On the potential Russian courses of action in Venezuela based on the experience of Ukraine and Syria
When it comes to the potential threats emanating from hybrid warfare, the dominant views within the Russian regime and experts’ community is that Russia is a target of Western hybrid offensive. The Kremlin is deeply convinced that the West’s secret goal is to foment and trigger the so-called ‘Color Revolution’ aimed at disrupting the current Russian constitutional order and toppling the regime. This irrational threat perception among the Russian ruling elite of the so-called ‘Color Revolution’ can be dubbed the “Kronos Syndrome”, after the ancient Greek god Kronos who feared that his children, the gods of Olympus, would one day overthrow him the way he had overthrown his own father, the god of the sky Uranus. This political syndrome can be defined as the preemptive fear of violent regime-change among elites in counties that are historically prone to revolutions, coups or manipulated elections. This fundamental insecurity results in the Putin regime’s attempts to stifle and suppress the societal forces that its own policies have generated, for example, the demands for political change and democratization of the Russian middle class and the youth. These Russian threat misperceptions have been reflected clearly on numerous occasions. For example, during the Moscow Security Conference in Apr 2016 ‘Color Revolutions’ were portrayed as tools of ‘Western hybrid warfare’ aimed at the destabilization of Russia, Eurasia and the Middle East. Earlier, in December 2014 and 2015, the Russian military doctrine and national security strategy clearly stated that the Russian government regards itself as the target of Western hybrid efforts to destabilize it from within.
The current Russian leadership, which has undisputed Soviet upbringing, mentality and reflexes, apparently cannot fathom the fact that hundreds of thousands of people can gather spontaneously on the Maidan in 2013-2014 in the middle of the harshest winter to defend Ukraine’s pro-EU choice under the bullets and batons of the Berkut and riot police deployed by the Russian satrap Yanukovich. Russia’s own history with popular movements clearly demonstrates that such attempts at regime change in a popular format traditionally either do not succeed, or do not last long (the revolutions of 1905 and February 1917, for example). Based on the Soviet experience, the only successful way of toppling a government or a ruler, and holding onto power is through a wellorganized conspiracy of a small group of dedicated operatives, such as the Bolshevik coup in October 1917. Similarly, those Soviet leaders who did not pass of natural death were taken down by smll groups of conspirators from within the regime, who then started deposing each other: Beria — Stalin, Khruschev — Beria, Brezhnev — Krushchev, etc. Thus, the idea of a successful regime change being brought about by genuine popular protests runs contrary to the Kremlin’s long-established view of the people as masses, mere subjects to the almighty rulers, uncapable of having a coherent will of their own. If those masses gather and rise against a regime friendly to Russia, such as those in Ukraine, Syria and nowadays Venezuela, then, according to the Kremlin’s twisted conspiratorial logic, they must have come under direct influence, even control, from the outside. The usual suspects in this Kremlin’s propaganda playbook borrowed from the Soviet Union, are the CIA and the State Department, as in 2015 Putin himself directly blamed the latter for expending five billion dollars to organize the Maidan in order to hurt Russia’s interests in Ukraine.
The results of this Kremlin’s Kronos Syndrome within Russia have been extremely detrimental to the already sufficiently crushed and divided Russian civil society. The creation of the Russian Guard (Rossgvardiya) headed by Putin’s former bodyguard, General Zolotov; the constant bans on protests against the regime and “unsanctioned” demonstrations; the defining of ‘Color Revolutions’ as a domestic military threat to Russia — all those measures indicate that the Russian government takes those threats very seriously and is ready to employ any tools at its disposal in order to crush all dissent before it evolves into a broader movement capable of challenging the Kremlin’s control over all of Russia.
The impact of this Russian political syndrome on the Russian actions abroad since 2014 has been even more dramatic, involving massive human casualties, in particular in
Ukraine, Syria and potentially soon — in Venezuela. Ultimately, it all comes down to the now notorious “Gerasimov Doctrine”.
UPDATING THE “GERASIMOV DOCTRINE” AND THE PERCEIVED AMERICAN “TROJAN HORSE SCENARIO”
When the Chief of General Staff of the RF Armed Forces, Army General Gerasimov first revealed in February 2013 the now infamous “Hybrid Warfare model” before the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, his goals were twofold — a descriptive one, trying to demonstrate what the world of Western-style warfare in the 21st century looks like from the perspective of Russia; and a prescriptive one, by directing the Russian military science to work with the Russian General Staff in finding ways to both counter those perceived “nonlinear” hybrid threats emanating from the West and at the same time exploit them against both the West and its allies worldwide. Gerasimov’s presentation at the time did not constitute a full-fledged “Hybrid Warfare Doctrine”, as many in the West assumed, rather it was a conceptual model. Over the years, however, his writings have gradually formed something that can justifiably be called the “Gerasimov Doctrine” of Russia’s dual approach to hybrid warfare by trying to counter its effects at home, and employ it to the fullest against its enemies abroad.
