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Russian and Chinese Military in Venezuela

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

Despite the continuous crisis the Venezuelan regime has experienced from 2013 to the present, the administration of Nicolás Maduro survived the conflict, thanks to a series of factors, among which, the external support it received from malign state actors such as Russia and China.

Report written by Maibort Petit

Freedom Voice in Affiliation with Venezuela Politica

Despite the continuous crisis it has experienced in the Venezuelan regime from 2013 to the present, it can be assured that the administration of Nicolás Maduro survived the conflict, thanks to a series of factors, among which, the external support it received from malign state actors such as Russia and China stands out.

In the Defense Report published by the American Foreign Policy Council, José Gustavo Arocha, a researcher at the Center for a Free and Secure Society, examines Russian and Chinese military operations in Venezuela.

Below we present the report of the researcher, Arocha:

With record inflation, millions of citizens fleeing the country, and a political opposition recognized by most Western democracies as Venezuela's legitimate government, Nicolás Maduro's regime appeared to be on the verge of collapse in 2019. However, Maduro's government survived, thanks to a number of factors, including the external support it received from malign state actors such as Russia and China.

Moscow and Beijing never wavered in their political support for the Venezuelan regime, or Maduro himself, even by refusing to recognize the interim presidency of Juan Guaidó by constitutional mandate. Most analyses of Russia and China's support have focused on the political and economic support provided to Venezuela, including close cooperation in energy, industry, health, finance, and trade. But the two countries' support has gone far beyond the political and economic realms, encompassing military and defense cooperation that has helped harden Maduro's dictatorship and improved its capabilities to cause chaos with its neighbors.

A Long-Term Defense Alliance

When Hugo Chavez ascended to the presidency of Venezuela twenty-two years ago, Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Hu Jintao immediately began building a defensive relationship with his regime. During his 14-year tenure, Chavez visited Russia nine times and China six times, in the process of establishing a security and defense alliance that the Maduro regime maintains to this day.

Russia has sold more than $11.4 billion in military equipment and weaponry to Venezuela over the past twenty years, including fighter jets, attack and transport helicopters, naval and air defense platforms, tanks, armored personnel carriers (APCs), autonomous vehicles. propelled artillery and various small arms, including surface-to-air missiles.

The burgeoning arms trade with Russia is complemented by the deployment of two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to Venezuela every five years since 2008. Tu-160 bombers can carry conventional or nuclear cruise missiles and have been combat-tested in Syria, where they first launched conventionally armed Kh-101 cruise missiles. The bombers last made the 6200-mile flight to Venezuela in 2018. Making 2023 the next expected deployment if Russia maintains its five-year rotation.

China, while selling significantly fewer weapons to Venezuela than Russia, participates in training the next generation of Venezuelan military leaders through defense education and special operations training. Since 1999, the 76th Group of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has been training jointly with Venezuela's Special Forces in language operations, diving, helicopter snipers and landings, military courses and military war colleges of China and the PLA National Defense University.

Over the past ten years, China has sold more than $615 million in weapons to Venezuela, including K-8 trainer aircraft, VN-16 light tanks, anti-tank and anti-ship missiles, self-propelled mortars, and the infamous VN-4 light armored personnel carrier, dubbed the "Rhinoceros," which sprang into action on the streets of Venezuela when the Maduro regime quelled protests in 2014, 2017 and to this day.

In addition, the three countries have been able to build interoperability and joint capabilities by regularly attending the International Army Games, an annual multinational military exercise organized by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. Their participation includes joint military training for Special Forces and Marine corps units of Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela and Belarus at the 2019 Russian Army Games.

Venezuela's Defense Minister, General Vladimir Padrino López, signed a strategic naval agreement with his Russian counterpart, General Sergei Shoigu, which governs future port visits by the countries' naval warships.

Building Venezuela's Hybrid War

Russia and China's military support for Venezuela combines the use of conventional military equipment with irregular armed non-state actors. This hybrid warfare strategy is consistent with similar strategies employed in Syria, Ukraine and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As in those other conflicts, the deployment of Russian and Chinese military companies and contractors is critical to increasing the capabilities of the Maduro regime's armed forces while maintaining plausible deniability.

In 2019, according to Reuters, Russian private military contractors (PMCs) with alleged ties to the Kremlin were used to bolster the security of Nicolas Maduro and his regime. Russian PMCs have also been reported to wear Venezuelan military uniforms in the capital, Caracas, in the country's mineral-rich eastern region, and along the Colombia-Venezuela border. These Russian PMCs arrived in Venezuela on board an Ilyushin Il-62M long-range passenger plane and an Antonov An-124 cargo plane, and Russian Air Force transport aircraft that had built a strategic airlift from Moscow to Caracas.

