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A Russian Ilyushin IL-62 (registration number RA-86496) at Simón Bolívar International Airport in Venezuela

Geopolitical debts Why Russia is really sending military advisers and other specialists to Venezuela

Source: Meduza
A Russian Ilyushin IL-62 (registration number RA-86496) at Simón Bolívar International Airport in Venezuela
A Russian Ilyushin IL-62 (registration number RA-86496) at Simón Bolívar International Airport in Venezuela
Carlos Becerra / Bloomberg / Getty Images

In late June 2019, Venezuela averted another coup. The government also nearly fell in the spring, on April 30, when opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself the country’s lawful president and tried to overthrow the acting head of state, Nicolás Maduro. Protesters clashed with police in the streets, hoping for the army’s support, but the soldiers ultimately remained loyal to Maduro. In those days, when the U.S. recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s sole legitimate president, Moscow sent military advisers to Caracas. To learn more about the exact nature of “Russia’s support for the Maduro regime” (which attracted a great deal of attention abroad), Meduza sought out Russian army and intelligence agency veterans who previously served in Venezuela, and discovered that they mainly guarded Russian business interests, not the local authorities. 

Fridge duty

Anatoly spent a year and a half living at Rosneft’s high-rise building in Caracas. He says the company’s executives knew in advance, based on secret sociological studies concluded in October 2018, that Venezuela's protests would drag on and even spread. Anatoly told Meduza that Rosneft decided to increase security at its offices in Caracas, worried that its own locally hired staff would make off with the corporate furniture and blame the protesters.

To hire “watchmen” for its Venezuelan offices, Rosneft approached Russians with military pasts, including Anatoly (who declined to say when exactly he worked in Caracas, fearing it would reveal his identity). He says he was issued a satellite-connected Samsung Galaxy smart phone preloaded with WhatsApp, which he used to send a security report to Moscow every three hours.

There were no incidents on the floor where Anatoly was stationed (if you don’t count the cleaning women who grabbed the food in office refrigerators). From a window, Anatoly watched the protests in the street below. None of the demonstrators fighting with police showed any interest in the Rosneft building.

The mission turned out to be boring not just for Anatoly, but for most of the Russian military specialists in Venezuela. Much of what journalists and politicians in the West have described as “support for the ruling regime” was in fact an attempt by Russian companies to guard their own assets, Meduza learned from multiple sources who worked in the country, including a military intelligence reserve officer, a Federal Security Service veteran, a source close to Russia’s military specialists, and another intelligence agency veteran. All four individuals say Russian specialists’ main objective in Venezuela was to protect local Russian business interests. 

“In Russia right now, it’s mainly state corporations working with Venezuela, because the country is simply in ruins,” says Tatyana Rusakova, a research assistant at the Center for the Study of Societies in Crisis, where she studies Latin America. “No normal person would invest their money there. Only Rosneft and Rostec in all their glory can sink money like that, because Rosoboronexport supplied arms, and these contracts have to be maintained.” “There are three or four [Russian] state companies working in Venezuela that organized delegations [of private security teams] into the country,” says a source who was approached about guarding local oil facilities. According to a Russian special forces veteran who also worked in Venezuela as a private contractor, Russian companies distributed humanitarian aid to local staff at these facilities, “to prevent food riots,” amid national shortages brought about by the collapse of Venezuela’s agricultural industry. 

In April 2019, BuzzFeed News reported that Russia was shipping its humanitarian aid to Venezuela through Malta aboard military aircraft from Syria. These planes also sometimes carried military specialists, in order to save money on commercial charters, an FSB veteran who worked in Venezuela told Meduza. “On an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane, which carries spare parts for oil installations, they’d seat seven specialists, listed as ‘signal operators’ or ‘gas workers,’ but who they really were wasn’t on record,” a source told Meduza.

