Donald Trump has demanded that Russia “get out” of Venezuela after 100 of its troops landed to help embattled president Nicolás Maduro, escalating a war of words between Washington and Moscow.
The US president’s rebuke was delivered while he held White House talks with the wife of Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition politician who has declared himself interim president.
America, along with many European and South American nations, supports Mr Guaidó’s claim to the presidency while Russia and China are backing Mr Maduro.
The political crisis escalated on Saturday when two Russian air force planes touched down outside Caracas carrying nearly 100 Russian troops. Cyber experts were reportedly among the "special forces" sent from Moscow.
Experts believe Russia is attempting to protect its investments, having given Venezuela billions of dollars of loans in the past and taken part in joint ventures in the country’s oil industry.
"Russia has to get out," Mr Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, seated alongside Mr Guaidó’s wife Fabiana Rosales.
Earlier Mr Trump had told her: “We are with Venezuela, we are with your husband, as you know, and we are with the people that he represents, which is a big, big majority of the country.
“What’s happening there should not happen and be allowed to happen anywhere. So we are with you 100 per cent, okay? Please give my regards. It will all work out."
Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, hit back on Twitter, sending a message which included the slogans “HandsOffVenezuela” and “YankeeGoHome”.
“It’s not up to US to decide actions and fate of other countries, Mr Polyanskiy wrote, citing Mr Trump’s comments on Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s only up to the people of Venezuela and its only legitimate president Nicolas Maduro. We have bilateral relations and agreements with this country which we will honour.”
The exchanges were the latest in an increasingly hostile back-and-forth between the US and Russian administrations over the situation in Venezuela.
The population is malnourished and facing both hyperinflation and political repression. Mr Maduro has refused to let aid packages enter the country.
The latest crisis was triggered in January when Mr Guaidó, head of the National Assembly, unexpectedly declared himself interim president, claiming Mr Maduro’s election was illegitimate.
On Tuesday, Mr Pompeo used a telephone call with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, to warn that America would not “will not stand idly by as Russia exacerbates tensions in Venezuela”.
Mr Lavrov in turn told Mr Pompeo that “Washington’s attempts to organize a coup d’état in Venezuela and threats against its legitimate government” violated UN rules, according to the Russian foreign ministry.
Mr Bolton also issued his own message, tweeting:
The legitimate Interim President, Juan Guaido asks for humanitarian aid to support those in need. 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.— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) March 26, 2019
Mr Guaidó used a speech on Wednesday to call for supporters to protest against a nationwide blackout, the second major power outage this month that is dragging into its third day.
Mr Pompeo on Wednesday estimated that rebuilding Venezuela's economy could cost between $6 billion to $12 billion, warning that it would take years to complete.
Ms Rosales, a 26-year-old journalist and opposition activist, told Mr Trump that her husband Mr Guaidó was attacked on Tuesday, though she did not provide details.
"I fear for my husband's life," she said. She was accompanied by the wife and sister of Roberto Marrero, Mr Guaidó’s chief of staff, who was arrested and detained last week.