Russia accused President Trump's team of trying to set the stage for an invasion of Venezuela, in a condemnation of the latest U.S. sanctions on the South American dictatorship.
"We are strongly against unilateral sanctions against sovereign states," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Monday. "We will carefully analyze the implications of the sanctions imposed by the United States, and their possible effect on the interests of Russia and Russian businesses. We can already say that they will not affect our willingness to expand and strengthen cooperation with the friendly nation of Venezuela and its people."
That was just one salvo in an extended rebuke of U.S. policy, after Trump issued an executive order imposing new sanctions designed to cripple dictator Nicolas Maduro's regime. The Russians suggested that Trump is trying to destabilize Venezuela in order to provide a pretext for a U.S. invasion of the struggling country.
"In these circumstances, the announced sectoral sanctions against Venezuela's financial and oil sectors are clearly aimed at further unbalancing the situation in the country, and exacerbating its economic problems," Zakharova said. "As follows from US official statements, the administration is exploring options for further tightening its policy, including the potential use of force against Venezuela only ‘in case of deterioration of the situation' in this South American country. Hence, the question: what are the current US sanctions designed to achieve? Are they supposed to benefit the Venezuelan economy? Clearly, the very logic of sanctions implies further increasing tensions."
The accusation hinges, implicitly, on a warning that Trump issued abruptly while vacationing in Bedminster, N.J. "We have many options for Venezuela," he said on Aug. 11. "And by the way, I am not going to rule out a military option."
Venezuela has struggled with food shortages since 2010, but the crisis deepened over the last year, to the point that "the average Venezuelan [has lost] 19 pounds," according to House Foreign Affairs chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif. Confronted with political protests, Maduro took a series of steps to crack down on his domestic political opponents. That effort culminated in Maduro's team establishing a new body called the National Constituent Assembly tasked with rewriting the nation's constitution and disempowering the opposition-controlled legislature
So Trump imposed sanctions designed to prevent Maduro from carrying out a "fire sale" of government assets. "We will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Friday. "These measures are carefully calibrated to deny the Maduro dictatorship a critical source of financing to maintain its illegitimate rule, protect the United States financial system from complicity in Venezuela's corruption and in the impoverishment of the Venezuelan people, and allow for humanitarian assistance."
That move won Trump bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill. "Men, women, and children are starving, but their government continues to focus on consolidating power," Royce said. "We must continue to stand with the people of Venezuela – and with our allies – to restore democracy and basic human rights."
His Democratic counterpart on the committee concurred. "I strongly support U.S. efforts to hold Nicolás Maduro and his cronies accountable while ensuring that the Venezuelan people — who have already suffered for far too long — are not forced to bear any further pain," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said.
Russia, however, has joined Cuba in defending Maduro and arguing that international powers should allow the new assembly to rewrite the constitution. "We believe there is no alternative to peaceful responsible talks in the proper legal framework and without outside interference," Zakharova said. "Everything that goes beyond this framework is aimed at undermining the constitutional order in Venezuela and leading to new deprivations for its citizens.