SIM Report: Venezuela and Russia deepen trade, energy and military ties

SIM Report: Latin America and the Caribbean, Issue 10

On Tuesday (30 March), the Venezuelan and Russian governments signed 12 bilateral cooperation agreements in areas including finance, energy, trade, and military affairs. The agreements, which also included Venezuela pledging to test a second Russian coronavirus vaccine, EpiVacCorona, were finalised during a visit to Caracas from Russian deputy prime minister Yury Borisov. In a subsequent sign of the two sides’ increasingly close relations on 6 April, Russia’s ambassador to Venezuela, Sergei Melik-Bagdasarov, revealed that direct flights between Caracas and Moscow could begin later that month. The flights are set to be operated by Venezuela’s largest airline Conviasa.

The announcements and Borisov’s high-level visit to Caracas, during which he met with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, highlight both capitals’ interest in deepening bilateral relations. For the Venezuelan government, Russian support on financial, military and public health matters is part of Caracas’ broader strategy to offset poor relations with the US and EU by strengthening ties with their geopolitical rivals, most notably China, Russia, and Iran, alongside longstanding ally Cuba. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, for example, Venezuela has agreed to buy 10 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, while it has also secured doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine and plans to manufacture the Cuban-made Abdala inoculation. Russian interests in the oil-rich South American country also extend to military affairs, with Russia providing Caracas with military hardware, training, and maintenance. In 2018, Russia landed two Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers in Caracas as a show of support for Maduro’s government and to highlight Moscow’s global military capabilities. Russia has also pledged increased involvement in developing Venezuela’s oil reserves and the two sides have agreed to use Russian technologies to enhance the security of the Venezuelan oil sector.

While Venezuela’s motivations for close bilateral ties are primarily related to domestic economic and security deficiencies, Russia’s involvement in the crisis-hit South American country is instead driven by long-term geopolitical concerns. By pursuing close ties with Venezuela, the Russian government is advancing its presence and projecting its power in an impoverished but geostrategically important country of the western hemisphere, much to the dislike of the US, the region’s primary power. Russia’s relations with Venezuela give weight to Moscow’s claim of being a global power and make it a key stakeholder in any serious efforts to address the country’s political, diplomatic or economic woes. Moreover, Russian influence hinders US and EU efforts to bring about a democratic transition, while also advancing Moscow’s own commercial and military interests. Russian-Venezuelan ties contrast significantly with China-Venezuela relations, with Beijing’s involvement largely predicated on privileged access to Venezuela’s oil resources. While Russia has interests in Venezuela’s oil sector, it has large oil reserves of its own, making oil an important rather than critical factor in ties.

The signing of new cooperation agreements is a further formalisation and deepening of ties between Caracas and Moscow. The agreements are set to increase US concerns over rival foreign powers’ influence in the Americas. In the medium-to-long terms, this is likely to lead to new US efforts to oppose Russian and Chinese influence in Venezuela and across the western hemisphere, as exemplified by previous US efforts to prevent Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from developing Latin American 5G networks.

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