Tensions between the United States and Russia over Venezuela increase

Tensions between the United States and Russia over Venezuela are threatening to boil over.

The White House on Friday warned Russia, along with other countries supporting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, against sending military forces and equipment to the crisis-stricken nation. 

Washington — which supports opposition party leader Juan Guaidó — would view the move as a "direct threat to security in the region," according to national security adviser John Bolton.

"We strongly caution actors external to the Western Hemisphere against deploying military assets to Venezuela, or elsewhere in the Hemisphere, with the intent of establishing or expanding military operations," Bolton said.

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"We will consider such provocative actions as a direct threat to international peace and security in the region. We will continue to defend and protect the interests of the United States, and those of our partners in the Western Hemisphere," he said.

Bolton’s declaration is the second such warning this week, after Moscow on March 23 sent military "specialists" to the South American nation.

Multiple media outlets reported that two Russian planes with military advisers and as many as 100 troops landed in Venezuela.

Moscow downplayed the significance, and Russian spokespeople have said the advisers and supplies were part of a military cooperation agreement with Venezuela.

"The Russian side clearly stated the purpose of the arrival of its specialists to Caracas. This is not about any 'military contingents,'" Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement Saturday.

"Thus, the speculations about the conduct of certain 'military operations' by Russia in Venezuela are absolutely groundless," she added.

But administration officials aren’t buying it.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanDefense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall Why Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary MORE dismissed the assurances, telling reporters on Wednesday, "I’m not sure I always believe what they say."

And President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE on Wednesday warned Russia against military involvement in the country, saying that Moscow "has to get out" and that all options are on the table for dealing with the situation.

"Past administrations allowed this to happen," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. "I’ve inherited a mess between North Korea, and all of the problems we have all over the world, the entire Middle East and Venezuela. ... But I’ll fix it.” 

Russia, in turn, said Thursday that the specialists don't pose a threat and defended its arms trade with Venezuela. Russia also promised to keep its military advisers there as long as Maduro deemed it necessary. 

The United States and more than 50 other countries have recognized Guaidó, who in January declared himself president of Venezuela, as the country's rightful leader. But Maduro continues to cling to power, bolstered by support from the country’s elites and military as well as nations such as Russia and China.

Most of the residents live in poverty as the nation faces blackouts and shortages of food and medicine. Thousands have fled to neighboring countries.

The crisis prompted the Trump administration earlier this month to pull all U.S. Embassy personnel from Venezuela amid the political unrest.

The administration also raised speculation that it would soon send U.S. forces to the region after Bolton was photographed at a White House press briefing in late January holding a yellow notepad with the phrase "5,000 troops to Colombia" written on it.

Elliott Abrams, Trump’s special envoy for Venezuela, on Friday would not elaborate on the suggestion of military intervention.

"We have a list of options that we've given [Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoImpeachment battle looms over must-pass defense bill Five takeaways from ex-ambassador's dramatic testimony Pompeo: No US response ruled out in Hong Kong MORE]," Abrams told reporters.

"There are things we can do in economic terms in terms of sanctions. ... It would be a mistake for the Russians to think they have a free hand here. They don't," he added.

A military intervention is sure to set off a fight between the White House and Congress, where House Democrats have already made it clear that they would not support such a plan.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelOvernight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite Bipartisan House members call on Trump to rescind Erdoğan invitation House Democrats pull subpoena for ex-Trump national security official MORE (D-N.Y.) last month ruled out U.S. military intervention, saying it was "not an option."

But Republicans have said military support in Venezuela may be necessary.

House Foreign Affairs Committee member Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerHonoring service before self House approves Turkey sanctions in rare bipartisan rebuke of Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ill.) likened Russia’s backing of Maduro to Moscow’s 2015 intervention in Syria’s civil war, which helped keep in power President Bashar Assad.

"We can’t allow Russia to again embolden and save a dictator like in Syria," Kinzinger told The Hill. "I think working with our allies and having military options we are willing to use is essential. This is our backyard, and we have to defend this with more intensity that other places."

Kinzinger argued that Trump "has the responsibility to move" under the War Powers Act, which dictates he has only to notify Congress, similar to the U.S. military intervention in Panama and Grenada.

"We wouldn’t be declaring war in this case. We would be removing the people preventing a legitimate president from assuming full power," he added.

And Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families MORE (R-Okla.) said in February that the military may have to intervene in Venezuela if Russia places weapons there.

For now, the two sides remain in a pattern of saber rattling. Asked whether he would be speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the military involvement, Trump on Friday said that the two "will probably be talking at some point."

"We're looking at Venezuela. Venezuela right now is a big fat mess. The electricity's gone. The power's gone. Fuel is gone. Gasoline for cars is gone. ... So I'll be talking about a lot to a lot of people, perhaps President Putin."