MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's envoy on Venezuela said Wednesday that an international mediation effort between Nicolas Maduro's government and the opposition have raised a glimmer of hope for settling the crisis, strongly warning the U.S. against using force.
Alexander Shchetinin, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Latin America department, told The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview that the Norway talks have produced a "chance, albeit very fragile, for political and diplomatic solution."
Shchetinin represented Russia at a meeting in Stockholm earlier this month aimed at advancing political reconciliation, which also involved representatives of the United Nations, the Vatican, Cuba and the European Union. He said the main goal of the meeting was to discuss possible assistance to mediation efforts being taken by Norway, which recently sponsored two rounds of talks between the two sides.
Shchetinin said that despite deep distrust between Maduro's socialist government and the opposition, there is a "real chance" of success.
The envoy's strong support for Maduro contrasts with the U.S. assessment of the dialogue effort. A senior U.S. official said Tuesday that he sees little chances of success for the Norway talks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss policy on Venezuela publicly.
The U.S. and several dozen other nations have cast their support behind opposition leader Juan Guaidó and recognized him as Venezuela's interim president, asserting that Maduro's reelection last year was illegitimate.
Shchetinin criticized Washington for what he described as "extremely rude meddling in Venezuelan affairs," adding that "you can't appoint a president from abroad."
He said any settlement must be based on international law and respect for Venezuela's sovereignty.
"Any forceful interference from abroad, and particularly military interference, must be excluded," he said. "Any options could be on the table, except the military option. That would be a catastrophe for the region."
Shchetinin said that he and other Russian representatives have been talking to various opposition figures alongside the government, but wouldn't name any names. He emphasized that Moscow always lets Maduro's government know about its contacts with the opposition.
The diplomat argued that Moscow would be open to any settlement that would reflect the will of Venezuelans, and acknowledged that Guaidó represents some of the country's political forces. At the same time, he criticized Guaidó for what he described as excessive reliance on U.S. advice.
"The problem is that Mr. Guaidó has shown himself in recent months as a politician who lacks independence," Shchetinin said. "Regrettably, he has coordinated his every step with the U.S. administration."
A spokesman for Guaidó did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Shchetinin cautioned the U.S. against encouraging the Venezuelan military to switch loyalties and back Guaidó, saying that strategy is fraught with unpredictable consequences.
"It's very dangerous to destabilize any country's military," Shchetinin said, pointing to Iraq and its military officers who joined in militant factions following the 2003 U.S. invasion. "Trying to rock the military and encourage desertions, to tell the military to switch sides, means opening the Pandora's box."
He noted that despite some senior officers supporting Guaidó, "the Venezuelan armed forces have remained loyal to their constitutional duty" and stood by Maduro.
Shchetinin also argued that U.S. sanctions on Venezuela have deepened the country's economic crisis and hurt the country's people. He cited a program funded by the Venezuelan state oil company under which Venezuelan children received expensive cancer treatments abroad. He claimed children have died since the program was frozen in May because of the U.S. sanctions.
He said U.S. officials painted an exaggerated picture of Russian involvement in supporting the Venezuelan government. No new arms contracts have been signed and Russian experts sent to Venezuela to help maintain weapons from previous contracts number in the dozens, not hundreds, he said.
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Washington contributed to this report.