U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton warned on Friday that the United States considers Russia’s military presence in Venezuela “a direct threat to international peace and security in the region.” Bolton was responding to the arrival of 100 Russian military personnel in Caracas this weekend. It was just the latest condemnation from the Trump administration of Russian actions in the Venezuela crisis, but the Russian government seems unperturbed by American warnings so far.
This isn’t the first time Russians ventured into Venezuela this year. When Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president in January, Russian contractors, associated with the Wagner group which has also carried out clandestine operations in Syria and Ukraine, appeared in Venezuela. Sources close to the Wagner group told Reuters that the contractors were sent to protect Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro in the face of unrest.
On March 23, two Russian planes arrived in Venezuela, carrying 100 Russian servicemen and 35 tons of cargo, according to Tass. This time, they were official members of the Russian military, not contractors. CBS News reports that Russia routinely deploys military advisers and technicians to Venezuela, but that the number sent this time suggests this operation is “more than routine.” On March 25, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Russian foreign minister to tell him that the U.S. “will not stand idly by as Russia exacerbates tensions in Venezuela” and to condemn the “insertion of Russian military personnel to support the illegitimate regime of Nicolas Maduro.” In response, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stated that Russian presence in Venezuela was entirely lawful, citing an agreement between Russia and Venezuela on military-technical cooperation.
Tensions escalated on Wednesday, when President Trump told journalists that Russia had to “get out” of Venezuela while meeting with Guaido’s wife. Guaido has been recognized by the U.S. and most other countries in the region as the legitimate ruler of Venezuela since he challenged Maduro’s rule.
Disregarding Trump’s demand for removing all military personnel from the country, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitri Peskov told the U.S. to mind its own business. “We don’t think that third parties should worry about our bilateral relations with other countries. We don’t interfere in Venezuela’s domestic affairs and expect third countries to do the same,” he told reporters. “As for the United States, it is present in many parts of the world but no one tells Washington where it should be and where it shouldn’t.”
Venezuela under Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez became an important strategic partner to Russia. Over the years, Venezuela has spent billions of dollars on Russian military equipment as the largest buyer of Russian arms in the Western hemisphere. Since 2010, Russia has also invested over $9 billion in Venezuelan oil projects. As Vox points out, the strong economic links between two states are key to understanding Russia’s continued entanglement in Venezuelan politics.
This week, both the Russians and the Americans have repeatedly escalated their, with neither side showing any signs of backing down. Although the situation is unlikely to break out into an actual conflict, the increased Russian presence in Latin America is a testament to Putin’s foreign policy priorities and his disregard for American ultimatums.