Nearly 100 Russian troops have reportedly landed in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas as the United States, which has hinted that a military option is “on the table,” continues to pressure the country’s president to step down.
Reuters reported Sunday that two Russian planes arrived in Caracas on Saturday, one of them thought to have carried Vasily Tonkoshkurov, chief of staff for Russian ground forces.
Neither Venezuelan nor Russian authorities have issued a comment on the flights.
Venezuela and Russia held joint military exercises in January, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has criticized U.S. support for opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has declared himself interim president, as an interventionist.
Moscow has also vowed to step in and prevent “any provocations to shed blood.”
This is the latest measure indicating stronger support from Moscow for embattled President Nicolas Maduro’s regime. On Wednesday, Maduro said Russia would be shipping humanitarian aid into Venezuela, which has been suffering from major political and financial upheaval for the last four years.
In December, Russia sent two bomber aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons to Venezuela.
Accused of corruption by some, Maduro has been resisting pressure to step down as the country’s economy has taken a beating, with its currency in free-fall, hyperinflation and the exodus of over 3 million people into neighboring countries.
On Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department issued fresh sanctions on Venezuela, with National Security Advisor John Bolton issuing a threat via Twitter.
“To those who are helping send the Venezuelan people’s wealth out of the country to benefit Maduro and his cronies, you are on notice today that the United States is watching,” he wrote.
To those who are helping send the Venezuelan people’s wealth out of the country to benefit Maduro and his cronies, you are on notice today that the United States is watching.
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) March 23, 2019
In addition to levying heavy sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry and calling on the country’s military elite to turn against Maduro, the Trump administration send convoys of aid to the Colombia-Venezuela border in February.
This was shortly after Bolton unintentionally disclosed, via a line on a notepad held in plain sight before press cameras, that the United States was considering sending 5,000 troops to the border.
Aid was blocked at the Colombian and Brazilian borders by Venezuelan troops using teargas and force, resulting in two deaths. Since then, the country has been mired in prolonged power and telecom outages that led to schools and hospitals being shut down.
News of the Russian planes landing in Caracas comes the same day Attorney General William Barr confirmed in a bombshell letter that, according to special counsel Robert Mueller, Russians launched an interference campaign during the 2016 campaign meant to swing the outcome of U.S. elections.
Mueller, who was charged with investigating allegations of collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials, and allegations of obstruction and misconduct by the president, determined that Russian actors successfully staged a disinformation campaign during the lead up to the election and “successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from persons affiliated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks.”
According to Barr, Mueller’s final report did not find evidence of any American involvement in those acts, either inside or outside the Trump campaign.