This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
The United States and Russia have exchanged harsh words over Venezuela, where Moscow supports a president considered illegitimate by the United States and some 50 other countries.
Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for the South American country, warned Russia on February 6 over its support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, saying its backing for the embattled leader could cease to be “cost-free.”
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced U.S. foreign policy in Venezuela, criticizing what he called Washington’s “provocations” and attempts to create a pretext for military intervention.
Venezuela is in the midst of a political crisis after months of anti-government street protests against Maduro, who was sworn in for a second term in January 2019 following elections in May 2018 that were marred by an opposition boycott and claims of vote-rigging.
Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country under his rule, which has been marked by economic woes and humanitarian disaster.
The opposition has accused the socialist Maduro of mismanaging the economy, sending the country into an economic crisis. Maduro has blamed outsiders, including the United States, for creating the crisis.
The United States and more than 50 other countries have recognized opposition figure Juan Guaido as the legitimate interim leader of Venezuela.
Russia, Cuba, and China continue to back Maduro, and Washington has called on the three states to withdraw what it has called their “intolerable” support for him.
Moscow in March 2019 undertook a show of force in the South American country, landing two Russian military planes in Caracas as part of military cooperation between the two countries.
In his remarks to reporters, Abrams hinted at possible sanctions against Moscow for its support of the embattled president.
“As several administration officials have noted, the Russians may soon find that their continued support of Maduro will no longer be cost-free,” the envoy said, while adding that others who profit from supporting Maduro should also take notice.
Abrams’ comments came a day after Guaido met with President Donald Trump at the White House, leading to a warning by the U.S. diplomat to the Venezuelan government against preventing Guaido from returning safely back home.
“We hope that the regime makes the calculation, particularly after this trip, that the support for Guaido is strong and that the counter-reaction to any move against him would make it a mistake for the regime,” Abrams said.
“We’re very concerned about it and we hope that he will return safely,” he told reporters.
Guaido, who met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on February 6, did not answer reporters’ questions about his plans to return home.
Lavrov, on a visit to Mexico, blasted U.S. attempts to remove Maduro as not “useful” and said Washington’s threats against Venezuela were counterproductive.
“No one can solve the problems of Venezuelans for them, but others may very well try to prevent them from negotiating. We see such attempts aimed at setting a pretext for a military intervention,” Lavrov said, according to Russian state news agency TASS.
“Russia and Mexico agree that this will be categorically unacceptable,” Lavrov added.