Specialist Russian Troops May Be Sent to Venezuela to Protect Against American 'Economic Terror,' Moscow Says

A senior Russian diplomat has said the Kremlin is prepared to send more troops to Venezuela to support President Nicolas Maduro in his face-off with the U.S.-backed opposition trying to depose him.

Speaking in Caracas, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told reporters that troops previously sent to the oil-rich nation have completed their assignment and that Moscow stands ready to launch repeat missions, the state-backed Tass news agency reported.

Left-wing firebrand Maduro has resisted calls to step down from the U.S., Europe, and a host of other nations. Venezuela remains mired in economic crisis due to the collapsing price of oil, long-term economic mismanagement and rampant corruption.

Maduro's opponents claim his victory in last year's presidential election was illegitimate. His critics cite an opposition boycott, allegations of vote rigging and suppression of opponents.

Citing a clause in the national constitution, the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaido, declared himself interim president in January and called on Maduro to step aside.

Maduro has been bolstered by support from Russia, China and other nations. The arrival of Russian troops in Venezuela in March raised fears that the nation could become a war battleground in a proxy war between the U.S., Russia and China.

The soldiers were reportedly deployed to help protect the regime against cyber attacks, service Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems and help repair the damaged national power grid, which Maduro has claimed was a target of U.S. covert sabotage operations.

At the time, the U.S. State Department called the deployment a "reckless escalation" of the tense situation in the country. Since then, the opposition—led by self-declared Interim President Juan Guaido—has lost momentum, having failed to win the support of the country's powerful military establishment.

On Sunday, Ryabkov said that the "tasks that faced the groups that have been working here have been accomplished," referring to the deployed Russian troops. "If the situation requires additional efforts or adjustments, it will be done," he added.

Rumors of imminent American military intervention in Venezuela have been rife since the current crisis erupted in January, and even before that. Russian boots on the ground greatly increases the risk of any such action escalating into a wider conflict. But Ryabkov suggested the issue was being overblown.

"I see no reason to keep discussing the topic of Russian military specialists endlessly," he said. "It is not a problem." Asked whether the Kremlin would send more Russian specialists to Venezuela in future, Ryabkov simply answered, "Yes."

Ryabkov also hit out at the U.S. over its continued pressure on Maduro. The White House is doubling down on economic sanctions in the hope of pushing Maduro from office. Thus far the Trump administration's strategy seems to have failed, unable to convince Venezuela's powerful military to abandon the president.

"U.S. attempts to topple the legitimate government of Venezuela have become a clear illustration of international law violations," Ryabkov said. "Economic terror has been unleashed against the legitimate government of Venezuela.

"The legitimate government's property was persistently transferred to the self-proclaimed acting president. The capabilities of the financial, oil and mining sectors have been seriously limited by the introduction of sanctions."

The diplomat claimed that U.S. sanctions had deprived Venezuela of some $100 billion. He also stressed the Russian view that Maduro's presidential legitimacy is "out of the question."

Sergey Ryabkov, Russia, Venezuela, US, troops
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov attends a panel discussion during the 55th Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on February 16, 2019. CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty