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A couple of months ago, leading officials in the Trump administration confidently spoke of the imminent collapse of the Venezuelan regime. Now, they’re girding themselves for a more uncertain and prolonged contest.

President Nicolás Maduro, a pariah in the eyes of much of the Western hemisphere, looks no closer to exiting the presidential palace in Caracas. The country’s influential military is mostly still in his camp and his grip on power remains intact, no matter the catastrophic economic crisis hollowing out his country and fueling an unprecedented hemispheric refugee crisis. While more than 50 nations may recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, Maduro is counting on the continued support of friendlier governments, including China, Turkey and, especially, Russia.

So far, the Kremlin hasn’t disappointed him. It’s attempting to offset the burden of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company by helping the Maduro regime refine its heavy crude. Russia is also increasing wheat sales and continuing its deliveries of sorely needed medical supplies. This week, a senior Russian diplomat in Caracas told my colleagues, a delegation of Venezuelan officials is expected in Moscow to discuss Russian investments in Venezuela’s mining, agricultural and transport sectors.

But it is what happened toward the end of March that sent heads spinning in Washington. Two planeloads of roughly 100 Russian military personnel landed in Venezuela. The stated reason for their arrival was to help service Venezuela’s Russian-purchased S-300 air defense systems, which may have been damaged amid the country’s increasingly frequent blackouts. The news followed earlier reports of Russian mercenaries or private military contractors already operating as security for the embattled regime.

Maduro’s opponents were outraged. “If their idea is to keep Maduro in power for longer that means more people starving and fleeing the country, more human tragedy in Venezuela,” Brazilian foreign minister Ernesto Araujo told reporters, referring to the Kremlin’s deployments. “Anything that contributes to the continuation of the suffering of the Venezuelan people should be removed.”

John Bolton, the White House national security adviser, said on Friday that the “introduction of Russian military personnel and equipment into Venezuela” was a “provocative” act and a “direct threat to international peace and security in the region.”

President Trump met in the Oval Office with Fabiana Rosales the wife of Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó. (The Washington Post)

But Russian officials batted away the criticism, arguing that their actions were consistent with Moscow’s existing military and technical arrangements with Caracas. “We don’t think that third parties should worry about our bilateral relations with other countries. We don’t interfere in Venezuela’s domestic affairs and expect third countries to do the same,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, in a pointed rebuke of Washington. “As for the United States, it is present in many parts of the world but no one tells Washington where it should be and where it shouldn’t.”

As both Russia and China continue to bolster Maduro, his American adversaries are invoking ominous metaphors. The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, known for its right-wing views, declared that Russian President Vladimir Putin had pulled “a Syria in Venezuela” — a reference to the Kremlin’s 2015 intervention into the Syrian civil war, which turned the tide of battle decisively in favor of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Now, much farther away from Russia’s borders, Moscow is exercising a similar streak of geopolitical opportunism.

“The arrival of Russian military personnel this month appeared to signal Moscow’s willingness to ramp up its backing of Maduro, as well as ready his war machine at a time when the Trump administration has not ruled out a military intervention,” my colleagues reported in a lengthy article that detailed how countries like Russia and China are helping ease some of the “immediate pressures” on Maduro.

“It’s an ideological chess game. Russia does not need Venezuelan oil,” Russ Dallen, a Florida-based managing partner at the brokerage Caracas Capital Markets, told my colleagues. “Venezuela is far from their supply lines. It was more an opportunity to stick their finger on Uncle Sam’s eye in the U.S.’s backyard.”

Money plays a considerable role in Russia’s involvement as well. The Venezuelan regime owes the Russian Finance Ministry some $3.1 billion for arms and agricultural products acquired on credit; it owes Russian oil company Rosneft more than $2 billion in loans. A political scenario in Caracas run by a potential U.S.-backed anti-Maduro government may complicate Russian investments.

But most commentators believe that the financial hit matters less to the Kremlin than its international credibility. Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief military strategist, said at a conference earlier this year that American actions in Venezuela were part of a broader project of hegemony that required the “liquidation of governments of inconvenient countries, the undermining of sovereignty.” Here was another instance, he seemed to suggest, where Moscow could defend its vision of the international system.

But doing so may be a challenge. “There is an understanding that [Venezuela] is a rather serious test for Russia’s ability to act in defense of its interests globally,” Dmitri Trenin, head of the independent Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, told my colleagues.

“There will be political, moral support,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian foreign policy analyst close to the Kremlin, to The Washington Post. “But Russia can’t send an armed contingent over there. It’s just not realistic.”

For all its tough rhetoric — including its invocation of the 19th-century Monroe Doctrine — the Trump administration is also wary of provoking a greater conflagration. “While there have been ritual reminders that ‘all options are on the table,’ there is no indication that any military intervention — which has a long and unhappy history in Latin America — is being seriously contemplated,” noted David Sanger of the New York Times.

Even Bolton, a notorious hawk, is now curbing his enthusiasm. “I can tell you there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. The opposition is in constant contact with large numbers of admirals and other supporters within the Maduro administration,” he told Reuters last week, suggesting that Maduro’s hold on power wasn’t as strong as it seemed. But victory wasn’t on the horizon yet.

“It’s a struggle against an authoritarian government and it’s obviously going to take some time,” he added.

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