Members of the Bolivarian National Guard who joined Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed acting president Juan Guaido gesture after repelling forces loyal to President Nicolas Maduro, near LaCarlota military base in Caracas on April 30, 2019.
Federico Parra / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
Ana Francisca Perez de Leon Hospital chief physician Zaira Medina, as Russian humanitarian aid arrives. Caracas, February 2019.
Valery Sharifulin / TASS / Vida Press

Most of the Russian military specialists in Venezuela were paid 150,000 rubles ($2,365) a month (which is similar to the typical salaries earned in Syria by mercenaries in the “Wagner” private military company, according to an investigative report by RBC). After landing in Venezuela, Russians were instructed, for example, to collect Russian companies’ corporate documents and bring them back home. More serious tasks were handled individually, “through their own channels,” by hiring a handful of “private contractors,” explains a specialist who worked in the country. A source in Russia’s interior security troops says there were roughly 60 mercenaries performing “special assignments.” The salary for this work was above average: 220,000 rubles ($3,470) a month. These men were tasked with jobs like recruiting informants in dangerous parts of Caracas, says a source who was offered one such assignment.

At the start of Venezuela’s protests in the fall of 2018, there were at least 100 active members of Russia’s special forces in the country, in addition to the former soldiers working as security guards, Meduza learned from a military intelligence reserve officer who worked in Venezuela. By June 2019, all but 20 of these soldiers were gone. “They never really did anything,” says the reserve officer.

The Venezuelan militia

Among the assignments that most resemble “support for the Maduro regime,” Meduza’s sources describe working with local militiamen from the Venezuelan National Militia and members of armed groups known as the colectivos, which gained strength after a failed coup d'état in 2002, when President Hugo Chávez realized that he couldn’t count on the loyalty of the military and police, and formed his own paramilitary support base. Acting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who trusts the army even less than Chávez, has continued to finance paramilitary squads using government funds. Meduza’s sources confirm that Russian military experts started assisting in the training of these militia forces in 2018. A military intelligence veteran who worked in Venezuela and a source close to the FSB say Russian specialists are also working with the colectivos.

Created in 2009, the Venezuelan National Militia comprises civilians called upon first by Chávez and then by Maduro to defend “the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution” (the radical political process initiated by Chávez). “The militia unites women and men of different ages who have passed a firearms course and received basic drill training,” Punto de Corte correspondent Sebastiana Barraez told Meduza, explaining that many people join for economic reasons. “They’re all registered and required to report for duty, whenever called, for example, to some military facility. This guarantees them access to CLAP” (the Local Committees for Supply and Production, which ration food to the country’s poorest households). Groceries have virtually become a new currency in Venezuela, Barraez says, with distribution controlled by institutions loyal to Maduro, namely the national militia and the colectivos. In April 2019, Maduro vowed to merge the national militia with the country’s armed forces.

The colectivos are urban gangs from the barrios of Caracas, the city’s poorest neighborhoods. In 2014, the Venezuelan authorities started actively recruiting these groups to fight in the streets against the opposition. In 2017, for example, they supported Maduro’s attempt to dissolve the parliament. To pay the colectivos for their total loyalty, the Venezuelan government has raided the budget of its main state enterprise, the oil and gas company PDVSA. Today, the regime has effectively ceded the slums in western Caracas to these gangs, where they bake bread, trade goods, and stage large public funerals for their comrades killed in clashes with the opposition.

Members of a “colectivo” beat an opposition student who was taking part in a protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, April 3, 2014. 
Federico Parra / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Colectivo members are also flooding the militia’s ranks, Barraez says, in an effort to legalize the gangs: “The colectivos are joining the militia to gain at least some legitimacy in the face of harsh criticism from civil society and even the army and other security agencies against armed groups favored by the authorities.” The colectivos are also integrating with other security institutions. For example, the “Tres Raices” (Three Roots) gang enjoys close ties to Venezuela’s security elites, and its members serve in the Bolivarian Intelligence Service. In 2017, Maduro created an elite unit within the Venezuelan National Police to “safeguard the revolution,” and many colectivo members have since joined. According to research published by the Insight Crime Center in March 2019, the Maduro regime has relied repeatedly on these forces to crush protests over the past six months.

Bolivarian Intelligence Service officials surround Mayor Antonio Ledezma’s residence, after his escape from house arrest.
Roman Camacho / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

Russian military instructors currently assist in the training of the Venezuelan National Militia, which includes members of the colectivos. “Russians often show up at the militia’s headquarters,” one Tres Raices member told Meduza. But sources generally expressed dissatisfaction with the practice of cooperating with the colectivos, noting their unreliability and poor discipline. Involving these gangs in the militia’s work is irresponsible, if not desperate policymaking, says a veteran of Russia’s internal troops who worked in Venezuela. “It’s more trouble than it’s worth. You give them $1,000, and these fuckers don’t just pocket the money and try to handle it for $50, but they also tell the police about you,” says one source, describing his attempt to negotiate the protection of an installation with the gangs.