This year was not an exception, as on Saturday, 02 March 2019 Gen. Gerasimov gave his annual speech to the Russian Academy of Military Science, in which he accused the Pentagon of developing a new military actions strategy dubbed the “Trojan Horse”. According to him, its core tenet is the active use of the protest potential of the “Fifth Column” in order to destabilize the situation inside a country, combined with the simultaneous launching of high-precision weapon strikes against the most important government and infrastructure sites. He also stated that the Russian Federation is ready to prevent any of those strategies with the combined efforts of the Russian military scientists working hand in hand with the Russian General Staff, who over the past several years “have developed conceptual methods of neutralizing the aggressive actions of the likely adversaries”. According to him, the fundamental principle of Russia’s response will be the “strategy of active defense”, which envisages the carrying out of a series of measures for preemptive neutralization of the threats to the security of the state, while at the same time recognizing the defensive nature of the Russian military doctrine. He stated that “This is one of the priority directions for guaranteeing the security of the state. We must preempt the enemy in the development of military strategy, and always be a step ahead of them”.
Further on, Gerasimov again accused the USA and its allies for having set on an aggressive course in their foreign policy by designing military actions of offensive nature, such as the “global strike”, and the “multi-domain battle” concepts. He also blamed the USA for using “Color Revolutions” and “soft power to “deprive of their statehood” those countries that have fallen out of favor with the US, in order to replace their legitimately elected institutions, and undermine their sovereignty. Gerasimov asserted that this has already occurred in Iraq, Libya, as well as in Ukraine, and according to him, similar activities are currently being observed in Venezuela, as well.
These annual updates to the “Gerasimov Doctrine” have traditionally been based on the analysis of events over the course of every year, together with an assessment of the evolution of hybrid warfare worldwide and the future vector (direction) of what Russian military leadership perceives as Western, primarily American actions. Given the inherent duality of Gerasimov’s descriptive-prescriptive discourse, his presentations have proven to be a valuable resource for both analyzing, and even predicting potential Russian actions. By applying the principle of “mirror-imaging” to Gerasimov’s analysis and guidance — that is by recognizing that Russia traditionally mistakes the West’s actions for its own, but blames those entirely on the West, one could easily detect a growing concern within the Russian leadership with the situation in yet another potential theater of “Color Counter-revolution” — Venezuela.
THE CONFLUENCE OF POLITICAL, LEGAL, INFORMATION AND MILITARY DOMAINS OF RUSSIAN HYBRID WARFARE
Gerasimov’s analysis coincided with the increased activity of the legislative, diplomatic and information branches of the Kremlin regimes’ machine. On Sunday, 03 March, the Speaker of the RUS Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko officially stated during a meeting with the executive Vice President of Venezuela Delsy Rodriguez who is in Moscow on a work visit, that the Russian Federation will do everything possible to not allow a military invasion of Venezuela. Matvienko was reported as saying that, “We are very concerned that the USA could launch any provocation so that blood is spilled, in order to find a cause and a reason to invade Venezuela. But we will do anything in order not to allow this to happen”. She also stated that Russia is categorically opposed to any outside intervention in the affairs of sovereign independent states.
On the foreign policy “front”, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov had a conversation with the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday, 02 March, to discuss the situation in Venezuela, during which he reportedly condemned the threats the US has made toward the Maduro regime, and stating that any overt interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state constitutes severe violation of the international law. Lavrov also stated that Russia is ready to participate in the bilateral consultation on Venezuela proposed by Washington. In the meantime, on the information “front”, on 22 February 2019, the spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zaharova, pushed through the propaganda thesis that the US is preparing to use the intended delivery of humanitarian aid to Venezuela as a pretext for a military intervention, that it is deploying forces to the Colombia-Venezuelan border, and that it has also purchased a large batch of fire arms from an Eastern European country to distribute them to the Venezuela opposition thus helping them to launch a civil war, to serve as a pretext for a US invasion.
