Russia in Venezuela: As Moscow accuses U.S. of "information war," what is Putin's role in the standoff?

Moscow -- Russia has denied convincing Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro to stay in Caracas, refuting claims by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the president was about to jump on a plane and flee to Cuba during an attempted uprising on Tuesday. 

"He had an airplane on the tarmac, he was ready to leave this morning as we understand it, and the Russians indicated he should stay," Pompeo said on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called Pompeo's statement "fake" in comments to various media outlets, and accused the U.S. of waging an "information war."

"We're seeing yet another example of dirty propaganda by the U.S., both by the establishment and the media," she told RTVI, a private Russian TV channel. "It's a typical information war, aimed at demoralizing the Venezuelan army, that's what (the U.S.) was betting on."

Venezuelan opposition leader calls for continued protests as military vehicles charge crowds

Maduro himself has also denied having had any plan on Tuesday to flee his country.

Russia's backing

Russia has supported Maduro since the crisis in Venezuela erupted earlier this year. There are Russian forces in the South American nation as part of a long-standing military partnership, and in late March, two military planes carrying about 100 more Russian personnel arrived in Caracas.

Moscow insists Maduro is the country's legitimate leader, while the U.S., along with dozens of other countries, has thrown its support behind opposition leader Juan Guaido. 

Guaido, the former leader of Venezuela's National Assembly (congress) has declared himself the country's interim president and labelled Maduro a "usurper" following a re-election a year ago that was widely deemed undemocratic. Venezuelan opposition parties boycotted the May 2018 vote, and the U.S. and other countries reported widespread voting irregularities, leading the Trump administration to officially reject Maduro's leadership and back Guaido's bid to replace him, at least temporarily.

According to U.S. officials, the two planeloads of Russian troops were sent to Caracas in March to support Maduro. The Kremlin claims, however, that they were sent to do maintenance work on military equipment Russia supplied to Venezuela several years ago.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Russian President Vladimir Putin greet each other outside the Novo-Ogaryovo residence in Moscow, Russia, in a Dec. 5, 2018 file photo. AP

The conversation heated up as President Trump told Russia "to get out," and Russia's Foreign Ministry shot back that the U.S. should get out of Syria first. Russia and the U.S. similarly backed different sides in Syria's civil war, and Russian President Vladimir Putin coming to the rescue has arguably kept dictator Bashar Assad in power.

While Russia does have close ties with the Maduro regime, defense and foreign affairs analysts see the recent developments much more as a power play by the Kremlin, aimed more at goading the U.S. than defending the Venezuelan leader.

"Harsh confrontation with Washington over Venezuela, according to the Kremlin's logic, boosts Russia's significance in the eyes of the U.S.," foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov told CBS News. "It's political theater, and theater needs proper decorations."  

One-way street

Venezuela has been Russia's biggest partner in Latin America since the early 2000s, Tatyana Rusakova, Latin America analyst at the Moscow-based Center for Crisis Society Studies, told CBS News. She said those ties have been largely "a one-way street, and are based on political agenda."

Russia owns two lucrative gas fields just off the Venezuelan coast, through the state-backed oil giant Rosneft.

Moscow has also earned $11.4 billion selling military equipment to Caracas, and currently exports about $70-$80 million per year worth of non-military goods to the country. 

All that said, trade with Venezuela accounts for only about 0.01 percent of Russia's foreign trade turnover.

The Kremlin loaned at least $2 billion to Caracas to enable Venezuela to buy the Russian military equipment, and Venezuela still owes Russia $6 billion of a total $17 billion worth of loans handed out since 2006, according a recent Financial Times report

Given those circumstances, Rusakova said she "wouldn't say that, in terms of trade and economy," Venezuela is a significant Russian partner.   

Military cooperation

While Venezuela doesn't account for much overall trade with Russia, 2006 and 2013 Caracas was among the four biggest purchasers of Russian military hardware, and cooperation on that front continues.

Two Russian factories -- one that will make Kalashnikov assault rifles and another that will make ammunition for them -- are currently under construction in Venezuela, according to Konstantin Makienko, deputy director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based defense think-tank.

Makienko, who is also a member of the defense expert council in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, told CBS News in written comments that Moscow also continues to supply parts for equipment sold to Venezuela previously, and carry out vital maintenance work to keep that equipment operational.

A Russian Ilyushin Il-62M Air Force plane, one of the two Russian military planes that arrived with troops and equipment to Venezuela, sits on the tamrac at Simon Bolivar International Airport, March 28, 2019 in Maiquetia, northern Venezuela. Getty

That second aspect of the bilateral military cooperation has intensified recently, Makienko noted. 

The Russian military also gives Venezuela's military guidance and advice.

"The group of Russian military personnel that arrived (last week) are consulting Venezuelan troops on (military action) in case the U.S. or anyone else carries out a military intervention," Makienko said. 

But another analyst says these consultations are likely to be the extent of Russia's military involvement -- there is no incentive for the Russian military to go on the offensive for Maduro, or fight on his behalf.

"Venezuela isn't Russia's military ally, like, say, Belarus or Kazakhstan," Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told CBS News.

So what's the endgame?

Moscow sees the crisis in Venezuela as another opportunity -- just as Syria was -- to portray itself as a force to be reckoned with -- a force capable of keeping U.S. power in check, according to analyst Frolov.

"The strategy to confront the U.S., wherever it can be done at a reasonable cost, is grounded in the Kremlin's idea of a new world in which the U.S. doesn't have the freedom to overthrow regimes anymore, because Russia is there to stop it," he said. 

Venezuela fits the profile perfectly, because undermining Washington's agenda there doesn't require too many resources and offers a chance to retaliate for the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, which brought a U.S.-aligned government to power. The Kremlin believes the revolution was masterminded and orchestrated by the U.S. 

"The logic is… that we can also make your life harder in your backyard, just like you did in ours," Frolov said. 

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