The guys from the Donbas

Alexander Ionov founded the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (ADR) in 2012. At first, the movement staged a handful of small protests and pickets demanding the annulment of Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, but before long it was organizing major events with government support. In 2015 and 2016, for example, ADR used a presidential grant to hold conferences on unrecognized states. Ionov also became a member of the Russian Committee on Solidarity With the Peoples of Syria and Libya, which welcomed visits from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hugo Chávez. Ionov questions the idea that Russian specialists are in Venezuela to support the Maduro regime. “Venezuela has a very simple design,” he says. “They don’t need any Russian special forces there. After we fucked up Ukraine, do you really think we could set anything right in Venezuela?”

Ionov first got acquainted with many of today’s Venezuelan elites before they rose to power, 10 years ago, when members of his “Anti-Globalization Movement” accompanied Hugo Chávez during his visit to Moscow. Ionov says he now has friends in the Maduro administration, among the Venezuelan diplomatic corps, and at the oil and gas company PDVSA. He’s even pals with the captain of a Venezuelan destroyer ship.

Alexander Ionov (left) with Diosdado Cabello, now the president of Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, in 2013
Alexander Ionov / VKontakte

According to Ionov, Russian military specialists are involved in the region for another purpose: repelling Colombian aggression. The threat of invasion by Colombia, he argues, is an important factor in Venezuelan domestic policy. On June 26, there were reports in Caracas of a new attempted coup involving “Colombian terrorists” supposedly hired to assassinate Nicolás Maduro. The president claimed that the Venezuelan opposition’s plans were tied to the leader of a Colombian mafia group arrested in March. In April 2019, Venezuela deployed soldiers at 17 military bases along its border with Colombia. 

The Venezuelan authorities exploit the concept of “foreign operatives” to manipulate the public, argues an investigative report by the local opposition websites and Connectas, which found, for example, that the government used the fight against “Colombian paramilitaries” as a pretext for “personal revenge and acquiring territory.”

Ionov says he learned from acquaintances back in November 2018 that Russian specialists were in Venezuela “countering Colombian commandos”: “There’s almost no border between the two countries, and operatives have flooded into Venezuela from Colombia, bent on destabilization. It was necessary to plan a strategy to eliminate them,” Ionov explains.

Two Russian military intelligence special forces veterans with experience related to Venezuela confirm that the concerns about sabotage are real. One Russian internal troops veteran who declined a contract to work in Venezuela told Meduza that “guys from the Donbas” are routinely employed to guard oil installations from provocations and sabotage.

Metal collecting

Russian entrepreneurs interested in Venezuela’s infrastructure and its mineral deposits have paid attention neither to the country’s humanitarian crisis nor to its protests. “The unrest didn’t have any effect on my client’s longstanding habit of buying gold in person,” said one security professional, who recently served as a bodyguard for a Russian businessman visiting Venezuela. “The chance to sign a deal and look the other party in the eyes is priceless.”

The deals in question aren’t just in the oil industry; in fact, a source close to the FSB told Meduza that what Russian entrepreneurs are doing in Venezuela can hardly be considered business in the usual sense at all: “We’re talking about infrastructure that’s sitting there with nobody controlling or running it. Fiber-optic networks, cellular towers, iron products, I-beams — all that is worth a lot of money, not to mention microwire and microfiber production facilities.”

Along the southern bank of the Orinoco River, deposits of bauxite, diamonds, gold, and coltan lie scattered across 112,000 square kilometers of land (27.7 million acres, or 12 percent of Venezuela’s territory). In the depths of that territory, which is known as the Orinoco Mining Arc, government forces not only let illegal gold mining continue uninhibited; they encourage it. Many Venezuelans have taken up the hard labor of illegal mining due to rampant inflation and a catastrophically low food supply. In mining towns, one can find all kinds of fresh produce and medications, but only at extremely high prices.

“The first thing that comes to mind is Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It actually also reminds me of that clip where Kermit the Frog visits the Gulag, but it’s a Gulag either way. I even looked up that clip on my phone, showed it to the guys…” the source who worked as a Russian businessman’s bodyguard laughingly recounted to Meduza. “The thing is that you can’t start feeling sympathetic for the locals. The women steal there too, and the teenagers know how to use a machete.”