Matvienko’s institution is the one that authorizes the use of RUS forces overseas, so any such statements should not be discarded lightly, especially when coupled with the similar statements made by Gerasimov over the weekend, and the delay tactic used by Lavrov by proposing negotiations to slow down the US response. Coupled with the ongoing information warfare since the end of January, that includes also the
THE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLE OF RUSSIA’S RESPONSE WILL BE THE “STRATEGY OF ACTIVE DEFENSE”, WHICH ENVISAGES THE CARRYING OUT OF A SERIES OF MEASURES FOR PREEMPTIVE NEUTRALIZATION OF THE THREATS TO THE SECURITY OF THE STATE, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME RECOGNIZING THE DEFENSIVE NATURE OF THE RUSSIAN MILITARY DOCTRINE
Russian military analytical publication on that topic — all those serve as the perfect example of the synergy of the Russian “all of government” approach as applied to potential hybrid actions abroad — the simultaneous activation of the Russian diplomacy, legislature, military, and information (propaganda and analytical) branches, preferably done on the weekends, as a rule of thumb, to surprise the West and gain a headstart.
VENEZUELA AS THE NEXT POTENTIAL TESTING GROUND FOR THE RUSSIAN MILITARY’S “HYBRID WARFARE EXPEDITIONARY FORCE GENERATION MODEL”
If Russia decides to intervene in Venezuela to prop the Maduro regime and help him crush the still fledgling opposition movement, then it will most employ there a version of its “integrated forces groupings” that were initially tested (albeit unsuccessfully) in Ukraine, then perfected in Syria since 2015. The concept of integrated forces groupings was first revealed in July 2017 by Gen. Aleksander Dvornikov, the first Commander of the Russian expeditionary force in Syria, who currently commands Russia’s Southern Military District. Based on Russia’s experience in Syria, those formations comprise units of Russian special forces (“spetznaz”), together with a small number of conventional forces, serving as command, control and military advisers to the regime’s armed forces. Upon arrival in the host-country those units become the core of that integrated force grouping, supported by Russian private military contractors, such as the notorious “Wagner” Group. Once on the ground, they start building that grouping by embedding those advisory and support elements into the local armed forces units at all levels, and then augmenting those groupings by pulling together regime loyalists, local militias and paramilitary groups, as well as terrorist groups and criminal elements. This represents nothing less that a perfected Russian “hybrid warfare expeditionary force generation model”, whose main objective is to support friendly regimes across the globe against popular revolutions, by fighting with “less blood and money on foreign territory”, as postulated by Stalin and Tukhachevsky back in the 1930s. These hybrid forces are not bred to win wars against regular armies, thus their defeat in Ukraine since 2014, but they are perfectly capable of winning hybrid wars “on the cheap” against rebels whose forces are weak and divided, and who do not enjoy the decisive long-term support of the West of the type provided to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In Syria, the Russian integrated forces groupings incorporated, along with the remnants of the Syrian Arab armed forces still loyal to Assad, also the Baathist regime’s militias, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces and Quds Force advisors, Kurdish fighters, as well as terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah (see Russian “integrated force grouping” in Syria).
Now that RUS has successfully tested this “Color counter-revolutionary” model in Syria and has effectively helped the Assad regime survive, it is only logical that the Russian political and military leadership would be eager to test it in Latin America, on the US doorsteps, to save yet another odious regime from its people, and position Russia as a powerbroker, if not the kingmaker in the Western hemisphere, just like it has succeeded in doing so in the Mideast.
The compositon of a future Russian integrated forces grouping in Venezuela would revolve similarly, around Russian spetznaz, command and control, support elements (communications and logistics), and advisors, plus private military contractors. There it can count on the support of the Venezuelan armed forces that are still generally loyal to Maduro. Many of their officers are trained in Russia and their forces receive Russian equipment, including anti-aircraft systems. The role of the Iranian IRGC will be played in Venezuela by the Cuban advisors — some 20,000 — 25,000 of them, who are also training the regime forces to use the Russian military hardware, and to suppress popular protests. Russia would also likely augment its expeditionarity forces by bringing in the regimes’s militias, the notorious “Los Collectivos”, and use them to patrol the border with Colombia, to terrorize the population seeking humanitarian aid, and to break down and disperse large-scale demonstrations, or even as “cannon fodder”, should the situation evolves into a full fledged civil war with the use of fire arms on both sides. Just like in Syria, in Venezuela Russia could also likely receive support fro the terrorists group Hezbollah that has been welcomed by Maduro and that has been using Venezuela as sanctuary and training ground since the era of Chavez. Criminal elements, most notably drug traffickers, could also be brought into the equation, especially against Colombian forces that have been fighting them on their side of the border for decades (see Russian “integrated force grouping” in Venezuela).
