Why would a war in Venezuela benefit Russia and Iran?

Joseph M. Humire

Executive Director

Meet our expert

Why would a war in Venezuela benefit Russia and Iran?

On March 26, 2019, the regional news network NTN24 interviewed SFS Executive Director Joseph M. Humire in their studio in Bogota, Colombia.

The half-hour interview, conducted by popular TV host Idania Chirinos on her daily NTN24 news show La Tarde (The Afternoon), touched on a range of subjects on the heels of the official visit by the Russian military to Venezuela in late March. Mr. Humire described the strategic intent of Moscow and their international allies in Tehran and Beijing in creating a conflict in Venezuela to destabilize Latin America in order to delegitimize the United States. Since first airing in March, this interview has gone viral and has been viewed more than 2.5 million times across a variety and mainstream and social media outlets throughout Latin America and the world.

The following is a transcription and translation (from Spanish to English) of the NTN24 interview slightly edited for comprehension and clarity. To view the entire interview please click on the link, here. For a downloadable version, click the link, here.

NTN24: I want to welcome all our viewers, with us today in studio is Joseph Humire, the executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society and a national security expert on transnational threats. Mr. Humire, welcome and thanks for being with us.

JMH: Thanks for the invitation, it’s a pleasure.

NTN24: Evidently the landing of these [Russian] planes [in Venezuela] has awoken speculations and opened a debate on what is behind the planes and the 100 [Russian] officials onboard. What is your perspective on this?

JMH:  According to information we handle, the officials that arrived in this Russian military dispatch arrived for two reasons, 1) to inspect the S-300 anti-aircraft system, which is a very advanced missile system that I imagine they [the Russians] want to be sure that this equipment doesn’t come under the control of anyone else and is protected, and 2) cyber technicians arrived. There have been several rumors that a secret unit of Russians are managing a cyberwarfare unit on La Orchilla, an island off the Caribbean coast of Venezuela. This is all the information we have. But this makes sense…. We can’t forget that Russia’s strength, aside from military armament, is propaganda and I feel that they are using propaganda in Venezuela to influence public opinion. For example, in my Center we did a study analyzing the media reporting and sourcing of news articles discussing a potential US military intervention in Venezuela. We found that more than 60% of the stories echoing this narrative were from state run media from Russia, Iran, Cuba, and/or Venezuela…… Why would they want to do this? Because they want to increase, or elevate, the expectations of the Venezuelan people that this scenario [of US military intervention] could actually happen. And if the United States does intervene [militarily], it’s what the Russians/Iranians/Cubans want, but if we don’t, then we won’t meet the expectations of the Venezuelan people. It’s a game they’re playing in the media and they are doing it with the help of the cyber technicians.

NTN24: So as a geopolitical strategy this game is important. 60% of the media that talk about a possible US military intervention in Venezuela are Russian, Iranian, Cuban, and/or Venezuelan media associated with the Maduro regime. Why?

JMH: A military intervention by the US would break our alliance in the Lima Group. But besides that, this conflict isn’t about military engagement. This is an asymmetric conflict. The only way to ensure you lose in an asymmetric war is to use conventional military force. It didn’t work in Iraq; it didn’t work in Libya; it didn’t work in Vietnam. Using conventional military force in an asymmetric conflict has never worked for the United States. So, in this aspect, the Russians want to push the United States to make this [conventional military] move, even though it’s unlikely. But not intervening leaves a bad impression among the Venezuelan people who have high hopes for a military invention after repeatedly listening to news outlets reporting this possibility. This way, they [the Russians] win if we intervene and they win if we don’t. It’s an intelligent, geopolitical move on [Russia’s] part.

NTN24: So, they win either way because the United States has said over and over that there won’t be a military intervention, that there is a diplomatic and economic strategy that they are working within and these are the only measures they are taking. But also, [Russia] wins because they are planting a lack of hope within the Venezuelan people?

JMH: Correct, and they are taking advantage of this lack of hope. They are playing with the hearts and minds of the Venezuelan people and this is something the Russians do very effectively. Russia has a long history in Venezuela. A little more than a month ago, a report was published on behalf of the US Senate, produced by US military intelligence, an organization called the DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, about the military cooperation between Russia and Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua- also called the “Troika of Tyranny” by Ambassador Bolton. What stood out from this report, in respect to Venezuela, are two things. One is that the relationship between Russia and Venezuela is deep. Since the beginning of Hugo Chavez’s regime in 2002 to 2013, when he passed, there has been more than $11 billion worth of Russian arms sold to Venezuela. When Nicolas Maduro took over, this didn’t stop, instead it increased. Since 2013, there has been 250 bilateral agreements signed [with Russia], including military equipment like attack and transport helicopters. Within this [strategic] cooperation, there are possibly universities in Venezuela that are being used by Russian intelligence to have presence in the country. So, this report made it clear that Russia has a deep relationship with the Maduro regime, as well as the Chavez regime and I think they are using this relationship to start a war.