The gold trade along the Orinoco River used to be controlled by armed groups called sindicatos, Sebastiana Barraez told Meduza, but “in 2018, the Venezuelan army took control of the mines that the Russians and the Chinese were most interested in.” The army really did purge the sindicatos, the Russian businessman’s bodyguard confirmed, “but mostly under the Chinese’s noses. The Russians are still standing by.”

A miner walks on property owned by state gold processor Minerven in the violently contested, mineral-rich town of El Callao, Bolivar State, Venezuela. February 27, 2018
Manaure Quintero / Bloomberg / Getty Images
A National Guard officer stands at a checkpoint in El Callao, Venezuela. February 27, 2018
Manaure Quintero / Bloomberg / Getty Images
An illegal gold buying kiosk stands on the street in Puerto Ordaz, Bolivar State, Venezuela. February 26, 2018
Manaure Quintero / Bloomberg / Getty Images

According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an ounce of gold costs less in the gold mines of the Orinoco Arc than it does anywhere else in the world. “A gram of gold, a karat, it’s all depreciating there right now. Say what you will — it certainly hasn’t done any harm for the business there,” Meduza’s source said.

Even during the mass protests of May 2019, when Western news sources regularly predicted Maduro’s overthrow, Russian security professionals were busy not so much supporting the regime as providing the infrastructure necessary to keep business ties going.

On May 3, rumors spread in Spanish-language Twitter communities that 15 Russian military advisers had landed in the capital of Falcón State in northern Venezuela. Casto Ocando, a Venezuelan investigative journalist living in Miami, learned the news from his own sources first: “They’ve taken up an entire floor of the Cumberland Hotel near the Coro airport,” he wrote at the time. Local residents said the airport’s security had been reinforced as early as May 2; according to the flight tracker Flightradar24, a military Shaanxi Y-8 plane with the registration number FAV2810 landed in Coro that day. Later on, a photograph of the plane rumored to have transported the Russian advisers appeared on Twitter. It was indeed a Shaanxi.

There is an oil refinery complex an hour’s drive from Coro. In March of 2018, Venezuela attempted to sell one of that complex’s facilities, the Amuay Oil Refinery, to Rosneft, and Ocando confirmed that the Russian advisers payed a visit to Amuay. The handful of photographs depicting “the Russians” that circulated on Venezuelan social media were all taken at locations that had far more to do with business interests than military ones: each of those locations was near at least one facility that Russia had either built or financed.

The Russians were also evidently spotted in a bakery in the northwestern city of Acarigua, where Russia’s state defense export company, Rosoboronexport, had begun building a helicopter servicing center called CEMAREH (El Centro de Mantenimiento y Reparación de Helicópteros) back in 2006. Meduza’s sources recognized two of the people standing in line at the bakery’s counter: one is a fighter pilot, and the other is a former gas company employee who has ties to Igor Strelkov. Strelkov, who currently lives in Moscow, is the former defense minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. He was involved in multiple key battles in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Meduza’s sources recognized the third man from the left as a Russian fighter pilot.

Finally, Ocando told Meduza that his sources also contacted him about another group of Russian military specialists in the town of Puerto Ordaz, one of two that makes up Ciudad Guayana. The town is located near the Guri Dam, which is the largest hydroelectric power station in Venezuela and the fourth-largest in the world in terms of capacity. Twitter users also mentioned that large numbers of Russians had occupied rooms in the city’s Rosa Bela hotel. Ciudad Guayana is located on the banks of the Orinoco River two hours away by car from the Carabobo-2 oil field. Rosneft got involved in the oil field’s development in 2011 with a $1.1 billion investment. In 2017, the company reported working on two different blocks in the Carabobo-2 field.

When Meduza contacted Rosneft press secretary Mikhail Leontyev for comment, he responded, “What does Meduza care about the strategic partnership between Russia and Venezuela? I think it doesn’t have any thing to do with you. It’s none of your business!”

How to hide a plane

According to several of Meduza’s sources, both military advisers and private security professionals began visiting Venezuela regularly in 2017. A military specialist who turned down one such business trip said that advisers are usually asked to fly to Venezuela for half a year. One veteran of Russia’s internal troops has been called into Venezuela three times in the past year: once before the New Year, once in February, and again in April. Two military intelligence special forces veterans told Meduza that they turned down requests to go to Venezuela in February, and a third spoke about his trip to the country in March.

Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia founder Alexander Ionov said that in March 2019 alone, several flights departed for Venezuela carrying Russian specialists, and that doesn’t include the Defense Ministry’s official delegation: “Thank God, our military planes can still cross the Atlantic in such a way that the trackers don’t catch them. It’s like in [the cult Russian comedy film] DMB: You can’t see the ground squirrel, but it’s there. And then there are civilian flights on top of that, and — well, who’s even counting those. It’s an open border: Just fly to France, and then you’re on your way to Caracas on an Air France flight.”

Military airplanes really are difficult to spot. In a 2018 study, researchers at Oxford University found that “military aircraft […] can switch off their transponders when required. […] For our sample of military aircraft, 8.6 percent used this approach in the observed civil airspace.” The researchers added that data from transponders can be inaccessible: “We can see that the vast majority (86.7 percent) of the ADS-B equipped military aircraft seen by OpenSky are blocked,” they wrote.

The Russian open-source intelligence enthusiast Galandeczp has been monitoring Russian military aircraft for three years and even publishes intercepted radio communications, but even he told Meduza, “You’ll never find [a military plane] on sites like that. It just won’t have a transponder to broadcast that signal.” Ruslan Leviev, the founder of the Russian investigative journalism group Conflict Intelligence Team, said military pilots also simply neglect to record tracking data on occasion: “Airplanes registered to the Defense Ministry sometimes simply don’t turn on their transponders or update their transponders’ data, meaning they don’t record data on any new flights. Usually, when a pilot sits down in a plane, they input data on their route into the plane’s computer, and the transponder begins to transfer that data. But military pilots often think civilian tracking services don’t apply to them and forget about that. It’s just negligence, and anyway, who’s going to reprimand them for it? What would you tell the Defense Minister?” Spotting a military plane in flight, Leviev said, “is usually a stroke of luck.”

The GRU special forces veteran who was offered a contract in Venezuela told Meduza that the flights he might have taken are chartered flights from civilian airports” that make regular trips and transport only a small group of people at a time. “They put five, seven, maybe 10 people in each plane,” an FSB veteran who worked in the region confirmed. The Venezuelan-American journalist Casto Ocando told Meduza that “just in the last few months, there have been a lot of unregistered flights into the country from various departure points: Moscow, Havana, Istanbul, Dubai.” According to Ionov, “Venezuela can bring back its people, many of whom are studying in Russian military academies, out of Moscow along with our guys.”

According to Reuters, one group of Russian mercenaries flew to Venezuela in the final week of January 2019. They reportedly took two chartered flights to Cuba and then took commercial flights to Caracas. The journalists suggested that an Il-96 plane run by the airline Rossiya took the two groups to Havana, but it later became clear that the plane was carrying a Russian Supreme Court delegation instead.

Around the same time, Meduza discovered, a week before the opposition protests announced by Juan Guaidó, a different plane arrived in Cuba: a Boeing with the registration number VP-BJL owned by Nordwind Airlines. The plane landed at Varadero Airport on January 22.

A Tu-160 owned by the Russian Aerospace Force lands in a Venezuelan airport.
Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation

The FSB veteran confirmed that Nordwind, which signed a contract with Rosneft in December of 2018, was the airline transporting Russian specialists to Venezuela. The investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta even alleged that the airline may have served as an intermediary to help sell Venezuelan gold. Meduza examined all of Nordwind’s flights and found that all flights conducted by one of the company’s airplanes, a Boeing VP-BJB, have been deleted from the website Flightradar24 (they are still available on ADS-B Exchange). That airplane is the airline's only craft that makes regular trips to Caracas. One of its flights from Moscow landed in the Venezuelan capital on April 14, the same day that Maduro called on a million more Venezuelans to join the militia. A Nordwind representative declined to speak with Meduza.

Russian military aircraft, on the other hand, have made official flights to Venezuela. Two Il-62 planes (RA-86496 and (RA-86572) and an An-124 Ruslan (RA-82035) have been to Caracas several times, and both Novaya Gazeta and Bellingcat wrote about those flights following waves of Twitter posts from locals in December and March. In April, those same airplanes requested permission from the Maltese government to use its airspace to fly to Caracas on humanitarian missions. According to ADS-B Exchange, in February, an Il-62 airplane (RA-86496) flew from Moscow to Venezuela during the large-scale war games Nicolás Madura launched to mark the 200th anniversary of Simón Bolívar’s “Angostura Speech.” Venezuelan At the time, Admiral Remigio Ceballos told El Mundo that Russian representatives were present during the operation.

A Russian An-124 Ruslan airplane with the registration number RA-82035 that reportedly made flights to and from Maiquetía, Venezuela, in March.

Meduza examined the flight records of 270 Il-76 airplanes, both military and commercial. According to the ADS-B Exchange database, a new Russian charter airline called Aviacon began operating in Venezuela in October 2018; the company had completed eight flights to the area as of March 2019. Data on those flights was deleted from Flightradar24, but their routes can be reconstructed using information from social media and ADS-B Exchange. Venezuelan amateur airplane spotters photographed an airplane with the registration number RA-78765 on February 20; tracking services also recorded its flight over Barbados and into Caracas. On March 7, that same plane left Caracas. On March 26, Twitter users began reporting that the plane was in Venezuela again. Aviacon had previously transported goods for Rosneft and Rosoboronexport, and it has also won contracts with Rostec-owned companies and the 224th Flight Squad of Russia’s Defense Ministry. However, according to Russia’s online SPARK record system, the Russian government’s state purchases website, and the company’s own website, Aviacon does not currently have any contracts with Russian companies working in Venezuela.

Yevgeny Rozhkov, the commercial director of Aviacon, confirmed to Meduza that one of the company’s airplanes landed in Caracas on February 20, 2019: “The craft was carrying spare parts for the servicing and repair of aerial equipment that had previously been transported to Venezuela.” The airplane spent an additional week in the area awaiting new orders. “The English aviation broker we asked to help us look for new gigs for the plane told us […] that the English company De La Rue, which fulfills orders for the Central Bank of Venezuela, was looking right then through its forwarding agents for a company to transport some valuable cargo to Caracas.” At first, the European company hired for the job declined to fly to Venezuela due to the declining political situation in the country, Rozhkov said. However, he added, the job ultimately went to a U.S. company: the Miami-based transport firm Sky Lease Cargo.

Without Wagner

Nicolás Maduro is the first foreign leader in six years to whom Russia has provided aid without help from the Wagner Private Military Company.

In Syria, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Madagascar, Russian campaigns were accompanied by numerous reports either of the Wagner PMC’s mercenaries or of political advisers with similarly strong ties to “Putin’s Chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin. However, Wagner has not yet put in an appearance in Latin America, a veteran of the PMC told Meduza. The same source had also worked in Venezuela as well as Russia’s internal intelligence forces; he remains close with Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Wagner’s absence from Venezuela may be related to changes within the company itself, said Conflict Intelligence Team founder Ruslan Leviev: “The Wagner PMC has retreated from almost every front: the last report of a Wagner mercenary killed abroad was more than a year ago. In Syria, their forces only serve as guards. There have been battles in the northern neighborhoods of Hama and in Damascus itself, but the mercenaries weren’t involved. Many of them have even returned to Ukraine because they aren’t being given military missions in Syria, but in the Donbas region, you can still go to war.”

A source who worked for Wagner in Africa confirmed to Meduza that the PMC’s troops now serve primarily as security guards rather than soldiers. Two other sources with ties to the PMC said that “experienced guys are scattering into other projects” while those who have remained at Wagner are “hunks of flesh who post photos of themselves on Insta[gram].” Four sources all indicated that the changes were tied to new commanders at the company who have no ties with the Russian military.

A source close to the FSB asserted that the Wagner PMC has “disappeared as a logistical center”: the organization has been deprived of control over its own military transports. Now, those logistics all go through official channels, and the company’s leadership can no longer set missions for its own forces. “On his own, at this point, Prigozhin can only send soldiers to guard his own facilities,” one source indicated (Yevgeny Prigozhin himself has repeatedly denied having any connection to the Wagner PMC).

