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June 17, 2024

Russian Warships, Venezuelan Elections, and a Fabricated Crisis with Guyana in the Caribbean?

By R. Evan Ellis

The deployment of Russian warships to the Caribbean is Kabuki theater.  For 15 years, a Russia whose international power projection capabilities have deteriorated significantly since the end of the Cold War has periodically sent limited, yet still threatening forces to the U.S. near abroad, in response to U.S. activities in what it regards as its own “sphere of influence.” 

In 2008, Russia sent nuclear-capable Tu-160 backfire bombers, then warships, to the Caribbean in response to its discontent over U.S. positioning of naval forces in the Black Sea during the Georgian Civil war launched by Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  In October 2013, Russia again sent Tu-160s to the region as the U.S. and European Union pressured Russia over its aid to Russian militias seizing control of Ukraine’s Donbass region.  Although Russian arms sales to Venezuela dropped off remarkedly in the mid-2010s as the later ran out of money to pay for them, in 2019, Russia again sent Tu-160s to Venezuela (along with an aircraft-load of parts to ensure they didn’t get stuck there), as well as S-300 air defense systems, Wagner group mercenary forces, military maintainers and trainers to its ally, to show support on the cheap (without providing significant new hardware) to the Maduro regime.   During 2022 and 2023, as the U.S. sought to rally international opinion against Russia for its unprovoked invasion of the Ukraine, Russia predictably reached out to its anti-U.S. allies in Latin America—Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, to declare support for Russia and expanded military cooperation.  With the exception of minor gestures, such as a modestly expanded agreement for military exchanges with Nicaragua in 2022, and the participation of Russians in a small sharpshooter exercise in Venezuela in 2023, such Russian events were generally heaver on symbolism than substance.

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Published by Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University
Background photo of Russian warship in the Caribbean from FIU article link, originally sourced from The New York Times, June 6, 2024  (https://www.nytimes.com/2024/06/12/world/americas/russia-cuba-navy-exercies.html)