NTN24: Now let’s talk about how this cooperation works, how [the Russians] are using the universities, for example. The Russians infiltrate and…. How does this work?

JMH: Yes, [in intelligence operations] there’s something called “spot and assessment.” It’s an intelligence operation usually in places where there is a lot of interaction between different types of people and what you do is identify and assess people to see if and how they could be useful for different types of intelligence and counterintelligence operations. This tactic is typical of all intelligence organizations. The US does it, as well as Russia. In Venezuela, the United States doesn’t have the capacity to do this because Hugo Chavez completely neutralized the presence of the US Embassy. However, he opened the door for Russia to gain this capacity and I imagine there are Venezuelans working for Russian intelligence without even knowing it.

NTN24: Talking about Russia and their presence in Venezuela and attempts to provoke a war…. what is their interest in doing this?

JMH: I consider there are two main factors pushing the Russians, Iranians, and Turks to push for war in Venezuela. One is the economic factor. These countries don’t have a lot of time left- their regimes are economically weak. Iran has hyperinflation, as does Russia. The price of oil has dropped significantly, and both Iran and Russia are oil producing countries. We all know the impact of this in Venezuela. Venezuela is a proxy for them. What they want to do is take advantage of this moment to provoke a war in order to take resources from Venezuela to stabilize their currencies. In this aspect, Turkey has a very important role. Last year, in 2018, 23.6 tons of gold arrived in Turkey from Venezuela, an increase in trade from almost zero and during this period the Lira, Turkey’s currency, was stabilized. Therefore, Turkey and Russia are taking advantage of the situation to improve their own economies because their economies are not based on the free market, but rather they are based on war. For instance, what is Russia’s number one export, aside from oil? Weapons. The other factor, I believe, is that these actors see an opportunity to delegitimize the United States under the Trump administration that didn’t exist before because they know that Trump, in spite of his various accomplishments, has a bad image internationally and this works in Russia’s favor. So, these [extra-regional] actors are playing a geopolitical chess game and these two factors, Trump and their weak economies, are pushing them toward war.

NTN24: This is very clear. If the United States is aware of all that is happening, what should they do in the larger geopolitical realm? What is the game the United States needs to play to balance what is occurring?

JMH: I think the United States is aware of what is happening, but there is not a consensus on what priority level Maduro’s regime should be for the United States. We know that he has alliances with Russia, Iran, and Turkey, with Cuba and with China. However, for a long time in Washington, the conventional perspective was that these were just allies and not key players in the regime’s regional pursuits. What we are seeing, especially within this last year, is it isn’t the regime controlling the relationship with its allies, but the allies controlling the regime. What did we learn in Syria? At the beginning we thought that a weak Bashar al Assad would be easier to remove from power, but what we learned 7 to 8 years later was a weak Bashar al Assad is simply easier to control by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. This is something we have to factor in for Venezuela, too. A weak Nicolas Maduro, and he is very weak, will simply invite external actors to increase their presence in Venezuela. I think we need to change strategies and not focus so much on the Maduro regime, but breaking his alliance because without the [international] alliance, Maduro’s regime wouldn’t exist.

NTN24: Did the United States let Russia win territory? For example, the United States neglected Venezuela during Chavez’s rule and did not give the country any importance.

JMH: Absolutely. It is evident not only in Venezuela, but Latin America in general. In Washington, in the capital city of the US, Latin America has never been a priority for national security in comparison to regions like the Middle East or Asia. There is a saying a lot of my friends in the defense community tell me and that’s: “even though we have headaches in Latin America, we have migraines in the Middle East,” meaning the priority always went to these other regions. However, now we are seeing that Venezuela is a “migraine” and that headaches turn into migraines if you don’t take care of them. In this sense, I think you are correct. There was a sort of abandonment from the United States combined with a lack of coherent political strategy regarding what was happening in the region. I have been a part of many conversations in the defense sector where people did not want to name Hugo Chavez. He was like Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter. No one would say his name because they didn’t want to provoke him and what we are seeing now is that whether or not we provoke him, Chavez continued to advance his revolution and his strategy. Years ago, there were more options of what could be done to neutralize this, but at this point, to get to this point, I think we have limited the options that we can take to neutralize the threat that exists.

NTN24:  The question is, is there time for the United States to regain lost ground?