The Russian specialists sent to Venezuela were selected along the lines of a scheme developed long before Wagner’s emergence. Rather than following the so-called “one-window” scheme by which Russian fighters are hired practically off the street at a given military base, the mercenaries have gone back to recruiting through a well-developed grapevine composed of existing veterans’ organizations. “All this goes through the Union of Donetsk Volunteers or the Union of Afghanistan Veterans,” Leviev clarified. Sources in Russia’s internal forces and the FSB confirmed that they looked for “private partners,” primarily guards for oil extraction facilities, through veterans’ organizations. Then, they “started working along human ties”: Two GRU special forces veterans received a call about a potential Venezuelan contract, for example, from “a colonel in the regional headquarters.” One internal intelligence officer told Meduza that some of the Russians in Venezuela were veterans of the high-risk “Zaslon” security division in Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. Another source close to the mercenary system said that veterans of Russia’s Federal Protective System had also been hired to work in Venezuela.

A strange feeling of guilt

Not everything Alexander Ionov has to say about Russian-Venezuelan inter-regime cooperation is strictly positive. In his words, a friend who was involved in bilateral military exercises between the two countries complained about one of his Venezuelan trainees, “He went to set up a battery, and when he was halfway there, he just dropped it, grabbed one of the nurses by the hand, and started dancing. These people are sticks in the mud! They haven’t even figured out how to guard their own border.”

According to The Wall Street Journal, the number of Russian training specialists like Ionov’s acquaintance is dropping fast in Venezuela: Rostec, a government corporate conglomerate that includes Rosoboronexport, has been removing its contractors from the country for several months straight, and the Russian Embassy in Caracas announced another round of departures on June 26. A source within Russia’s internal intelligence services who is familiar with the situation in Venezuela confirmed that withdrawals of private specialists from Venezuela began before January 2019 and has continued for five or six months straight. An employee within one of Rostec’s companies clarified that local contractors have been replacing the Russian specialists as they depart: “They do still have facilities there, after all — the Kalashnikov factory, for example. The least they can do is preserve them and keep turnover low.”

Rostec’s press service declined to confirm to Meduza that its contractors are being removed from Venezuela: “That information is incorrect. Neither Rostec’s staff in Venezuela nor the number of Rostec representatives working there has changed for several years. That said, the number of personnel securing and servicing equipment for our partners has fluctuated. It’s a workflow that operates in our typical regimen according to the contractual obligations of all parties,” a Rostec representative said.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro holds a replica of a sword that belonged to Venezuela’s national hero, Simon Bolivar, as Rosneft head Igor Sechin and Venezuelan Oil Minister and state oil company president Eulogio del Pino look on. Caracas, Venezuela; July 28, 2016
Miraflores Palace / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Nonetheless, Russian specialists have continued to fly back and forth from Venezuela on a regular basis. According to data posted by the InSight Crime research center, two thousand Russian citizens are currently working in Venezuela, “particularly in reconnaissance roles.” A source told Meduza that he would estimate the number of Russian specialists currently in the country at two or three thousand, and “that’s including everyone who’s there through official military cooperation, all the political advisers and even the Foreign Affairs folks.”

Despite those numbers, the Venezuelan ambassador in Russia has said that neither Caracas nor Moscow is currently considering the possibility of building a Russian military base in Venezuela (the Venezuelan Constitution prohibits the construction of foreign military bases on the country’s territory). A source in Russia’s Internal Intelligence Service told Meduza that Russian security professionals have nonetheless been guarding a “construction site that will become a Russian government facility.” An FSB veteran with experience in Venezuela said that the facility would be a military training center. Another source close to the FSB added that it was Venezuelan officials who had suggested building a range of new facilities to form a “coordination center,” a setup that would not require giving Venezuelan territory to another government.

According to Russia’s Economic Development Ministry, Russia has invested more than $4 billion in the Venezuelan economy since Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in 2002. “We lead with our hearts, as they say,” said Latin Americanist Tatiana Rusakova. “And I’m not just talking about Rosneft. There have been a lot of situations where it wasn’t profitable, but we did it. There’s a strange feeling of [historical] guilt behind all that: when we fell apart over here and left the region to survive, Latin America, which had always seen the USSR as a counterweight to the U.S., was left all alone. We said, ‘You hang in there,’ and that was it. And now, we’re trying to show that we aren’t going anywhere ever again.”

Some Russian military specialists working in Venezuela remain certain that “we’re paying back geopolitical debts.” Two of Meduza’s sources believe that they were hired “just to show that we Russians are there — so that everyone who has to get it, gets it.”

Story by Lilya Yapparova

Edited by Alexey Kovalev. Translated by Hilah Kohen and Kevin Rothrock.

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