Throughout Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis, Russia has been among its staunchest supporters. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, hoping for some reassurances of the Kremlin’s continued support for his administration amid the ongoing turmoil in his country and international pressure for him to step down. In September, the United States imposed new sanctions (against four shipping companies registered in Cyprus and Panama) aimed at stopping Venezuelan oil exports headed for Cuba. The U.S. also promised last week to provide the Venezuelan opposition with $52 million in aid. The European Union, meanwhile, introduced sanctions against seven members of the Venezuelan security and intelligence forces. Russia, however, hasn’t wavered in its support for Venezuela. Indeed, Moscow has not only foreign policy reasons to maintain strong relations with Caracas but domestic ones, too.
The two countries are long-time allies, but their ties peaked around 2012. Moscow considered Venezuela among its main strategic partners, provided generous loans and supplied a wide range of goods. Several Russian companies were involved in the development of Venezuelan oil fields, Russian-made KAMAZ trucks were in wide supply, and Russia participated in a pro-government housing construction program in Venezuela. But geopolitical tensions, as well as tough sanction policies against both Russia and Venezuela, significantly complicated Russia-Venezuela relations. High inflation and the risk of default in Venezuela also affected the willingness of Russian investors and exporters to do business with Venezuela and the ability of Venezuelan companies to sell their goods to foreign customers.
Nonetheless, the Kremlin has chosen to seek greater cooperation with Caracas for several reasons. First, from an economic perspective, Russia and Venezuela have much to gain from maintaining close ties. Both have large markets and production potential.
Trade between the two has fluctuated over the years, however. When it comes to oil, Russian companies of course have an interest in Venezuela – the country, after all, has the largest oil reserves in the world, exceeding 300 billion barrels, according to OPEC. Some Russian oil companies have therefore invested in the Venezuelan energy sector. But in recent years, many Russian oil companies have left Venezuela, put off by the political uncertainty, security risks and general low quality of Venezuelan oil, not to mention the threat of sanctions. Yet a small group of companies, including Rosneft and Gazprom Neft, remains, despite U.S. threats to impose new penalties. In early September, for example, Washington said it was considering sanctions against Rosneft for its involvement in the Venezuelan oil sector; Rosneft, however, continues to purchase oil and develop fields in Venezuela.
Russia also sees Venezuela as a potential market for Russian wheat (wheat exports to Venezuela in 2018 increased by 33 percent year over year), mechanical engineering products and medical supplies. Such products could provide some relief from the scarcity issues plaguing Venezuela since the crisis began. For its part, Venezuela sees Russia as a potential buyer of its agricultural products. Russia already buys food products from other Latin American countries – these tend to be cheaper than Russian food products despite logistical costs and tariffs. In fact, Uruguay and Argentina account for 7 percent and 5 percent respectiely of Russian dairy imports. In addition, Argentina is the second-largest supplier of cheese to Russia after Belarus.
The Kremlin also has domestic political reasons for wanting to increase cooperation with Venezuela. It sees an opportunity to boost its approval rating by backing the Maduro government because Russian public opinion tends to be favorable toward Venezuela, and Latin America in general. A survey released in February by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center found that 57 percent of respondents were interested in current events in Venezuela. It also found that 20 percent of Russians see the deteriorating political and economic situation in Venezuela as a result of actions by other countries, particularly the United States. When it comes to the Venezuelan opposition and anti-government protesters, 15 percent said they felt indifferent, 12 percent felt distrust and 11 percent condemned them. Thus, if Moscow were to refuse to help Maduro, it might experience some backlash from the Russian public. Moreover, the amount of support Russia has provided – food supplies and a small number of troops for nonmilitary support – doesn’t carry a huge financial burden for Moscow anyway. Considering that it, too, has seen a recent wave of anti-government protests, it has been inclined to help Caracas in its time of need.
In addition, Russia has an interest in increasing its presence in the Western Hemisphere, in the United States’ own backyard. It has done so primarily by getting close to Cuba – given its proximity to the U.S. – a country the Russian prime minister is scheduled to visit later this week for the first time since 2013. But maintaining strong relations with Venezuela could also help the Kremlin boost relations with Cuba. It has been difficult for Russia to gain a substantial foothold in Venezuela, partly because the U.S. would react strongly to any Russian military involvement in the country. For this reason, not to mention the expense and logistical requirements, it’s extremely unlikely that Russia would set up a military base in Venezuela, but it did send roughly 100 troops there in March, and a group of Russian military personnel arrived in Venezuela a week ago to carry out maintenance on Russian-made equipment.
Venezuela used to be one of the largest buyers of Russian weapons; it had purchased Russian tanks, Grad multiple rocket launchers, Pechora-2M missile systems, S-300 air defense systems and many others. But today, Venezuela is no longer considered a major market for Russian arms. In the past, these goods were purchased mainly using Russian loans, and Moscow can no longer rely on Caracas to pay back its debts given the state of its economy. Moscow too is short on funds and reluctant to offer loans it can’t be sure will be paid back. Thus, Russia’s defense-related activity in Venezuela today is limited mostly to fulfilling old contracts and maintaining assets that have already been delivered under previous agreements.
Russia has unquestionable long-term economic and geopolitical interests in Venezuela. But its ability to increase its presence there is limited, in part by its own economic obstacles, which include falling oil prices, reduced federal budget revenue and deteriorating living conditions for the Russian people. Still, Moscow will continue to make gestures of increased cooperation with an eye toward strengthening ties in the long term, not only because of the potential economic benefits but also because the Kremlin knows this is a popular policy position at home.