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Seeking influence in the Americas, Russian warships dock in Venezuela

Three Russian warships have now docked in the South American country of Venezuela. Their arrival comes at a critical time.
Venezuelan Vice Adm. Edward Centeno Mass, left, speaks with a member of the Russian Armed Forces during a welcoming tour
Posted at 6:23 PM, Jul 03, 2024

Upon departing Cuba after military exercises in the Caribbean in June, Russian warships didn't all head home. Some have now arrived at their next stop — Venezuela, along the northern coast of South America.

"The Kremlin loves their authoritarian buddies, and so this group will also head down to Venezuela to see Nicolas Maduro's forces there as well," said Andrew D'Anieri, with the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.

Nicolas Maduro is the president of Venezuela. Observers call him a dictator who has been in power since 2013. He's also an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, so experts said it's no surprise Russians would be heading to that country. It comes as Venezuela is on the cusp of new elections.

"Russian warships can create quite a bit of mischief. Keep in mind that they will be in the region for as long as we're up to Venezuela's contentious July 28 elections, so they could play some kind of role in helping the Maduro regime hang on to power there," said Ryan Berg, director of theAmericas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Related story: What's driving Venezuelans to migrate to the US?

Looming over the Venezuelan elections are dire economic conditions in the country, brought on by disastrous government economic policies and U.S. sanctions. That's led to a record number of Venezuelan migrants heading to the U.S.-Mexico border in the past few years, with 189,520 crossing in 2022 and an additional 262,633 just last year.

About half of all Venezuelans in the U.S. now live in Florida.

"I'll be watching very closely to see whether any Russian military officers participate in upcoming exercises that the Venezuelans have planned, vis-à-vis their campaign against Guyana," Berg said. "That would be an open endorsement of Venezuela's claim against the Essequibo region."

The Essequibo region is an oil-rich area located next to Venezuela, in the country of Guyana.

Venezuela's President Maduro has threatened to annex that part of Guyana by force — a potential similar playbook to how Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, according to the Atlantic Council's D'Anieri.

"Maduro would love the support, explicit support — especially of Putin — for this, what the rest of the world sees as an illegitimate land-grab," D'Anieri said. "But that really is the name of the game for Putin and his friends."

It's not clear exactly how long the Russian warships will be in Venezuela. As for the upcoming election there, depending on the results experts say it could lead to even more Venezuelans leaving the country. Since 2015, nearly 8 million Venezuelans have left for other countries, including the U.S.

That represents a quarter of the Venezuelan population, and it is the largest exodus of refugees ever in the Americas.