Meanwhile, Chinese security companies (CSCs) are spearheading the development of unconventional combat capabilities in Venezuela's Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB) and the Maduro regime's repressive domestic apparatus. In November 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department, through its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), sanctioned China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation (CEIEC), a service provider of defense and social security systems, for aiding the Maduro government. undermine democracy, including through "efforts to restrict internet service and conduct digital surveillance and cyber operations against political opponents." According to OFAC, CEIEC supplied Venezuela with the commercialization version of China's "Great Firewall."

The use of contractors and private companies with ties to the military allows Russia and China to protect their investments in oil, mining and infrastructure while gathering tactical and strategic intelligence and, more importantly, providing the Maduro regime with military and intelligence logistical support to manage the gaze of armed non-state organizations and irregular actors operating in Venezuelan territory.

The paramilitary approach is bolstered by high-level technical intelligence gathering that allows the Maduro regime to enhance its internal and external espionage. In 2018, China's ZTE Corporation, once sanctioned for its role in espionage and cybersecurity risks, built a Venezuelan surveillance system that monitors citizens' behavior through the "homeland card," a new Venezuelan national ID. China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) has close ties to two companies that partially own ZTE, which has become central to the PLA's military industrial complex.10 This includes a branch of the PLA at the Capitán Manuel Ríos military air base in Venezuela's Guárico state that tracks orbiting satellites operated by the military and built by China.

Most analyses of Russia and China's support have focused on the political aspects and economic support provided to Venezuela, including close cooperation in energy, industry, health, finance and trade. But the two countries' support far beyond the political and economic and encompasses military and defense cooperation that has helped harden Maduro's dictatorship and improved its capabilities to cause chaos with its neighbors.

Technical and paramilitary support from Russia and China has benefited many Venezuelan military commandos, but none more than the Venezuelan Aerospace Defense Command (CODAI). CODAI has a mission to execute defensive aerospace operations, and Russia's P-18 mobile radar and China's JY-11B 3D electronic radar have improved Command, Control, Communications, Computing and Intelligence (C4I) systems that are actively used to monitor and police Venezuela's borders.

Threat to Venezuela's neighbors

Since 2018, Russian military aircraft have routinely arrived in Venezuela, while Russian military advisers regularly appear at military installations, conduct training exercises, and provide logistical support to the Maduro regime's armed forces. China, for its part, has a less visible but equally impactful presence on the ground, training Venezuela's Special Operations Forces and managing military technology. Combined, these "global powers" are turning Venezuela into a serious front for the gray zone conflict, one that offers a strategic and operational challenge for U.S. partners in the region, namely Colombia and Guyana.

In March 2021, the Maduro regime launched an offensive in Apure state on the Colombia-Venezuela border. This offensive provoked a direct clash between the Venezuelan military and irregular armed actors (a faction of the FARC) operating on the border. The Maduro regime reacted by deploying a stronger military presence on the Venezuelan side of the border, with Chinese-made K-8 fighter jets and Russian-made Orlan 10 unmanned aerial vehicles, which are reconnaissance drones used for electronic warfare.

This was complemented by a strong disinformation campaign that sought to establish a moral equivalence between the democratically elected government of Iván Duque Márquez in Colombia and the authoritarian and undemocratic regime of Venezuela. The Russian Foreign Ministry intervened praising Venezuelan military efforts to combat drug trafficking and violence on the border and urged the Colombian government to engage its Venezuelan counterparts to "resolve the border conflict."

Meanwhile, off the coast of Guyana, Exxon Mobil recently discovered massive oil deposits, reviving a historic border dispute that was supposedly settled in 1899. Located west of the Essequibo River, the disputed region consists of 61,600 square miles, and although the Maduro regime previously did almost nothing.

To regain the disputed territory, it is now deploying Venezuelan warships to conduct naval exercises in the maritime border area. China is well positioned to exploit this maritime border dispute, providing anti-ship missiles to the Venezuelan Navy. If a conflict breaks out between Venezuela and Guyana, China is likely to reap the benefits by leveraging its bilateral agreements with both countries to access the Essequibo's burgeoning oil and gas resources.

Marriage of Convenience

This century has seen Russia and China create and exploit grey zone conflicts in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Venezuela represents an example of this same strategy in Latin America, a region with vast strategic natural resources and increasingly vital to Russia and China's global positioning.

While not a natural alliance, Russia and China have found common ground in Venezuela by partnering with the Maduro regime. Moscow provides the weapons and manpower, while Beijing provides the military technology to the Maduro regime. This assistance helps Venezuela's strongman persist and continue to project power throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.


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