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

central Moscow.

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

Amer­ican nations.

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

on Wednesday.

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

their interests.

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

his successor.

The path Putin takes will help determine whether Ven­ez­uela peacefully chan­ges government, slides into civil war or consolidates as a repressive pariah

under Maduro.

“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.”

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