MOSCOW, Russia (UPDATED) – Russia said Thursday, March 28, its troops will stay in Venezuela "for as long as needed" and urged the United States not to worry about Moscow's ties with a traditional ally.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's aide spoke after US President Donald Trump demanded that Russia remove its military from the crisis-stricken country.
President Nicolas Maduro is presiding over economic chaos, with the oil-rich country unable to provide basic medical and food supplies to much of the population.
"We don't think that third countries should worry about our bilateral ties," said Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
"We are not interfering in Venezuela's domestic affairs in any way and we expect third countries to follow our example and allow Venezuelans to decide their fate themselves," he told reporters.
Peskov said no one told the United States how to conduct its foreign policy and Moscow expected the same treatment and "mutual respect."
He said that Russia was sending military equipment and experts to Venezuela under existing contracts.
Russia's weekend deployment of troops and equipment to bolster Maduro has ratcheted up already high international tensions over Venezuela where the Trump administration is pushing for regime change.
The Russian foreign ministry insisted earlier Thursday the presence of its troops there did not pose a threat to anyone.
"They are involved in the implementation of agreements in the sphere of military and technical cooperation," said ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, adding they would remain in the country "for as long as needed."
"Russia is not changing the balance of power in the region, Russia is not threatening anyone unlike citizens in Washington whom I have just quoted," she told reporters.
She was referring to Trump's comments that "Russia has to get out" of Venezuela as well as to statements by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Washington does not plan to negotiate with Maduro and wants to end Russia and Cuba's influence on Caracas.
The United States and more than 50 other countries recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president while Russia, along with China, backs Maduro.
"Neither Russia nor Venezuela are provinces of the United States," Zakharova said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused Washington of trying to "organize a coup d'etat" in the oil-producing nation.
Venezuela's military attache in Moscow also said Thursday that Russian troops were in the country under an agreement on military and technical cooperation and not to carry out a military operation.
A Russian air force Antonov-124 cargo plane and a smaller Ilyushin Il-62 landed at the main airport outside Caracas on Saturday, March 23, and off-loaded around 100 troops and tonnes of equipment.
"As for the presence of Russian specialists, we are talking about cooperation, military and technical cooperation," the attache, Jose Rafael Torrealba Perez, was quoted as saying in comments translated by RIA Novosti state news agency.
"We are absolutely not talking about Russia's military presence to carry out military operations," he added.
Venezuela's Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez is expected to visit Moscow in April, the attache said.
On Tuesday, March 26, Zakharova declared that Russia was "developing cooperation with Venezuela in strict accordance with the constitution of that country and with full respect for its legal norms."
"The presence of Russian specialists on Venezuelan territory is regulated by an agreement between the Russian and Venezuelan governments on military and technical cooperation that was signed in May, 2001," she said.
In 2011, Russia gave Venezuela a $4 billion loan to buy Russian armaments. – Rappler.com