RUSSIA’S STRATEGIC OBJECTIVES IN VENEZUELA
The Russian objective in Venezuela is clearly to preempt any US action by accusing the US of preparing an invasion of its own under the pretext of humanitarian action in support of the Russia-perceived “Color Revolution”, that it blames the US for organizing. Russia will most likely legitimize its own involvement in that country by signing a deal with Venezuela, including a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to protect its military personnel deployed there. In
HAVING DECLARED VICTORY IN SYRIA, ANOTHER SUCCESSFUL CAMPAIGN, THIS TIME IN AN EXOTIC LOCATION IN THE US BACKYARD WOULD SERVE THE RUS REGIME BY DISTRACTING THE PUBLIC OPINION AT HOME, BY BOOSTING PATRIOTIC FERVOR, AND BY SLAPPING THE US IN THE FACE
fact, the visit of the Venezuelan Vice President in Moscow last weekend could have included the signing of such a legal instrument. Using the Russian experience in Syria as an example, the Russian-Syrian SOFA was signed in midAugust 2015, a month and a half before the launching of the Russian operations there. This was followed in September 2015 by an increase in the number of publications, especially in the Russian specialized military journals, calling on Russia to take sides and join forces with the Shia forces in the Middle East (from Iran and Hezbollah to Assad’s Allawite regime). A similar flurry of publications is being observed nowadays, with Russian military analysts rushing in to describe the various aspects of a potential US operation against Venezuela. Given the “mirror-imaging” mentality of the Russian leadership and expert community, this trend indicates that similar preparations are likely well under way in Russia itself.
At the strategic level, this “strategic preparation of the environment, or the battlespace” constitutes yet another example of Russian strategic information warfare coupled with lawfare. The RUS leadership must be feeling compelled to act urgently and decisively before the Venezuelan opposition is organized and ready to take up arms, and most importantly, before a critical number of Venezuelan service members defect and join the opposition to give it a “military muscle”, as it happened in Syria after the spring of 2011.
The timing of such actions cannot be more propitious for Russia these days and weeks for the following reasons. The US military currently is focused on the battle to take over the last ISIL bastion in Syria; the US media, public and political and legislative branches have been distracted with the latest revelations related to President Trump’s activities and contacts with Russia; the Trump administration is having to deal with the negative effects of all that, and design its crisisresponse strategy for the upcoming Mueller investigation report. To compound things, the US administration’s focus over the preceding weeks has been clearly set on Singapore, where yet another international show staged by the North Korean regime resulted in a waste of US time and effort, and has served to distract America by drawing its attention to a major issue on the other side of the planet.
There are also domestic reasons why the Kremlin might be tempted to seek a quick and easy victory in Venezuela. Venezuela, with its vast oil reserves, is considered the “personal fiefdom” of Putin’s friend Igor Sechin, the head of Rossneft, a company that must feel compelled to protect its investments and continued presence in Venezuela. On the political front, Putin’s popularity ratings are dropping, and there were protests in Russia recently during the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Boris Nemtzov. Having declared victory in Syria, another successful campaign, this time in an exotic location in the US backyard would serve the RUS regime by distracting the public opinion at home, by boosting patriotic fervor, and by slapping the US in the face through proving that America is finally incapable of upholding the Monroe Doctrine almost 200 years after it was declared (1820). Last, but not least, a potential Russian victory in Latin America will also galvanize the left-wing forces across the continent and will demonstrate to their nations that any hope of reform and democratization are futile. This will boost the cohesion of regimes from Cuba and Nicaragua to leftist-dominated countries, such as Bolivia and could lead to the proliferation of such governments across the region, as was the case during the Cold War during and following the Khrushchev era.
The human dimensions of a potential civil war in Venezuela won by Russia and the Maduro regime, will involve the inevitably migration of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of refugees across Latin America, including up north toward the US. This will be the dramatic logical result of one of three potential courses of events in Venezuela: a protracted conflict, if the RUS and loyalist forces meet stronger opposition; the likely direct Russian targeting of oppositioncontrolled civilian infrastructure, as it was done in Syria; or simply by ousting the “undesirable” elements of the population if the Russian hybrid expeditionary force and the Maduro regime forces succeed in scoring a quick and decisive victory. Regardless of the exact reasons for such an exodus out of Venezuela, it will undoubtedly cause tremendous pres
sure on its neighbors in Latin America, first and foremost on the governments in Columbia and Brazil that are hostile to Maduro’s regime. Within the US itself, such a migrant wave will also prove Trump’s thesis right about the perceived danger of refugees from the South and the need to build a wall along the border with Mexico.
WHAT SHOULD AMERICA AND EUROPE DO?
