WASHINGTON – The Russian military contingent that arrived in Venezuela over the weekend, drawing U.S. condemnation, is believed to be made up of special forces, including “cybersecurity personnel,” a U.S. official told Reuters on Tuesday.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was still assessing the Russian deployment, which Washington has called a “reckless escalation” of the situation in Venezuela.
Two Russian air force planes landed outside Caracas on Saturday carrying nearly 100 Russian troops, according to local media reports, two months after the Trump administration disavowed President Nicolas Maduro.
The Trump administration has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate president and demands that Maduro step down. Russia has described this as a U.S.-backed coup against the socialist government.
The U.S. assessment that the Russian contingent includes cybersecurity specialists and those from “related fields” suggests that part of their mission could be helping Maduro’s loyalists with surveillance as well as protection of the government’s cyberinfrastructure.
Russia’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that the presence of “Russian specialists” in Venezuela is governed by a military-technical cooperation agreement between the two countries. But it did not provide further details.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in a phone call on Monday that Washington would “not stand idly by” as Russia backed Maduro, who has overseen a dramatic collapse of a once-bustling economy.
John Bolton, U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, said on Tuesday that while Guaido asks for humanitarian aid to help his people, Maduro asks for Cuban and Russian goons to suppress the people of Venezuela. “The military ranks are seeing Maduro’s corruption, violence, and lack of support within Venezuela,” Bolton said in a message on Twitter.
The United States and most Western countries have backed Guaido while Russia, China and Cuba are among those that have continued to support Maduro, who controls Venezuela’s state institutions including the military.
On Tuesday afternoon the Lima Group of Latin American countries said in a statement it was concerned about the arrival of military airplanes in Venezuela.
“We reiterate our condemnation of any military provocation or deployment that threatens peace and security in the region,” said the group formed in 2017 to pressure Maduro, which includes Brazil, Canada, Colombia and Peru.
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Pompeo on Tuesday urging him to determine if Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua should face mandatory U.S. sanctions for conducting significant transactions with the Russian defense and intelligence sectors.