LONDON - The Kremlin may have helped Venezuela's embattled socialist leader Nicolas Maduro swap gold for cash, transporting Venezuelan bullion deposited in Moscow to the United Arab Emirates and then flying U.S. currency into the Venezuelan capital, an investigative newspaper has claimed.
The report in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta is adding to the fears of pro-democracy activists in Venezuela that the Kremlin will try to make good on its pledge to stand by Maduro to help him survive a popular uprising against him.
Russian officials have condemned U.S. sanctions imposed last month against Venezuela's vital oil sector, a move aimed at depriving Maduro of the funds he needs to pay his army, which has so far remained loyal to him. The Kremlin says the sanctions are illegal meddling in Venezuela's domestic affairs. And it rejects, too, the widespread Latin American and European endorsement of the popular protests against Maduro.
Gold swapped for dollars?
Citing unnamed sources in the United Arab Emirates, the newspaper alleged that on Jan. 29, a Russian-operated Boeing 757 cargo plane took Venezuelan gold stored in Russia's central bank to Dubai. The bullion was replaced with containers full of U.S. dollars and the aircraft, which is owned by the Russian company Yerofei, took off again and flew via Morocco to Venezuela, the paper said.
The director of Russia's central bank, Elvira Nabiullina, denied the allegation, saying the bank was holding no Venezuelan bullion.
On Friday, a senior Venezuelan official told the Reuters news agency that Caracas plans to sell 29 tons of gold to the UAE in return for euros and said the sale of the nation's gold began with a shipment of three tons on Jan. 26, following the export last year of $900 million in unrefined gold to Turkey. But the official said Moscow was not involved in the gold-for-cash operation.
Social media theories
Turkey has been refining and certifying Venezuelan gold since last year after Maduro switched operations from Switzerland, fearing Venezuelan bullion could end up being impounded.
The Jan. 29 flight, though, is the second unexplained Russian plane to have landed in Caracas since the high-stakes standoff began between opposition leader Juan Guaido and Maduro. A Boeing 777 belonging to a Russian charter company called Nordwind flew from Moscow's Vnukovo airport on Monday to the Venezuelan capital, according to flight tracking data. Nordwind normally only flies Russian tourists to vacation destinations in the Mediterranean and southeast Asia.
The arrival of the Nordwind jet in Caracas triggered an avalanche of social media theories about what it was doing in the Venezuelan capital. Some anti-Maduro lawmakers claimed that it brought Russian mercenaries to help guard the socialist leader. One theory that prompted jubilation among street protesters was that it was there to spirit Maduro into exile.
The flight also prompted Venezuelan lawmaker Jose Guerra, who previously worked as an economist in Venezuela's central bank, to warn in a tweet: "We have received information from officials at the Central Bank of Venezuela: A plane arrived from Moscow, with the intention of taking away at least 20 tons of gold. We demand that the Central Bank of Venezuela provide details about what is happening."
Dmitry Peskov, press spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, told reporters midweek the reports about Venezuelan gold and the Kremlin were inaccurate and urged journalists to "deal carefully with fake news' of various kinds."
He dismissed Guerra's claims, saying, according to TASS, "Russia is prepared to promote a settlement to the political situation in Venezuela without meddling in that country's internal affairs. Russia is categorically against any meddling by third countries in Venezuela's internal affairs."
For Moscow and Beijing, the high-stakes standoff between Guaido, who declared himself interim president in late January, and Maduro represents a geopolitical headache. Both Russia and China have lent billions of dollars to Maduro. Russia's oil-giant Rosneft has stakes in five onshore oil projects, according to Bloomberg News, and has loaned the Maduro government more than $7 billion, which is meant to be repaid in oil deliveries.
The Bank of England this week refused a Venezuelan request for the return of more than one billion dollars' worth of gold it has on deposit. The refusal came after the United States urged Western countries to block the Maduro government from accessing any assets outside Venezuela's borders.