The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia spent billions to build influence in Venezuela. Now it faces a bet gone bad.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolás Maduro, during a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Dec. 5. (Maxim Shemetov/AFP/Getty Images)

This post has been updated.

MOSCOW — Russia has invested years of effort and billions of dollars into turning Venezuela into one of its closest allies in the Western hemisphere. On Thursday, Moscow was jolted by the prospect that its investment could be going up in smoke.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called events in Caracas a “quasi-coup.” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the opposition to Nicolás Maduro was becoming “pawns in someone else’s very dirty and criminal game.” The Kremlin, after a phone call between Maduro and President Vladimir Putin, said “destructive outside interference” in Venezuela “grossly tramples fundamental norms of international law.”

Even by Russian standards, it was a day of furious commentary casting the United States as the sinister puppeteer illegally fomenting regime change around the world. But behind the outrage lay an uncomfortable reality: A multibillion-dollar bet on building Russian influence in Latin America suddenly looked like it could quickly go bad.

Dmitry Rozental, a scholar at the Latin America Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said further instability could increase the risk that Russia will lose a total investment in the Venezuelan economy he estimated at close to $25 billion. If opposition leader Juan Guaidó — whom the United States on Wednesday recognized as interim president — gains power, Rozental said, then political and military contacts between Moscow and Caracas would be sure to decrease.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president on Jan. 23, while Nicolás Maduro broke relations with the United States. (Video: Reuters)

At the same time, Rozental said, a key question was still unanswered: how sharply Guaidó would diverge from Maduro’s Russia-friendly policies.

“If the pragmatic approach wins out, then I don’t think they’ll pick a fight with so important a partner as Russia,” Rozental said.

As The Washington Post’s Anthony Faiola and Karen DeYoung reported last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent years became Venezuela’s patron — and poked a stick in the eye of the United States along the way. In exchange for loans and bailouts, Russia now owns significant parts of at least five oil fields in Venezuela, which holds the world’s largest reserves, along with 30 years’ worth of future output from two Caribbean natural gas fields.

Russia’s loans and credit lines alone have totaled at least $17 billion since 2006, making it Venezuela’s lender of last resort, Reuters reported. In return, Russia’s arms industry has won a multibillion-dollar customer, while Putin has gained new sway over global energy resources and a focal point of Russian influence just a three-hour flight from Miami.

Venezuelans demonstrated against President Nicolás Maduro Jan. 23 as the U.S. recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the nation’s interim president. (Video: Mariana Zuñiga, Javier Melero and Andrés Blanco for The Washington Post)

As if to drive home the point, two nuclear-capable, long-range Russian Tu-160 bombers touched down outside Caracas in December. The symbolism matters because the rise of a Russia asserting its global interests is a key part of Putin’s brand at home.

Now the Kremlin’s Venezuela bet hangs in the balance. Putin’s domestic opponents quickly seized on it this week as already a lost cause.

Venezuela’s revolution means that billions of dollars “of our money that was invested over there will disappear,” opposition activist Alexei Navalny posted on Twitter. In a few months, Navalny added, Maduro will surely have a villa in the gated communities of Moscow’s Rublyovka neighborhood, favored by Russia’s ruling elite.

On Friday, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official said Moscow was ready to serve as a mediator between Maduro and his opposition -- even as Russia continued to insist that Maduro was Venezuela’s legitimate president.

The government redoubled its efforts to push back against the mounting speculation that Russia would lose its billions invested in Venezuela. A column published by the RIA Novosti state news agency said Russian companies had already profited from the country’s loans to Venezuela by way of arms deals. Russia’s ambassador to Venezuela, Vladimir Zayemsky, also told the Kommersant newspaper that Moscow’s financial agreements with Caracas were not dependent on Maduro’s continued rule.

“I don’t see any reason to fear for the future of Russia’s investments in Venezuela, first of all because all of the current projects were properly agreed to by all sides and received approval from the legislative bodies of both countries,” Zayemsky said.

Read more

Venezuela and U.S. locked in tense standoff as Russia warns against American ‘intervention’

Why the new protests in Venezuela are different

Latin America has never seen a crisis like Venezuela before

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news