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When Maduro confronts a crisis, Russia's footsteps are growing in Venezuela

A Russian air force Ilyushin Il-62M jet that arrived with troops and equipment in Venezuela this weekend is seen at Simón Bolívar International Airport outside Caracas on March 28.

After two Russian military aircraft landed close to Caracas This month, Trump administration issued strict warnings of President Nicolás Madour's ties to the Kremlin. But a ship that arrived in the waters off Venezuela's Caribbean coast one day previously offered a more narrative sign of an immersive relationship that is so alarming to Washington.

Venezuela has the world's largest known oil reserves, with the transportation and sale of its thick, sludgy raw long dependent on chemical thinners purchased from the US. After Washington, US companies prevented them from selling them to Venezuela in January – and warned foreign companies to keep up – Maduro had a serious problem: How would he stave off the industry's overall collapse?

As a manna from Moscow,
arrived a response in the form of a red-and-black tanker, the Serengeti, which loaded a thinner load off Malta's coast before arriving in Venezuela on 22 March. The company that chartered the ship: Russia's state-run oil giant Rosneft.

SAN ANTONIO, VENEZUELA – FEBRUARY 19 A girl (mother had not wanted her identified) follows her mother against the border with Colombia in the border town of San Antonio, Venezuela on February 19, 2019. Many Venezuelans cross the border to buy cheap goods or that are not available in their own country due to the ongoing economic and political crisis. Others cross the border with their possessions to start a life in a new country. (Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez / Washington Post)

"Relations between Russia and Venezuela are excellent," said Alexey Seredin, ministerial adviser at the Russian Embassy in Caracas, in an interview. "At the moment we are working to strengthen cooperation."

The arrival of vital diluents is only part of a growing Russian footprint in Venezuela. Moscow sends military personnel and equipment and trades to compensate US sanctions by sending Venezuelan crude to India for treatment. The Kremlin is ready to increase wheat sales and send more medical care. This month, Venezuela also announced the opening in Moscow of a regional headquarters for PDVSA, its state-run oil giant.

Next week, Seredin said that a senior delegation from the Maduro government will arrive in Moscow to discuss Russian investments in Venezuelan mining, agricultural and transport sectors. Seredin added that the arrival of 99 Russian military personnel on March 23 was part of an attempt to maintain Maduro's defense apparatus, which includes Sukhoi fighters and anti-piracy systems purchased from Russia.

In a television event on Friday, the Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López inaugurated an "Armed Forces Air Force" for Russian helicopters.

"This center, and we say it humbly, can only be found in Venezuela and Russia," he said.

He also announced plans for a Russian Sukhoi MK2 simulator in the Venezuelan city of Barcelona and insisted that a long delayed plant for the production of Russian rifles would soon open "in Maracay."

In a time of general warming of the ties between the Trump administration and Moscow, Russia's deepening engagement in Venezuela creates a glimpse by challenging US efforts to force Maduro from The office.

On Friday, President Trump said he was likely to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping about the crisis in Venezuela, earlier in the day, National Security Adviser John Bolton was more vocal and issued a statement condemning "the introduction of Russian military personnel and equipment in Venezuela" as a "provocative" action and a "direct threat to international peace and security in the region. "

Elliott Abrams, the special envoy for Venezuela, rejected Friday to deepen Bolton's military intervention proposal." "There are many things we can do financially in the form of sanctions," Abrams said. Washington. "We have opportunities, and it would be a mistake for the Russians to believe they have a free hand. They don't. "

With more than 50 countries recognizing National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, Maduro manages the country's new status as a parish state by largely operating outside Western trade and financial systems while turning to Russia and to a lesser extent China and India

Russia's support of Maduro in the face of US efforts to deposit him is increasingly being compared to Kremlin's intervention in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad. influence the tide of Syria's civil war, preserve Assad's power and lift Moscow into an apparent kingdom in the Middle East.

"There is an understanding that [Venezuela] is a rather serious test for Russia's ability to act to defend its interests globally, "says Dmitri Trenin, head of the independent Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

It is unclear whether Russian intervention will suffice to counter the nationwide Blackouts and petrol shortages exacerbating the humanitarian crisis that has left millions without access to enough food and medicine. Russia's pockets, many argue, are not deep enough to keep Maduro in effect.

