WASHINGTON — Pentagon plans for a possible military action in Venezuela are taking into account foreign forces that may have to be confronted — including one group the U.S. military has already soundly beaten.
That entity is the Vagner Group (also known as the Wagner PMC or Группа Вагнера), a Russian military-supported mercenary entity that operates in Syria, among other locations. According to multiple reports, some confirmed by Pentagon officials, roughly 400 Vagner elements are now in Venezuela as part of the support for President Nicolas Maduro.
They first arrived in Venezuela late last year and then after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president in January, Pentagon officials said in interviews with TMN. The mercenaries are functioning as a security detail for Maduro.
“They do have deep ties there,” one person with deep knowledge of Vagner’s connections told TMN on Monday.
Two Russian planes carrying 100 Russian servicemen and 35 tons of cargo arrived in Venezuela on March 23 — but they were regular Russian troops, officials said.
The Vagner Group first became widely known by the public during its efforts in eastern Ukraine supporting separatists, boasting among other things about shooting down a Boeing 777 Malaysian Airlines passenger plane. In June 2017 the Treasury Department placed Vagner on the list of Russian individuals and entities subject to sanctions because of their involvement in the Ukraine war.
Vagner is funded and supported by the GRU, the intelligence wing of the Russian military, Pentagon officials said in interviews.
In February 2017, more than 100 Vagner mercenaries died after attacking U.S. and coalition positions in the Deir al-Zour region of eastern Syria. Pentagon officials said then that the Russians denied any involvement with the group, a contention that then-Defense Secretary James Mattis dismissed.
The goal of that attack was the oil fields in eastern Syria, as oil and other marketable commodities are what often determine Vagner priorities, individuals who know the group and have dealt with them said in interviews with TMN.
Now Pentagon officials say the allure of Venezuela oil has prompted deep ties between Moscow’s use of Vagner in Venezuela. Rosneft, Russia’s second-largest energy company, is one of the largest foreign investors in Venezuela.
Vagner also operates in Sudan and the Central African Republic; some reports place Vagner personnel in Libya, according to Stratfor and other international monitoring groups.
Gen. Stephen Townsend, nominated to head the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), told Congress on April 2 that Russian mercenaries are second only to terrorist groups as a threat on the continent. “They concern me greatly,” he said then.