Mike Pompeo Calls Russia an 'Undesired Foreign Presence' in Venezuela That Has 'Besieged' the Country

Though foreign policy headlines have been dominated by other issues in recent months, the political crisis in Venezuela is dragging on with no sign of resolution. And with the U.S. and Russia supporting opposing factions there, the oil-rich nation remains a diplomatic flash point.

This came to the fore again on Friday, as Venezuela celebrated its independence one day after the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the chance to voice his support for Juan Guaido, the leader of Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly and self-declared interim president.

"I congratulate interim President Juan Guaido, the National Assembly, and the people of Venezuela as you celebrate the anniversary of your independence," Pompeo said in the State Department press release.

"Once again, the Venezuelan people are besieged by dictatorship, undesired foreign presence, and profiteers," he continued. "As in the time of Bolivar, Venezuela's path to democracy is not easy, but you inspire the world with the strength of your voices and tremendous courage.

"We are with you in your struggle to reclaim your democratic self-governance and free it from those who have betrayed, oppressed, and robbed the Venezuelan people of the wealth of your great nation."

The U.S. and a host of other European and South American nations are backing Guaido against President Nicolas Maduro, who in turn is supported by nations including Russia and China.

Maduro's critics claim the most recent presidential election was illegitimate, citing an opposition boycott and allegations of vote rigging and the suppression of opponents. Citing a clause in the national constitution, Guaido declared himself interim president and called on Maduro to step down.

But the leftist firebrand has refused to do so. Despite international support and the economic crisis ravaging Venezuela, Maduro was able to maintain the vital support of his armed forces while being buoyed by foreign assistance, most notably from Cuba and Russia.

It increasingly appears as though the U.S. gamble on Guaido will not pay off. The young leader even launched a coup against Maduro at the end of April, but the military stayed loyal to the dictator despite reports that Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez had agreed to support the rebels.

Even as Pompeo lamented the "undesired foreign presence" foisted on Venezuela, the Russian military—which has sent specialist troops to support Maduro's forces—vowed to continue assisting the Venezuela military.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters on Friday that Russia would "continue our multifaceted efforts on developing partner relations with brotherly Venezuela" and "strengthen the military potential of this country's armed forces."

He acknowledged previous reports of Russian troop deployments to bolster Maduro, but said it "concerns maintenance of equipment delivered there," Tass reported. Venezuela is a major customer of Moscow's military technology, and Russian specialists are required to help operate systems like the S-300 anti-aircraft batteries.

The U.S. protested fiercely in March when two Russian military planes landed around 100 Russian troops in Caracas.

The State Department called the move a "reckless escalation" of the tense situation in Venezuela. An anonymous U.S. official told Reuters that Washington was still assessing the contingent, though it is believed to be made up of special forces including "cybersecurity personnel."

Venezuela, Russia, U.S., military support, Mike Pompeo
Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino is pictured after the arrival of two Russian Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers at Maiquetia International Airport near Caracas, Venezuela, on December 10, 2018. FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty