For Venezuelans, the invasion of Ukraine hits close to home

Edited image of a demonstrator holding a flag with the words “Ukraine, we also resist”. Photo by José R. Camacho Keller/Reporte Ya, used with permission.

Despite the Venezuelan government's best efforts to promote Russian talking points on its war against Ukraine, many Venezuelans view the war as yet another example of Russian aggression of which they also are victims. Ever since Euromaidan in 2014, Venezuelans have shown their support to Ukraine, not from a position of distant sympathy, but from people who share a similar struggle

Earlier this year, in April 2023, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, landed in Venezuela to meet with high-level officials and diplomats, such as President Nicolás Maduro. The visit was part of an official tour of the minister to rally the support of Russia’s partners in Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba in the war.

Yet, Lavrov did not need to go to Caracas to rest assured that Russia could count on the “full support” of the Venezuelan government, as has been expressed by President Maduro since the beginning of the war. The Maduro regime not only supports Russia, but it also actively engages with Russian state sources to promote the narrative that the war is legitimate and that Ukraine, NATO, and the West are Ukraine’s true aggressors.

The Venezuelan anti-corruption non-profit Transparency Venezuela describes in its report “Russia and Venezuela: Allied to Disinform” how the Venezuelan public media system and state institutions regularly replicate or quote information published by Russian media such as Russia Today or Sputnik, both of them Russian media that serve as tools of Kremlin propaganda.

According to Transparency Venezuela, state media workers have even received specific instructions on how to cover the war, which includes not referring to it as an “invasion” contrary to international law, but as a “military special operation,” as Russia emphatically sustains.

Transparency Venezuela also notes how state media and institutions have promoted pro-Russia hashtags on social media, such as #VenezuelaApuestaALaPaz (Venezuela bets on peace) and #VenezuelaConRusia (Venezuela with Russia). Engagement with these narratives is inflated and more part of an orchestrated campaign than organic behavior. 

Most Venezuelans, weary of anything that comes from the government, do not seem to have bought into these narratives. A few days after Russia started the invasion in 2022, separate groups of Venezuelans took to the streets to protest against Russian aggression. This happened in a country where the government regularly criminalizes protests. Venezuelans continue to speak against the war in Ukraine and Russia's relations with Maduro's government today, on social media.

The statement “stop Putin” is both a rejection of the war and of Russia’s influence in Venezuelan politics for the past 20 years. Sympathy towards Ukraine stems not only from an anti-war sentiment but also from a sense of grievance against foreign influence that has been instrumental to the survival of a government currently under investigation by the Prosecution of the International Criminal Court (ICC) – just like Putin.

For the past twenty years, Venezuelan institutions have become increasingly intertwined with the Kremlin

According to Vendata, an open-source database that compiles public information on Venezuela, between 2001 and 2022, Russia and Venezuela signed at least 255 agreements in a wide variety of subjects, which range from energy, agriculture, and financial services to defense and national security. As tends to be the case with the Venezuelan government, many (if not most) of these agreements are mired by a lack of transparency, making it difficult to account for the multi-million-dollar exchange of goods and services.

During the presidencies of the late Hugo Chávez and now Maduro, Venezuela has turned to Russia and China to make billionaire purchases of military equipment and technical services, including surveillance systems. The Russian Kalashnikov became Venezuela’s military rifle. The intense exchange between both countries throughout the years turned Venezuela into Russia’s largest military partner in the region, as noted by expert Evan Ellis

The purchase of military equipment is not merely a commercial operation. According to expert Ramón Cardozo, it is also an indication of military alliances and denotes the approach of military strategies and points of view with regard to national security and defense.

In the recent past, Russia has deployed military equipment and personnel to Venezuela whenever it has faced criticism from the West for its acts of aggression against its neighbors. Weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, Russian high-level officers suggested possible military deployments to Venezuela and Cuba if their “security concerns” regarding the status of Ukraine were not met by NATO.

Some experts and former members of the government suggest there may be a permanent presence of Russian troops in Venezuela; including mercenaries of the now disgraced Wagner Group, allegedly tasked with protecting President Maduro and Russia's interests in murky businesses in the country. The Venezuelan Constitution strictly forbids foreign military bases.

But the influence of Russia in Venezuela should not be measured just in terms of the acquisition of equipment and technical services. As revisionist countries with similar value systems, Russia and Venezuela are partners in protecting and stabilizing their own authoritarian rule.

Russia was instrumental in the international scheme set by Venezuela to circumvent sanctions and sell oil before it got hindered by sanctions. Russia also participates in the extraction of gold and other minerals in southern Venezuela, an activity plagued with complaints of human rights violations, endemic violence, and ecocide. By participating in these activities, Russia has helped the Venezuelan regime obtain income to sustain its authoritarian model.

That is why, during the protests against the war in Venezuela, the Venezuelans who carried the Venezuelan and Ukrainian flags are not just rejecting an unlawful war of aggression in a distant part of the world. The words of a well-known demonstrator, beloved by many, have resonated with many Venezuelans: “Ukraine, we also resist.”

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