MOSCOW — On a rainy afternoon this week, a group of Russian officials and oil executives gathered for Mass in a Catholic church tucked away behind the imposing secret service headquarters in
They did not come to pray. Instead, they were commemorating the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, who poured billions of dollars into Russian weapons and machinery, and showing support for his embattled successor, Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro is fighting to save the political system he and Chávez have built, with Russian support, for two decades. Maduro’s catastrophic economic mismanagement has led the opposition to claim the country’s leadership with the support of the United States, the European Union and most South
To Russia, it was the latest attempt by the West to topple an adversarial government and check President Vladimir Putin’s global outreach. The Kremlin reacted by closing ranks around Maduro and offering him unequivocal diplomatic support, which was on display at St. Louis of France Church
Russia’s top Latin America diplomat, Alexander Shchetinin, and Igor Sechin, the powerful chief of Russia’s biggest state-owned oil company, Rosneft, were among those who laid flowers on Chávez’s memorial. But behind the official show of unity, Russia’s economic and political elites are becoming increasingly divided on how best to preserve
As Maduro and the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, settle into a war of attrition, the Kremlin faces a stark choice: to double down on its ally or to be among those who choose
The path Putin takes will help determine whether Venezuela peacefully changes government, slides into civil war or consolidates as a repressive pariah
“Russia’s global image and weight is at stake in Venezuela,” said Vladimir Rouvinski, political scientist at the Icesi University in Cali, Colombia. “The initial shock and fear in Russia that they would lose everything in Venezuela is being replaced by the possibility that they can become part of a negotiated transition and ensure their interests are respected.”
These interests range from Venezuelan oil projects and military contracts held by Russian state firms to the geopolitical value of having an anti-American ally in the Western Hemisphere.
In recent years, Rosneft has emerged as Venezuela’s biggest oil partner and lender of last resort, taking stakes in five crude-producing projects and lending Maduro’s government around $7 billion in return for oil. Venezuela still owes Rosneft about $2.3 billion, according to a
company presentation in February.
Venezuela also owes $3.1 billion to the Russian Finance Ministry for weapons, trucks and grain purchased on credit. Finally, Moscow’s state arms exporter has lucrative contracts to maintain Venezuela’s Russian-made tanks, fighter jets and air defense systems.
“These are significant sums, but it’s not something that would sink the Russian economy,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It’s about Putin’s ability to project Russia as a global power.”