Russia has opened a centre to train military helicopter pilots in Venezuela in a further sign of Vladimir Putin’s support for the Maduro regime.
The news comes days after Moscow sent two planes of military personnel and equipment to Venezuela.
Elliott Abrams, the US envoy on Washington, said they believed the teams had been flown in to repair Soviet-era S300 missile systems, which were knocked out by a series of blackouts.
But he added that the US was watching closely to see what the Russians did, adding: “We have options, and it would be a mistake for the Russians to think they have a free hand.”
On Tuesday a spokesman for the US state department said that the issue of Russian troops in Venezuela would be raised during this week’s meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Washington DC.
Rosoboronexport, the state corporation for arms sales, said in a statement it built the centre under a contract with Venezuelan state-owned firearms manufacturer CAVIM.
Russian-made simulators will allow local pilots to practice flying helicopters that Moscow has supplied to Caracas. These include the Mil Mi-35M Hind, a gunship known in Russia as the “flying tank” for its durability under fire, the Mi-26T heavy transport helicopter and the Mi-17V-5, a transport helicopter that can be equipped with machine guns and rockets.
The centre, whose staff was trained in Russia, will cut the costs and time needed to train pilots, Rosoboronexport said.
Russian organisations “remain committed to deepening cooperation with the ministry of defence and other government agencies of Venezuela, paying special attention to training, as well as timely maintenance of the delivered equipment,” the statement said.
Russian-made helicopters in Venezuela are participating in “routine military activities and operations against smugglers,” as well as delivery of humanitarian aid, it added, making no mention of clashes between security forces and protesters.
Rosoboronexport did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
At the opening ceremony for the helicopter centre on Friday, Venezuelan defence minister Vladimir Padrino López said a flight simulator for the Russian-made Su-30MK2 fighter jet would be installed in another city and a factory to produce Kalashnikov assault rifles under license would open soon after years of delays.
More than 50 countries have recognised opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president after weeks of protests and shortages of food, water, medicine and electricity.
On Monday the Maduro-supporting chief justice of the Supreme Court, Maikel Moreno, said that Mr Guaido should be stripped of his parliamentary immunity. Mr Guaido dismissed the threat, describing the Supreme Court as illegitimate.
Mr Maduro is struggling to contain unrest in the country amid a series of blackouts that began on March 7, and have led to subsequent failures in water systems.
Venezuelans furious at the lack of power or water took to the streets on Sunday in protest, only for the demonstrations to be violently repressed by pro-Maduro armed gangs called “colectivos”.
Mr Maduro on Monday urged the heavily-armed and greatly-feared colectivos on, saying they should go from neighbourhood to neighbourhood “to defend the peace”. He also announced he was replacing the electricity minister – a military general, Luis Motta – with a veteran of the state electric company, Igor Gavidia, and reiterated his plan for a 30-day rationing of electricity.
Mr Maduro has dug in with the help of Russia and, to a lesser extent, China.
Mr Putin appears intent on propping up a key ally and arms customer, much as he did with Bashar Assad in Syria, in defiance of Washington.
On Tuesday a Colombian congressman reported that he had received a letter from Russia’s ambassador in Bogota, warning Colombia against getting involved in any military action against Mr Maduro.
Sergei Koshkin, the Russian ambassador, warned Alejandro Chacón, president of the chamber of representatives, in a letter sent last week that any “illegitimate use of military force against Venezuela” would be seen by Russia “as an act of aggression against a sovereign state, and a threat to international peace and security.”
Moscow also still hopes to recover some of the $17 billion in credit it has extended to Venezuelan organisations and preserve its investments there.