The United States pressed all nations Saturday to "stand with the forces of freedom" in Venezuela, encouraged by a tougher European line as Russia stood in the minority in backing embattled leader Nicolas Maduro.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a forceful case at a special session of the United Nations Security Council, where he described Maduro as part of an "illegitimate mafia state" responsible for Venezuela's economic collapse.
Four major European countries - Britain, Germany, Britain, France and Spain - said on Saturday they are ready to recognise Juan Guaido as Venezuela's interim president if elections are not called within eight days.
Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary, said: "After banning opposition candidates, ballot box stuffing and counting irregularities in a deeply flawed election it is clear Nicolas Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela," Mr Hunt tweeted.
1/2 After banning opposition candidates, ballot box stuffing and counting irregularities in a deeply flawed election it is clear Nicolas Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela
— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) January 26, 2019
2/2 @jguaido is the right person to take Venezuela forward. If there are not fresh & fair elections announced within 8 days UK will recognise him as interim President to take forward the political process towards democracy. Time for a new start for the suffering ppl of Venezuela
— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) January 26, 2019
With mounting protests over Venezuela's crisis in which more than two million have fled shortages of basic food and medicine, Mr Pompeo asked all nations to follow the US in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president.
"Now it is time for every other nation to pick a side. No more delays, no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you're in league with Maduro and his mayhem," Mr Pompeo said.
Mr Pompeo denounced Russia and China, which have stood by Maduro, saying that they were motivated not by principle but raw financial interest.
"China and Russia are propping up a failed regime in the hopes of recovering billions of dollars in ill-considered investments and assistance made over the years," Mr Pompeo said.
Russia has denounced the United States for interference and attempted to block the Security Council meeting, but it was voted down with nine of the 15 members agreeing to go forward.
"Venezuela does not pose any threat to peace and security. The intention of the United States is to orchestrate a coup d'etat," said the Russian ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia.
He accused the United States of renewing a long history of imperialism in Latin America, saying that Washington treated it as a "backyard where you can do anything you want."
But Russia managed to block a Security Council statement seen by AFP that would have offered "full support" to Mr Guaido and called the National Assembly that he heads "Venezuela's only democratically elected institution."
"The government of Spain gives Nicolas Maduro eight days to call free, transparent and democratic elections," said Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in statement.
"If that doesn't happen, Spain will recognise Juan Guaido as interim president in charge of calling these elections."
In what appears to be a coordinated message from European Union countries, at almost the same time French President Manuel Macron sent a tweet echoing Sanchez's comments.
"Unless elections are announced within eight days, we will be ready to recognise @jguaido as 'President in charge' of Venezuela in order to trigger a political process," Macron said.
A spokeswoman from the German government tweeted the same message shortly after the comments from Madrid and Paris.
Europe had, until Saturday, simply called for new elections in the troubled South American country. But the European Union hinted today it would be prepared to recognise Maduro's rival, if elections were not held.
"In the absence of an announcement on the organisation of fresh elections with the necessary guarantees over the next days, the EU will take further actions, including on the issue of recognition of the country’s leadership," said Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign affairs chief.
Mr Guaido proclaimed himself interim president on Wednesday during a march of hundreds of thousands in Caracas.
The Venezuelan state and the military have so far remained loyal to Maduro despite a deep economic and political crisis that has sparked mass emigration, with inflation forecast to rise to 10 million percent this year.
Russia, meanwhile, called for the United States and Europe to cease interfering in Venezuela.
"The cynical, overt interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state continues. It must stop," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday.