Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday promised to keep providing economic and military aid to Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro despite Washington’s threats to lash out at nations that prop up the South American regime.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with Maduro, Lavrov said Venezuela was the victim of “illegitimate” sanctions and pressure from the United States, and he said that Russia would continue to invest in the country’s energy, industry and agricultural sectors.
“Obviously, it’s also important to keep developing our technical and military cooperation in order to increase our friend’s ability to defend themselves from these outside threats,” he said through an interpreter.
Lavrov arrived in Caracas late Thursday, a day after Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó — recognized as the country’s legitimate president by the United States and more than 50 other nations — held a high-profile meeting with Donald Trump at the White House.
It also came after U.S. officials said they will be stepping up their “maximum pressure” campaign to starve Maduro of resources — including squeezing his international allies.
“As several administration officials have noted, the Russians may soon find that their continued support of Maduro will no longer be cost-free,” U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams said Thursday. “Others who continue to profit from or support Maduro should take warning. And more generally, you will see steps unfold in the coming weeks that demonstrate the seriousness of our intentions in Venezuela.”
While Venezuela’s state-run media was showing images of Lavrov receiving the red-carpet treatment at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, the U.S. Treasury announced it was slapping sanctions on Venezuela’s state-run CONVIASA airline, which operates about 40 aircraft.
The new sanctions prohibit U.S. residents, citizens and those passing through the U.S. to engage in transactions with the airline, which no longer has any U.S. or European flights.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the Maduro regime relies on CONVIASA “to shuttle corrupt regime officials around the world to fuel support for its anti-democratic efforts.“
“The Trump administration will not allow Maduro and his proxies to continue stealing from the Venezuelan people and abusing state-owned assets to advance their own corrupt and destabilizing activities,” he added.
As much of the international community has abandoned Maduro, he still has powerful allies in Russia, China, Turkey, India and elsewhere. Russia, in particular, has become critical to keeping Venezuela’s petroleum industry afloat through state-run Rosneft.
Despite U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry, Rosneft continues to accept crude for debt payments and then resells the fuel to India and China, according to U.S. officials.
Lavrov traveled to Venezuela after first visiting Mexico and Cuba.
“Venezuela and Russia over the last two decades have forged a strategic bilateral and multilateral alliance which has allowed the signing of hundreds of cooperation agreements in different fields, including energy, the economy, technology, industry and military,” Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Despite Lavrov’s vocal support for Maduro, he didn’t announce any new projects or investments, but said that proposals would be reviewed in Moscow. He also said Maduro will be traveling to Russia on May 9.
The U.S.-Russian struggle over the fate of Venezuela has cast Cold War shadows on the South American nation, David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, wrote in a New York Times editorial.
“It is no coincidence that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, will travel to Venezuela on [Thursday]. The trip not only follows Mr. Trump’s State of the Union address, it comes a week after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Ukraine and other former Soviet states,” he wrote.
Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry said the Russian delegation includes Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, the Foreign Ministry’s Latin America Director Alexander Shchetinin, Information and Communications Director Maria Zárova, and Director of Planning and Foreign Policy Oleg Stepanov.
Guaidó defied a travel ban on Jan. 19 to slip out of Venezuela and travel to Colombia, Europe and the United States as he continues to push for Maduro’s ouster. Last week he told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald that he planned to return to Venezuela in coming days and continue to lead street demonstrations.
U.S. officials have warned Maduro not to detain or harm Guaidó upon his return.
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