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In Venezuela, Russia risks losing an ally and billions

AFP logoAFP 29/01/2019 Anna Malpas and Andrea Palasciano

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

As President Nicolas Maduro's rule balance in hangs in the Venezuela, Russia risks losing its long-cultivated main ally in Latin America and billions invested in oil and arms contracts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spent years building up an alliance with Venezuela's late populist leader Hugo Chavez and his successor Maduro, often playing host to the two in Moscow.

As pressure has built on Maduro from self-proclaimed acting president Juan Guaido and his Western allies, Russia has stood firm behind its man in Caracas. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday vowed Moscow would "do everything" to protect its ally.

Behind this support, analysts say, is an understanding that if it loses Venezuela, Moscow will have few allies to speak of in Latin America.

"Venezuela is practically the last thing that Vladimir Putin has left in Latin America," said Vladimir Rouvinski, a Russian international relations specialist at Colombia's Icesi University.

Russian President Vladimir Putin often played host to Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro © Provided by AFP Russian President Vladimir Putin often played host to Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro

Moscow likes to present itself as an "alternative" superpower in Washington's backyard. But while it has close ties with Venezuela and traditional ally Communist Cuba, Moscow's relations with Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina have been hit by recent changes of leadership there, Rouvinski said.

Russia shored up its alliance with Venezuela as the second largest lender to Caracas after China, supplying it with tanks and Kalashnikovs and investing in the country's main asset, its oil resources.

As recently as last month Maduro announced during a visit to Moscow that Russia would invest $6 billion in Venezuela's oil and mining sectors.

Now Russia "runs the risk that all these long-matured relationships... will turn out to be devalued," said Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics.

- Russian mercenaries? -

The rapprochement between Russia and Venezuela dates back to Chavez, who espoused what he called "21st century socialism".

The relationship continued to thrive after Maduro took over following Chavez's death in 2013, with Caracas acquiring Russian arms and military equipment in deals worth $11 billion between 2005 and 2017.

Moscow, along with China and Turkey, has maintained that support since Maduro's disputed re-election in May last year and opposition leader Guaido's naming of himself as interim president.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin built up an alliance with Venezuela's late leader Hugo Chavez © Provided by AFP Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin built up an alliance with Venezuela's late leader Hugo Chavez

With the United States and a dozen Latin American countries recognising Guaido -- and Europe demanding new elections -- Putin called Maduro last week to endorse the "lawful authorities".

Reports have even surfaced of hundreds of mercenaries from the secretive Russian private military contractor Wagner deploying to Venezuela.

Moscow has denied the reports but Rouvinski said they were likely to be true.

"Everything suggests that Russian mercenaries have been present in Venezuela for a while, although most likely, far fewer than reported by media," he said.

Russian television has given wide coverage to protests in Caracas, likening the events to Ukraine's 2014 popular uprising that toppled a pro-Kremlin president and led to Moscow's seizure of Crimea and a long-running separatist conflict.

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Given Russia's vehement opposition to such popular uprisings, "a limited Russian military operation cannot be ruled out" but only as the "very last option" for Moscow, Rouvinski said.

"Such a scenario would set the whole of the rest of Latin America against Russia... for many years."

Beyond its long-term strategic goals, Russia has billions in investments and loans at stake.

State oil corporation Rosneft, led by Putin's ally Igor Sechin, has loaned around $6 billion to Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA, investing in exploration and production

Cash-strapped Caracas has struggled to pay back loans in the form of oil due to the poor state of its production facilities.

- 'Pragmatic approach' -

Russia made such investments on the understanding that they were high-risk but could ultimately pay off, analysts said.

"Rosneft stayed because it was ready to work for the long-term," said Daniel Rozental, an expert on Venezuela at Moscow's Institute of Latin America.

If Maduro's government does fall, Russia will "undoubtedly fight for contracts and debts," said Rouvinski, predicting that Russian non-oil-related investments "will most likely be lost".

Forging political ties with a new regime will depend on how Moscow behaves now at the "critical moment" for Maduro, he said.

Ordinary Venezuelans largely see Russia as propping up Maduro's government even if China is a larger investor, he said.

Yet "today's opposition forces are pragmatic," he said, and the Kremlin for its part has hinted it could back a "legitimate" handover of power.

In Russia, "the pragmatic approach prevails," said Rozental, and "working relations can remain" even if the opposition takes over.

"The Russian leadership supports the government of Venezuela, in this case the legally elected president. This doesn't mean we won't support contacts with the opposition."

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