substantial, and official, presence — offer clues on what to watch for in Venezuela.
Russia's intervention in Ukraine occurred in several stages. First, Russia made a number of social and political moves in Ukraine to lay the groundwork for a potential military intervention. This included supporting protests in Crimea against the Ukrainian government and in favor of Russia, with Russian flags and pro-Russia slogans widespread in demonstrations …
Following these moves, groups of armed men without insignia began taking control of key infrastructure, including regional airports in Sevastopol and Simferopol. Similar security forces set up checkpoints on roads connecting Crimea with mainland Ukraine. While these armed men closely resembled Russian military personnel in their appearance and weaponry, Russia officially denied any involvement and instead labeled these forces "self-defense groups," like similar groups opposed to the Yanukovich government that had participated in the uprising in Kiev. In the meantime, Russia maintained that its own military forces in Crimea were abiding by legal agreements between Russia and Ukraine.
Only after many of these self-defense forces were positioned around Crimea did Russia acknowledge its formal military buildup and deployments throughout the peninsula. At this point, the Russian military in Crimea could sufficiently surround and overwhelm Ukrainian forces on the peninsula, and these units either defected to Russia or were forced to abandon Crimea, just as Russia annexed the peninsula to formalize its political and military control.
A similar process of unofficial military intervention subsequently took place in Eastern Ukraine. Armed men first occupied regional administration buildings in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, followed by an influx of military supplies and armed men from Russia into Donbas. But unlike in Crimea, Russia never acknowledged its participation in the separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine, which remains ongoing after five years.
Before the official Russian military intervention began in 2015, Russia's military role in Syria primarily involved supplying arms to the Syrian government and deploying a limited number of mercenary forces like the Slavonic Corps and the Zaslon Spetsnaz. Its formal military intervention initially consisted of airstrikes against militant groups opposed to the Syrian government, including the Syrian National Coalition, the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. In addition to the spetsnaz, already in country, Russia sent military advisers and regular military special operations forces to Syria. This was a gradual process, and most of the fighting was, and still is, carried out by Iranian contingents. At the end of 2017, Russia announced its forces would be permanently based in Syria.
As in Ukraine and Syria, Russia's military position in Venezuela has so far evolved gradually as the government in Caracas has come under greater U.S. pressure — in this case political and economic, not military, pressure.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported Dec. 11, 2018, that Russia was considering a long-term deployment of Tu-160 strategic bombers to Venezuela. Russian and Venezuelan officials reportedly agreed the Russian bombers would be housed at the Venezuelan military base on Orchila Island in the Caribbean Sea, where Russian advisers would be dispatched that week. This report followed the landing of two Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons on Dec. 10 at Maiquetia airport outside Caracas.
The Kremlin then offered its public support for Maduro on Jan. 24, 2019, amid wide-scale protests by opposition forces backed by the United States, and subsequent reports emerged that Russia had dispatched hundreds of mercenaries to Venezuela, something the Kremlin denied.
On March 24, reports emerged that two Russian air force planes carrying 100 Russian army personnel, including the chief of staff of the ground forces, had landed on March 23. Just two weeks later, Venezuelan Deputy Foreign Minister Yvan Gil Pinto said that Russia is likely to send more soldiers to Venezuela, with the United States warning against such a deployment.
The Past Points to More Russian Deployments in Venezuela
The evolution of Russia's military position in Venezuela fits with the pattern of the gradual expansion of forces and the transition from limited and informal actions to larger, more formal deployments seen in Ukraine and Syria. While the exact size and scope of this deployment remains unclear, it is clear that it has grown over the past year — and that it will most likely grow more in the coming months.
But an expansion alone does not guarantee Russia will mount a large military intervention in Venezuela. The South American country's greater distance from Russia makes for long, costly supply lines. In addition to logistical complications, Venezuela is more directly in the U.S. sphere of influence than Ukraine or Syria, which will create political reasons for Russia to proceed cautiously. U.S. willingness to take action in Venezuela would be much greater than it was Syria and Ukraine, and the United States would be able to project assets much more quickly so close to the homeland.
Nevertheless, even a limited increase in Russia's military intervention could have important consequences, including increased U.S. sanctions against both Russia and Venezuela, as well as greater U.S. efforts to support the Venezuelan opposition. This in turn could contribute to the economic deterioration of Venezuela and further inflame the prolonged standoff between the United States and Russia.