Weekly Report - 10 February 2022 (WR-22-06)

COLOMBIA: Concerns over Russian activity in Venezuela

A month on from Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov’s suggestion that Moscow could deploy military assets to its Latin American allies [WR-22-03], Colombia’s government is appearing increasingly concerned by military activity across the border in Venezuela. Russia’s ambassador in Bogotá, Nikolái Karlovich Tavdumadze, was summoned to a meeting on 7 February with Defence Minister Diego Molano Aponte and Foreign Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez to discuss his country’s military cooperation with Venezuela.

Tavdumadze’s summoning to the meeting followed claims by Molano on 3 February that “men and units from the Venezuelan armed forces have been moved towards the [Colombian] border with the support and technical assistance of Russia.” This, Molano claimed, amounted to “foreign interference along the border.”

Molano did not provide any evidence to back up his claims, but on 7 February national daily El Tiempo claimed to have seen a Colombian intelligence support that appeared to provide the basis for his remarks. According to El Tiempo, the report states that nearly 70 Russian troops are permanently based in Venezuela with the stated objective of maintaining the country’s fighter jets, but that these troops are rotated every three months to ensure a constant Russian military presence in the country.

Colombia’s concern at the alleged Russian activity is based on its longstanding belief that the administration led by Nicolás Maduro is providing support for Colombian guerrilla groups, including the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and the dissident ‘Segunda Marquetalia’ unit of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc). Ahead of the meeting with Tavdumadze, President Iván Duque said that further clarity was needed on Russian activity in Venezuela “because it concerns a government that is aiding and protecting terrorist groups that attack the Colombian people.” He added that “under no circumstances do we want to see Russian support ending up being used to cause harm to our country”.

Duque’s comments were swiftly rejected by Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Félix Plasencia, who tweeted that “the whole region is concerned by [Duque’s] submission to Washington and by the US military bases that his government hosts”. Plasencia went on to accuse Duque of positioning Colombia as “an imperial pawn in the anachronistic context of a cold war”, adding that “Venezuela will continue to tighten its links with Russia…to support the prosperity and security of our peoples”.

Following Tavdumadze’s summoning, Ramírez said that Russia was understanding of the Duque administration’s concerns, and that “the Russian ambassador has told us that military cooperation between Russia and Venezuela will never be used for military action against Colombia or any Latin American country, or to affect regional stability.” Speaking on 9 February, Duque sought to dismiss the idea that tensions were mounting between Colombia and Russia, saying that “what’s happening in Venezuela isn’t geopolitical” but rather “the horrendous situation of a regime that sponsors the most brutal murders in Colombia”.

That may not be the end of the matter, however. As part of a tour of Europe, Duque is due to meet Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), on 13 February in a move that will rankle Russia as it seeks to push NATO forces back from Eastern Europe. According to a statement from the Colombian presidency, Duque and Stoltenberg will endeavour to “strengthen security cooperation and tackle challenges in the bilateral relationship” with NATO, of which Colombia became a partner country in 2017.

Electoral concerns

In comments that were widely interpreted as a veiled swipe at Russia, US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland has emphasised the need to prevent foreign interference in Colombia’s upcoming legislative and presidential elections, scheduled for March and May, respectively. Speaking during a visit to Bogotá on 8 February, Nuland stressed that “our desire is for free and fair elections, Colombian elections for Colombians, and we must protect them from outside agents who want to manipulate them, as they have tried to do in other parts of the world.” Nuland later told local radio station Blu Radio that the US and Colombian governments are working together to prevent interference in the elections, “whether that is by sending money, through disinformation, or through cyberattacks on state systems.”

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