The suspected arrival of around 100 Russian mercenaries in Venezuela to provide protection for Nicolas Maduro has set alarm bells ringing internationally while heightening the sense of insecurity surrounding the president and his entourage.
Two groups arrived from Russia, one ahead of presidential elections in May 2018 and another in recent days, The Moscow Times reported. The arrivals were apparently spread out with the men arriving either in Venezuela or in neighboring countries in smaller pairings to avoid drawing attention.
The arrival of these alleged mercenaries does not come by chance but at a moment when Maduro is facing arguably the toughest test to his rule yet. Opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, has named himself as interim president of Venezuela and has rejected Maduro as a fraud.
This situation has divided the international community, with the likes of Russia and China sticking by Maduro while the United States, Canada and most of Latin America have recognized Guaidó.
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This international division has only strengthened Maduro's resolve to stay in power at any cost. The United Nations has reported that over 40 people have been killed and more than 850 have been detained in the most recent round of protests. Guaidó's family has allegedly received threats from security forces who entered their home. And at least 10 foreign journalists have been arrested and deported in the last week.
InSight Crime Analysis
This is not the first occasion that the Russian government or its envoys have sought to help Venezuela. According to sources close to InSight Crime, about 2,000 Russian nationals have been working inside the country for over a year, mostly in intelligence roles and reporting to Venezuela's Minister of Defense, Vladimir Padrino.
The physical weight lent by this newly arrived group adds to the work that has been carried out by Cuban and Venezuelan agents, loyal to the Maduro regime, for years.
Russian government spokespersons have denied sending any physical security to Venezuela. And they denied that any "mercenaries" existed in Russia, stating that this profession would be considered a crime.
However, international media suggest that the mercenaries work for Wagner, a Russian private military group, and have been tasked with protecting the Venezuelan leadership.
Beyond mercenaries, other shows of strength by countries such as the United States have also raised fears that military intervention in Venezuela is a possibility.
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Venezuela has become the latest geopolitical battleground over which Russia and the US are sniping at each other. The Russian government spokesperson, Dimitry Peskov, said that a US military intervention in Venezuela would be "very dangerous and unacceptable."
Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, added that "Venezuela is friendly to us and is our strategic partner. We will stand...with this country in the defense of sovereignty, against the unacceptable violation of the principle of non-interference in internal affairs."
This international Cold War-style posturing only complicates Venezuela's situation while not helping bring the country's political impasse any closer to a resolution. In the meantime, the criminal enterprises within the Venezuelan government continue to thrive.