But in combination with Chinese support, Russia's efforts have at least proved to ease some of the immediate pressures. The arrival of Russian military personnel this month proved to signal Moscow's will to raise Maduro's support, and to end its war machine at a time when the Trump administration has not ruled out a military intervention.

"It's an ideological chess game. Russia doesn't need Venezuelan oil," said Russ Dallen, a Florida-based managing partner at the brokerage firm Caracas Capital Markets. "Venezuela is far from their supply lines. It was more an opportunity to keep your finger on Uncle Sam's eye in the US backyard."

China – another Maduro welfare – has offered more subdued support. Last week, Beijing Guaidó's representative banned from a scheduled meeting in China for the Inter-American Development Bank, inviting the multilateral lender to cancel the event. Last month, China joined Russia to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution, drafted by the United States, and called for a new presidential election in Venezuela.

But Chinese officials eager to defend their investment in Venezuela have for years played both sides of the fence by holding regular meetings with Maduro's resistance. In February, Chinese diplomats held talks with senior opposition officials in Washington, according to two people familiar with the meetings. Resistance pitch: Your investments will be safe if Maduro falls.

On Friday, Maduro's government announced a Chinese gift of 65 tons of medical supplies. The announcement came on the same day as the Red Cross said it would start distributing next month with great help to 650,000 Venezuelans facing the worst conditions.

"This air bridge, which we are building with China, is an important investment in our people," said Maduro's industrialist, Tareck El Aissami, to journalists in Caracas.

Russian cooperation with Venezuela dates to arms trade with Hugo Chávez – Maduras predecessor and socialist mentor. Between 2006 and Chávez's death in 2013, Venezuela bought nearly $ 4 billion in Russian military equipment, including an estimated 5,000 MANPADS aircraft-to-air missiles.

Military cooperation led to massive Russian investments in the Venezuelan oil sector and a willingness to extend the loans on favorable terms. In early December, two nuclear weapons, long series of Russian Tu-160 bombers arrived at the international airport outside Caracas. The Russian aircraft later participated in joint exercises.

But Russia has far less potential firepower to theoretically deploy in Venezuela than it was brought in Syria – partly because Venezuela is so far away. Russia has no full military base in the region and its only airline is out of commission.

"There will be political, moral support," said Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian foreign policy analyst who advised the Kremlin. "But Russia can't send an armed contingent over there. It's just not realistic." However, economic lifelines may be more important for Maduro's survival. The US sanctions issued in January blocked Venezuela from selling crude oil to the US refineries designed to treat its crude viscosity. This month, freight in and out of Venezuela has been chaotic among nationwide power blackouts. But at least one tanker left Venezuela for India, who transported Venezuelan crude oil to a partially Russian-owned refinery, said Dallen, the Florida-based broker.

Prior to US sanctions, Venezuela exported raw to the US and imported petrol refined from it. The sanctions left Maduro, who struggled to counter a sudden lack of gas. Ivan Freitas, an EU leader of PDVSA, said reports from port workers with access to schedules show that Rosneft delivered at least one shipment of 300,000 barrels of petrol to Venezuela last month, where approx. 1.6 million more barrels are expected to arrive but not yet confirmed.

"Rosneft has been rescued by PDVSA," Freitas said. "The company's help is to buy time … for Maduro."

Rosneft did not respond to a request for comment.

Russian aid extends beyond the oil industry. Last month, Moscow delivered 7.5 tonnes of medical equipment and committed to sending 7.7 tonnes more. Although there was minimal help in view of the massive problems faced by understaffed, implied and aggravated hospitals across Venezuela, the Russian aid provided Maduro with a PR coup.

Within Ana Francisca Pérez de León Hospital in Eastern Caraca's Friday-Maduro Director, Zayra Medina, said that Russian aid arrived on February 23, escorted by a Russian man, an interpreter and a man with a video camera. She said the hospital went through the supplies in 10 days.

"We hope they continue to help us," she said. "I am glad to know that we are not alone. Russia helps us save lives in the midst of a storm."

Faiola reported from Miami and Troianovsky from Moscow. Anna Fifield in Beijing and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.

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