Russian Mercenaries on the Move in Latin America

Russian Mercenaries on the Move in Latin America

Wagner Group fighters are reportedly in Venezuela. They may soon move into other Latin American countries, such as Colombia.

The Kremlin’s strategy in Venezuela and other South American countries is a lot like the strategy it uses to undermine Western interests in Syria. Usually, Moscow provides muscle to prop up petty dictators. The Wagner Group also operates military hardware. Since 2012, Venezuela has spent over $11 billion on Russian “fighter jets, attack and transport helicopters, air defense and naval platforms, tanks, armored personnel carriers (APC), self-propelled artillery, and various small arms to include surface-to-air-missiles,” according to one source. Additionally, citing flight tracking data, Reuters now claims that Wagner Group mercenaries are boots-on-the-ground in Venezuela, a claim the Kremlin denies.

Traditionally, the United States fights fire with fire in these situations. If Russian mercenaries are in Venezuela, American contractors might not be far behind.

Venezuela: A Closer Look

Like many other nations throughout the world, this South American country has a significant resources-wealth gap. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. This inequality, coupled with government corruption, led to a severe economic meltdown in the mid 2010s. The meltdown began a downward spiral of poverty, shortages of basic goods, unemployment, hyperinflation, disease, malnutrition, severe crime, high child mortality, and corruption. As a result, roughly three million people have left Venezuela since 2017. That is more than a tenth of the population.

Demagogue Hugo Chavez, whose calls for a nationwide strike probably sewed the seeds for this crisis, died in 2013. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, was branded a dictator by opposition parties. Maduro responded by barring them from a 2018 presidential election, which unsurprisingly, Maduro won in a landslide.

After the Organization of American States refused to recognize the results, former President Donald Trump authorized a total embargo. Indictments of Maduro and several other high officials, for charges ranging from narco-terrorism to drug trafficking, followed shortly thereafter. The following year, an international human rights organization issued a scathing report against Maduro and his cronies.

Throughout history, great powers have used instability as an excuse for invasion. If this crisis had occurred in 1915 instead of 2015, U.S. Marines would most likely have splashed ashore near Caracas. But the days of U.S. “gunboat diplomacy” are over. 

Russia, however, has no such scruples, at least in this particular instance. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that a formal military intervention in Venezuela would violate the centuries-old Monroe Doctrine, one of the cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy since the foundation of the Republic. Putin wants the resources that Venezuela has to offer, but he is not willing to fight for them.

Additionally, the international isolation of Maduro plays into the “friend to the friendless” approach Putin often uses in these situations.

So, Wagner Group mercenaries are apparently in Venezuela. They primarily provide military support to Maduro in his desperate bid to cling to power. Wagner Group fighters have military tools and training that the thugs in Maduro’s security forces can only dream about. Additionally, if Putin did have a hand in this deployment, Maduro owes him a favor.

Mercenaries vs. Contractors

Many pundits use these terms as if they are synonymous. In a few ways, that is true. 

Mercenaries and contractors often provide logistical support. For example, Chavez also cultivated a strong relationship with China. As a result, much of Venezuela’s military hardware and technology is Chinese. So, Maduro needs someone like a Wagner Group mercenary to operate this equipment. 

Additionally, mercenaries are not an official part of a regular army. Usually, a third party pays the bill. During the Revolutionary War, the British hired German mercenaries (Hessians) to fight in America.

Contractors also provide logistical support. They are quite well-suited for such duties. In many cases, they have experience with the company that designed and/or built the machine in question. Additionally, contractors are not part of the DoD’s organizational structure. In most cases, the Defense Department or another government agency, like the State Department, pays the bill and determines deployment.

But the similarities pretty much end there.

Mercenaries have additional duties. They may participate in whatever operations their commanders and employers dictate. That includes offensive operations. American private military contractors are limited to non-offensive operations under U.S. law.

Oversight is different as well. As mentioned, both mercenaries and contractors are independent entities that are exempt from military discipline. But contractors are still subject to U.S. law, even if they work overseas. One of these laws, the Defense Base Act, is discussed in detail below.

Additionally, only contractors train foreign troops. Mercenaries do no such thing, because they would be working themselves out of a job. Bur contractors are different, and not just from a practical standpoint. They are also different philosophically. Contractors support U.S. foreign policy objectives. These objectives usually include stabilizing a situation, not destabilizing it, and leaving as quickly as possible, not becoming an occupying force.

Injury Compensation Available

All these activities are very dangerous, whether or not bullets are flying. Logistical service injuries include repetitive stress injuries and falls. As for trauma injuries, soldiers in the field traditionally have more to fear from non-combat injuries than from combat injuries. Even if bullets are flying, most contractors are under fire sporadically, at best.

Since 1941, the Defense Base Act has replaced lost wages and paid medical bills when private military contractors are injured overseas. These benefits are available even if the victim was partially at fault, mostly at fault, or entirely at fault for the claimed illness or injury.

Usually, DBA insurance replaces two-thirds of the victim’s average weekly wage for the duration of a deployment-related disability. The AWW includes not only regular cash compensation but also irregular or non-cash compensation, such as missed performance or completion bonuses, missed overtime opportunities, and expense reimbursement.

The DBA’s medical bill benefit usually applies to all reasonably necessary medical bills. That includes not only hospital and doctor bills but also ancillary costs, such as transportation, prescription drugs, medical devices, and physical therapy. Frequently, these ancillary costs are almost as high as the hospital bill. That is especially true since compensation is determined based on the actual cost, not on the insurance-subsidy cost.

According to the DBA, an overseas war zone is pretty much any place that has any U.S military presence. That presence could be a huge deployment of combat soldiers or a single military analyst in an embassy.

For more information about DBA benefits eligibility, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.