Are Russian ‘mercenaries’ in Venezuela? What we know
Venezuela’s head of state Nicolas Maduro is facing growing opposition protests and a leadership battle with National Assembly head Juan Guaido, who proclaimed himself acting president during a massive street rally on Wednesday, January 23.
The United States and key players in the Americas, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and Colombia, have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s president, but other states including Russia and China, as well as the Venezuelan military, continue to stand by Maduro.
“The [U.S.] policy concerning Venezuela, as with many other countries, is destructive in my opinion,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday, January 25. “This [U.S.] behavior is unacceptable. It undermines the principles of the U.N. Charter and the international community’s standards,” he said, adding Russia will defend its position at the Security Council.”
Lavrov’s comments came after Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Maduro on January 24 expressing his “support for the legitimate authorities of Venezuela in the context of an exacerbated domestic political crisis provoked from outside.”
Telephone conversation with Nicolas Maduro. Vladimir Putin expressed his support for the legitimate Venezuelan authorities https://t.co/2zqLg2q6Go
— President of Russia (@KremlinRussia_E) January 24, 2019
As Russia’s authorities expressed their position toward the situation in Venezuela, Reuters published an exclusive article saying that Russian private military contractors have been flown to Caracas in the past several days to beef up Maduro’s security.
“The contractors are associated with the so-called Wagner group whose members, mostly ex-service personnel, fought clandestinely in support of Russian forces in Syria and Ukraine, according to Reuters interviews with dozens of contractors, their friends and relatives,” the Reuters report said citing three sources, two of whom were anonymous.
The story’s only named source was Yevgeny Shabayev, who was introduced in the article as the “leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary group of Cossacks with ties to Russian military contractors.”
“Citing contacts in a Russian state security structure, Shabayev said the contingent flew to Venezuela at the start of this week, a day or two before opposition protests started. He said they set off in two chartered aircraft for Havana, Cuba, from where they transferred onto regular commercial flights to Venezuela,” the report cited Shabayev as saying.
“The Cuban government, a close ally of Venezuela’s ruling socialists for the last two decades, did not immediately respond to a request for comment,” the report said.
In the Russian media Shabayev is known as a “representative” of dozens of organizations registered under his name, with the Cossacks group being only one of them. He has been listed as the President of the Otrada Veterans Charitable Foundation in Moscow, First Secretary of the Victory Generation All-Russian Public Organization and the head of the Committee of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly, to name a few.
Shabayev has also called himself a representative of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s public movement and the plenipotentiary representative of the DPR in Moscow, although people familiar with his statements have called him a liar and a fake veteran.
On his Facebook page, Shabayev posted an account of events different than that described by Reuters.
“On Monday, January 21, a group of security specialists I know, who protect top officials and recently returned from Gabon, received an urgent order to put together a group of 400 people,” Shabayev wrote.
“On Tuesday – Wednesday 22-23, they took a charter flight to Havana. They did not know the place and the time of their work. One of them called relatives from Havana and said that they are being put on a regular flight to Caracas.”
“[Their] Relatives approached me asking to clarify what happened with their loved ones [by asking] foreign correspondents. I got in touch with Reuters before Guaido was proclaimed the president. I didn’t need any other info[rmation] in any other way.”
“Reuters found the proof on the ground. Once again – I was interested in the info before the events, not after. And not me, but relatives. This info was confirmed not by me, but by local correspondents.”
However, the only other two anonymous sources mentioned in the Reuters story were individuals “close to the Wagner group,” and there was no explicit mention of sources on the ground in Venezuela. Moreover, the article said another person believed to work for Wagner “did not respond to a message asking for information.”
Even though Reuters used Shabayev’s comments as proof of Wagner’s presence in Venezuela, he himself never mentioned the group by name. On the contrary, in an interview with a Russian outlet Lenta.ru, Shabayev said the “mercenaries” sent to Venezuela had nothing to do with Wagner and its alleged head Evgeny Prigozhin, whose nickname is “Putin’s Cook” because one of his companies provided food services to the Kremlin.
“On the evening of January 21, a certain group of guys was instructed to quickly recruit a group. They carried out orders from private military companies,” he said.
The second interview with Shabayev published by Lenta on Friday, January 25, does not include the Wagner connection denial, but it doesn’t name any private military company either.
In an interview with RIA Novosti, the Russian ambassador to Venezuela, Vladimir Zayemsky, called the news about Russian private military companies in the country “a canard.”
“I know nothing about any Russian private military companies in Venezuela. This is another canard,” he said on Friday.
Russia arrests PMC Wagner expert Vladimir Neelov on treason charges