By Tom Balmforth and Maxim Rodionov
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Thursday it had sent “specialists” to Venezuela under a military cooperation deal but said they posed no threat to regional stability, brushing aside a call from U.S. President Donald Trump to remove all military personnel from the country.
Trump said on Wednesday that “all options” were open to make Russia pull troops out of Venezuela after two Russian air force planes landed outside Caracas on Saturday carrying nearly 100 Russian troops, according to media reports.
As Venezuela has descended into political turmoil this year, Russia has emerged as a staunch backer of President Nicolas Maduro while the United States backs the country’s opposition and has imposed sanctions.
Venezuela’s military attache in Moscow said on Thursday Russia had sent “servicemen” to Venezuela, but that they would not take part in military operations, Interfax news agency reported.
“The presence of Russian servicemen in Venezuela is linked to the discussion of cooperation in the military-technical sphere,” Jose Rafael Torrealba Perez was quoted as saying.
Speaking at a weekly news briefing on Thursday, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the arrivals only as “Russian specialists”.
“Russia is not changing the balance of power in the region, Russia is not threatening anyone, unlike (officials) in Washington,” she told a weekly news briefing.
“Russian specialists have arrived in Venezuela in line with the provisions of a bilateral inter-government agreement on military-technical cooperation. No one canceled this document,” Zakharova said.
Russia and China have backed Maduro, while the United States and most other Western countries support opposition leader Juan Guaido.
In January, Guaido invoked the constitution to assume Venezuela’s interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.
Maduro, who retains control of state functions and the country’s military, has said Guaido is a puppet of the United States.
(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Gareth Jones)