Is Russia Throwing Its Lot in With Maduro?
AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File
Is Russia Throwing Its Lot in With Maduro?
AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File
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What Happened

Russia is seemingly upping the stakes in Venezuela's standoff — for friend and foe alike to see. In a deliberately visible event, two Russian aircraft reportedly landed at Simon Bolivar International Airport in Caracas on March 22. One plane arrived with 100 Russian military personnel, including the chief of staff of the ground forces, Gen. Vasily Tonkonshkurov, while the other landed with 35 tons of unspecified military equipment. According to an unnamed Venezuelan military official, the Russian forces are there as part of an agreement to assist the South American country in military training and engage in cooperation.

Why This Matters

The Russian soldiers could be the first wave of additional troops that will arrive and remain in Venezuela. A greater Russian deployment would raise the stakes of a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela, as the use of military force to remove Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro could ignite a direct confrontation with Russian military forces — something that Moscow could bank on the United States wishing to avoid. 

Naturally, a semi-permanent Russian deployment could complicate U.S. efforts to oust Maduro, but it would allow Moscow to make strategic inroads into Washington's near abroad and deprive foreign energy companies the prospect of greater investment opportunities in the short term. But given Venezuela's importance to the United States, especially due to its geographic proximity, Washington could seek to counter Russia's actions in Venezuela with a more forceful reaction. 

Russia's Calculations

If Russia does deploy even more forces to Venezuela, it would have to consider the size of the force. Realistically, Moscow's options run the gamut from a token force to a larger-scale mission along the lines of its intervention in Syria.

A larger deployment would enable the country to bolster the Maduro government more effectively against internal threats, such as a military coup or a significant armed revolt. It would also allow Russia to spread its forces around the country, potentially deterring a U.S. intervention under the assumption that the United States would hesitate to launch military operations in Venezuela if it feared Russian casualties. In effect, Russia is calculating that the United States is unlikely to risk a wider war with Russia just to topple Maduro's government. Indeed, there is a precedent for such Russian behavior, as Moscow's increased presence in Syria restricted the United States' ability to strike and, ultimately, oust President Bashar al Assad.

While a larger deployment would offer Russia greater ability to pursue its objectives in the country, it would also present some significant drawbacks, with cost being the most obvious concern. Yet another Syrian-sized deployment would place additional strain on Russia's ability to project force, especially since Venezuela is much farther away than the Levant. A larger, more visible deployment could also ensconce Russia in a potential quagmire, exposing its forces to more dangers and threats in the event that security worsens in the country. But there are potentially graver concerns for Moscow as well: An enhanced Russian military presence in Venezuela might not actually deter the United States from acting against Maduro. What's more, the prospect of a larger Russian deployment could even spur the United States to move early to intervene before Russia can entrench itself militarily. 

A smaller deployment would offer Moscow less room to maneuver, but it would not expose Russia to as much risk. A more limited deployment would be less expensive and offer Russia greater flexibility, as it could withdraw its forces much more rapidly in the event that Venezuelan security deteriorates. And while a smaller deployment is likely to present less of an impediment to the United States, it would also put fewer Russian troops in harm's way, thereby decreasing the chances of a wider military conflict.

What to Watch For

So far, Russia has sent few forces to Venezuela, and even then, most of these troops have been on temporary missions. The deployments include Wagner Group mercenaries, rotations of heavy bombers and the latest arrivals on March 22. Accordingly, we will be looking for indications that Russia is preparing to upgrade its presence in Venezuela by deploying troops for longer periods and preparing more forces and materiel for missions to the country. If the Russian government seriously intends to bolster Maduro, it is likely to deploy military forces in and around Caracas, as well as near oil production and export infrastructure. 

Of course, the U.S. reaction to this latest Russian move will also be on our radar. Thus far, there is no major indication that the United States is mulling a serious military intervention to preempt greater Russian activity in the country, but this could change if the Maduro government — emboldened by Russian reinforcements — conducts a bloody crackdown on its opponents.

The U.S. strategy so far has been to focus on economic coercion to cripple the Venezuelan government and encourage military defections at the same time as it collaborates with Colombia and Brazil to contain the fallout. The United States will also evaluate the longer-term implication that Russia could establish a military foothold in the Caribbean basin, as that would undermine the core tenets of the Monroe Doctrine, complicating the U.S. imperative to prevent foreign powers from interfering in what it perceives to be its geopolitical domain.

For the moment, the threat of U.S. military intervention has hampered the Venezuelan government's attempts to crack down on growing internal dissent. Indeed, Maduro's government is reluctant to arrest or exile the partially recognized interim president, Juan Guaido, for fear of kick-starting a potential U.S. military intervention. 

But if Maduro begins repressing the political opposition and other internal dissenters because he believes Russian forces have effectively eliminated the threat of a U.S. intervention, Venezuela's crisis will develop along two broad possible paths. On one hand, Maduro's opponents may perceive the Russian deployment as a sign they must act against the government sooner, rather than later. Depending on the extent of the plans to unseat Maduro, dissidents within the armed forces may attempt a coup before extensive Russian military deployments or a severe crackdown make that option impossible. On the other hand, the threat of a greater backlash from the government could convince officers sitting on the fence to swing back to the president's camp, making a coup much more difficult to carry out. Whatever the case, the prospects of a greater Russian presence on the shores of the Caribbean is likely to reshuffle the deck on Venezuela.

Reprinted with permission from Stratfor Worldview.