JMH: Absolutely. This game isn’t over; neither are we. Using a baseball analogy, we are in the fifth inning. There is still time, but we need to have a coherent strategy. I think to focus on the regime while forgetting about the revolution that put the regime in power in the first place is a mistake. We need to focus more on the revolution and how it is entering a new, final phase to export the revolution throughout Latin America. This is the critical aspect of the conflict in Venezuela and I think too many people focus on Maduro as a person and the regime as a mafia and this is very limited to the reality of the situation because it is a lot more complicated. This revolution has a purpose and this purpose is to redraw the geo-political map of Latin America.

NTN24: In this sense then they have lost territory. A couple of years ago, the Bolivarian Revolution was being exported. There was oil, petrodollars. It was a lot easier to export in Latin America but since then… Argentina was lost, Brazil was lost… Ecuador… so it’s clear the [Maduro regime] lost territory.

JMH: They lost legitimacy. But because of this, I say we are entering into a new phase of the revolution. I think the previous phase was to gain legitimacy, capture more governments, build more alliances, but now we are entering into a final phase where they [the Bolivarian revolution and the Maduro regime] is not only looking for power, they are looking for conflict. The external and extra-regional actors want to create conflict by infiltrating the refugees and creating border conflicts because when you challenge the border, you challenge the concept of sovereignty for a country. And by extension, delegitimize the United States. They are directing a macro strategy throughout Latin America where Venezuela is threatening its border with Colombia, Nicaragua its border with Costa Rica, and Bolivia its border with Chile to change the geopolitical map of the region. When Hugo Chavez said I am going to fulfill the dream to reestablish Gran Colombia, he wasn’t joking. Or in Bolivia… Alto Peru. Or the Gran Patria of Cuba. But they aren’t doing this conventionally; they are NOT going to move armed forces to the borders for a war like the War of the Pacific. They are infiltrating [neighboring countries] and building threat networks, creating legal cases, human rights and asylum cases, promoting propaganda….

NTN24: So, the challenge then for the countries receiving Venezuelan refugees is to use better intelligence? Like what Colombia has done, for example. They were able to identify two or three particular cases of disruption of public order provoked by persons infiltrating [the refugee outflows of Venezuelans].

JMH: Correct. It’s very important. I do think we need to help the refugees because they are the first victims of the atrocities happening in Venezuela, but part of this help isn’t just providing food and medicine, part of the help is providing counterintelligence. We need to protect the refugees, so they are not contaminated by subversive actors that come from [the Maduro regime’s] intelligence or the Middle East or Cuba, etc. because I assure you that they are building links, what are called clandestine routes or ratlines that are used to infiltrate refugee networks. This is a historical strategy used not to move terrorists, but to move clandestine networks. It’s the way the Nazis escaped Germany. It’s the way the Lebanese from Hezbollah escaped after the civil war in their country. This strategy was brought to Venezuela [from the Middle East] and now Venezuela is using this strategy to export it to the rest of Latin America. I believe we have to protect the refugees because it only takes one atrocity committed by someone from the [Venezuelan] refugee community to destroy the image of all of them.

NTN24:  In this sense, I think the intelligence agencies of the receiving countries are working on this. Let’s go back to Russia because we have been talking about this geopolitical game with Joseph, the executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society. Mr. Humire let’s resume talking about the Russians. Within this game, does the arrival of two planes and 100 Russian officials to Venezuelan soil signify a move to push the United States into a war? Does the arrival of the officials challenge the US, as to say, “if you won’t intervene, we will?”

JMH: Look, they are completely provoking the United States with that and herein is my frustration with the international community on this… the international community is complaining that if the US sends one soldier, there will be a break-up of alliances and backlash from the community, but Russia sends 100 soldiers and nothing happens, no one says anything. Russia is part of the tragedy in Venezuela. Russia helped Hugo Chavez rise to power. Russia is fortifying Maduro’s regime, officially with the help of its military, but unofficially using contractors. This group, reported on by Reuters a few months ago, is called the Wagner Group. We have to understand what the Wagner Group is. The [Wagner] group is very involved in Syria working together with Hezbollah to train militias to protect Bashar al Assad and they are experts of asymmetric warfare. Members of the Wagner Group arriving in Venezuela, is more worrying [to me] than the recent arrival [from Russia] of the military technicians…

NTN24: Because they are going to train the militias (in Venezuela). Someone told me that this morning. So, to say, that the Russians are there to do exactly that, training militias in Venezuela that will surpass the number of Venezuelan armed forces.

