A leading American scholar on U.S.-Russian relations is voicing alarm over reports that paramilitaries from a Russian military contractor have filtered into Venezuela, the Latin American nation where the embattled, Moscow-supported authoritarian government under Nicolas Maduro is struggling to contain popular protests.
Up to 1,000 mercenaries from the Wagner Group – a private army formed in 2014 that has operated in recent years in eastern Ukraine and Syria – may be in Venezuela, said Kimberly Marten, an expert on U.S.-Russia relations at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and a professor at Barnard College. Reports of the deployment are difficult to confirm, in part because the band of irregulars operates in a legal vacuum and is structured in a way as to afford the Russian government “plausible deniability,” both U.S. and Russian experts acknowledge. Officials in Moscow have been dismissive of the reports.
The United States is openly supporting the Venezuelan opposition movement, and the Trump Administration recently imposed economic sanctions on Maduro’s government in an effort to grease the wheels for its downfall. On February 3, President Donald Trump even raised the possibility of U.S. military involvement in the Venezuelan power struggle.
Russia has cautioned Washington against meddling, but has not taken any specific public steps to prop up Maduro.
However, when Maduro met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Russia in late December, he made an intriguing statement about Russian assistance. “Putin is giving us support on all levels and we have received it with much pleasure and gratitude,” Russia’s state-sponsored Sputnik news agency quoted Maduro as saying.
The Wagner Group is reportedly led by Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian special forces commander who had ties to Russian Military Intelligence, the GRU. Utkin ostensibly retired from the Russian military in 2013 and adopted the nom-de-guerre Wagner, due to his reputed affinity for Nazi Germany, while fighting in a private capacity amid Russian-sponsored military operations in Ukraine.
The Wagner Group is believed to have a training base in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar, even though it, like all such non-state Russian armed groups, is not a legally registered entity in Russia, Marten asserted. Still, the Wagner Group appears to be a favorite of the Russian government. Utkin and other Wagner fighters have received state medals for their actions, and were even feted in a Kremlin ceremony in late 2016.
The group’s fuzzy legal status is perhaps not accidental, Marten suggested. It gives the Russian state the ability to use military force while maintaining the ability to deny meddling in another state’s internal affairs. It also leaves its paramilitaries vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment in Russia, thus providing the Kremlin with leverage over mercenaries to prevent them from publicly revealing details about the group’s structure, operations and/or possible governmental affiliations.
The lack of status “is a way of keeping Wagner quiet,” Marten said. Marten was speaking at a Harriman Institute-sponsored conference on U.S.-Russian security issues, held in New York on February 1. [Editor's note: Eurasianet is based at the Harriman Institute.]
The use of private military contractors (PMCs) has proliferated during the conflicts of the 21st century, a trend highlighted in the United States by the widespread use of mercenaries from the firm Blackwater and others during and after the second U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2008, the International Committee of the Red Cross sponsored a pact, known as the Montreux Document, which is designed to govern the “legal obligations and good practices for states related to operations of private military and security companies during armed conflict.” So far, 54 states, including the United States, China and Ukraine, have joined the document. Russia is not a signatory.
Wagner Group fighters played a central role in a 2018 clash in Syria that brought U.S. and Russian military forces perhaps the closest they’ve come to a direct fight since the height of the Cold War, Marten said. The incident began in February 2018, when Wagner paramilitaries participated in an assault against U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces in the town of Khasham. The strategic target reportedly was a nearby energy facility.
There are various versions of what happened next, each representing a different geopolitical viewpoint. In Marten’s retelling of the clash, U.S. military advisers early on determined that Russian mercenaries were part of the assault force, and used a hot-line to contact Russian military officials in Syria, who repeatedly denied that Russians were participating. Having been assured that Russians were not involved, the U.S. military ordered airstrikes that stopped the assault in its tracks and caused extensive casualties. According to some accounts, hundreds of Wagner fighters were killed.
The reason why the Russian military denied the presence of Wagner paramilitaries on the battlefield remains a mystery, Marten said. Potentially the denial was “designed to test U.S. mettle,” Marten said, adding it also could have been a consequence of infighting among various factions within the Russian defense establishment.
Marten said the Venezuelan crisis is unfolding during a “dangerous” period in U.S.-Russian relations, a time when the arms control architecture put in place during the late stages of the Cold War appears to be unraveling. In recent days, both countries announced that they would no longer adhere to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987.
If Wagner fighters are in Venezuela, they could become a flashpoint for confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. With tension approaching the boiling point in the Latin American nation, there is no mechanism similar to what exists in Syria to keep U.S. and Russian military officials in direct and quick contact over rapidly changing developments, Marten said.
There is “no hotline in Venezuela. So we had better keep our fingers crossed,” Marten said.
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