The United States and the European Union are already in a difficult spot when it comes to addressing the evolving crisis in Venezuela. They, together with a number of Venezuela’s neighbors and other countries across the world, have tried to delegitimize the Maduro government by recognizing his political opponent — the Speaker of the Parliament Juan Guaio — as the legitimate President of Venezuela. This has let to vehement criticism on the part of Russia and has boosted the Russian propaganda machine that is currently spinning wildly and producing conspiracy theories of a Western plot against Venezuela designed and implemented by the United States. The political and social tensions within Venezuela continue to rise exponentially with the massive blackout caused by the failure of the largest electric power station last week, which also triggered an unprecedented water supply crisis, and forced Juan Guaido to declare a State of Emergency in Venezuela’s National Assembly. In an attempt to divert popular discontent, President Maduro openly accused the US of launching a cyber attack against the Venezuelan power plant, as he also insinuated that the electric grid had been damaged by saboteurs. In response, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued strong statements denouncing Maduro’s allegations, and laying the blame for this chaos on Cuba and its advisors in Venezuela. The domestic scene is rapidly being set for a showdown between the regime forces and the opposition. The recent return of Guaio to the country has so far not been opposed by the regime, but should he be arrested or murdered, the US and the EU will be put before a fait accompli, that would inevitably also leave Maduro’s regime beyond the point of no return with regard to the West. He will then be forced to cling to power with the help of Russia, China and Cuba, and will likely be facing a growing protest movement, involving guerilla actions and urban warfare, if the protests turn violent and are joined by defecting elements of the Venezuelan armed forces, as it happened in Syria. This will inevitably unleash a civil war, in which Russia will be an active participant, albeit initially on the cheap, through its “hybrid expeditionary force”, and that it will strive to win at all cost regardless of the casualties, as it did in Syria. Thus, the US will be faced with the tough choice between witnessing yet another popular movement crushed by a radical socialist regime, this time right at its doorstep across the Caribbean, or moving in to provide assistance to the potential rebel forces in Venezuela, and building a coalition for an international humanitarian operation. By default, Russia and China will try to block such a coalition at the UN by exercising their veto rights. From that point on, the US will have to work with the Organization of the American States (OAS), to build such a coalition to include the governments opposed to Maduro, for example Colombia and Brazil. In Eurasia, Russia has devised a quasi-legal mechanism for justifying its own “humanitarian” actions in its “Near Abroad” by legitimating them as being undertaken under the auspices of the CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The US task in Latin America will be more difficult, as it will involve building a real, legitimate coalition within an organization such as the OAS that it does not control the way Russia influences the CSTO.
As a practical response, should Russia decide to intervene militarily in Venezuela, in a hybrid or more conventional form, the US must impose a full blockade of the country of the type it had over Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis. Granted that the size of Venezuela is substantially larger, the US blockade can be aided long its land borders by Colombia and Brazil. Should a civil war erupt, the US should also be ready to establish safe zones within Venezuela for refugees from Maduro’s regime lest the mistakes of the Syrian campaign are repeated, and the refugees issue spills out of control to destabilize the neighboring countries.
Imposing additional sanctions on Russia should it intervene in Venezuela will automatically be one of the US responses, only this time these have to target the Russian oil sector, including Rossneft that has the largest stake in exploiting Venezuela’s oil riches.
Last, but not least — sanctions should be imposed on the Russian military leadership involved with the command and control of any Russian expeditionary force in Venezuela, including by exposing their connections to terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, thus employing against them al available international legal regimes that target the supporters of terrorism worldwide.
Ultimately, the battle for the future of Venezuela belongs to the Venezuelan people, and it should be first and foremost a political battle, by using any and all parliamentary means still available to Guaio and his followers. Should that project of democratization from within fail, however, and the political situation in Venezuela erupts into violence, the West cannot remain on the sidelines and watch yet another totalitarian regime destroy its people, consolidate its grip over its country, and spread its lethal influence across yet another strategic region of the word. Russia realizes fully that the time to act decisively in Venezuela has come, and it is likely already preparing to do so, through the hands of the regime, if possible, or with its own, if necessary. So must the West.
SHOULD RUSSIA DECIDE TO INTERVENE MILITARILY IN VENEZUELA, IN A HYBRID OR MORE CONVENTIONAL FORM, THE US MUST IMPOSE A FULL BLOCKADE OF THE COUNTRY OF THE TYPE IT HAD OVER CUBA DURING THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS. SHOULD A CIVIL WAR ERUPT, THE US SHOULD ALSO BE READY TO ESTABLISH SAFE ZONES WITHIN VENEZUELA FOR REFUGEES FROM MADURO’S REGIME LEST THE MISTAKES OF THE SYRIAN CAMPAIGN ARE REPEATED