JMH: This is very important because what we see in Venezuela, what is happening there, we try to look at through a democratic lens, like we do with many other democratic countries. We look at the president, vice president, ministers, but it doesn’t function like this [in Venezuela]. There is a civil-paramilitary-criminal sub-state structure in Venezuela that controls territory more than state functions. And we have to understand that the Russians are fortifying this parallel-state structure. And why would they do this? Because let’s just say the entire [Venezuelan] military ends up supporting the constitutional presidency of Juan Guaido… let’s put this scenario on the table. What will happen? These military forces [in Venezuela] will confront the irregular forces that will be better equipped, better trained, and combat-ready. I assure you the armed forces in Venezuela are not prepared for combat. I was in the United States Marines- and I assure you that you don’t just put on a uniform, grab a rifle, and head to Iraq to fight. There are several tests and training measures needed to pass before being ready for combat operations. The military in Venezuela hasn’t maintained this combat readiness for a long time. And if we can appreciate and understand that institutions like PDVSA aren’t working because they have been involved in organized crime and neglected, we should understand that the Venezuelan military has the same problem and they aren’t ready for any kind of confrontation against [the irregular] forces that are more experienced.

NTN24: Who has researched the criminal parallel-state structure?

JMH: Myself personally, and the researchers at my Center. We look heavily into the connections with the Middle East. And using these connections you can determine there are networks connecting Venezuela and Syria and it’s a historic network. For example, one of the first Syrian refugees that came to Venezuela in 1962 to train the communists and teach them insurgency tactics. He told them to stop the guerrilla war nonsense, that they wouldn’t win power that way. He told them they should do what the Ba’ath Party did in Syria- infiltrate the military and use the military to capture the government. This change in the 60s helped give rise to the Bolivarian Revolution. The Bolivarian Revolution would have never existed if it wasn’t for the Syrian refugees that arrived [in Venezuela] several years earlier, to include Tareck El Aissami’s father, Zaidan Amin El Aissami, who set up in Merida, and we all know where his son [Tareck] ended up.

NTN24: Is this the source of Tareck El Aissami’s power?

JMH: Absolutely and not only his, but the strength of the Bolivarian Revolution comes from the Middle East. Cuba is an actor who has supported and fortified the Bolivarian Revolution, but it is not the main actor. The main actors came before Cuba, it sprang from the crisis in the Middle East in the 20th century [the rise and fall of Pan-Arab nationalism] and the refugees that arrived in Venezuela.

NTN24: Wow! This is important information and a lot to take in. I don’t want to end the interview without talking about something we mentioned at the beginning of it. And this is the unit that is functioning in La Orchila, the cyber unit coordinated by Russians or Venezuelans trained by Russia?

JMH: We don’t exactly know. It’s a rumor, we haven’t been able to confirm the unit’s existence at my Center, but what we do know aside from La Orchila is that at the Capitan Manuel Ríos Air Base in Guárico there is a connection between Russia and China. For example, the S-300 anti-air system were supposedly moved to the military base in Guárico, where there is also a Chinese satellite station at this same base. They are building a missile system and cybersecurity system to protect Venezuela. If we look at the domains of warfare, everyone that has studied military warfare knows there’s air, land, sea, but after that, the last two domains are space and cyberspace. And I think Russia and China are working within these last two domains (space and cyberspace) because they don’t have the capacity yet to work land or sea.

NTN24: A question, how do you combat these mechanisms that we have been talking about during this show with economic sanctions?

JMH: Sanctions aren’t a strategy. Sanctions are a method of applying pressure and a way to protect financial systems, but they should never replace a strategy.

NTN24: So, then the question is, does the United States have a strategy?

JMH: There is a strategy, the question is, is this the correct strategy? I think we need to wait a little longer to see if this strategy will fracture the regime and bring about a transition as many are hoping. But if it doesn’t work, we need to be prepared with a contingency plan. If the pressure strategy doesn’t work, we have to understand that we aren’t using the right strategy.

NTN24: President Trump has said there’s a Plan A, B, C, and D, should we understand there’s more?

JMH: A Plan F. We need a Plan F to understand this conflict… to understand that it’s not just Venezuela. It’s regional. It’s Bolivia. It’s Nicaragua. It’s Cuba….

NTN24: It’s regional, but if we look at the actors involved, Russia, China, the US… it’s already global.

JMH: Obviously there are extra-regional actors driving and supporting the conflict [in Venezuela], but what I’m referring to is their strategy: the same plan they [the VRIC or Multi-Polar Force] are using to start a conflict in Venezuela, they are also using to start a conflict in Nicaragua, and in Bolivia. As we get more involved in Venezuela, I’m sure Bolivia will heat up. They [the VRIC or Multi-Polar Force] have a macro-strategy for Latin America and we need to delegitimize and remove these actors from the region. They are new; they have only been in the region for the last 30 to 40 years. The United States, Europe, Spain, have been here for centuries and our relationship is stronger than simply bilateral agreements. We have a shared culture, shared language, shared history and I think we [in the United States] have to remember that there’s no better friend to the US than Latin America.