Russia has dispatched several warships, including one of its newer missile frigates, to Cuba in a bid to bolster the floundering regime of Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro, according to a senior administration official.
"Anytime any Russian military platform arrives in the Western Hemisphere, we're taking a very close look at it," the official told the Washington Free Beacon.
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U.S. intelligence agencies first identified the small Russian naval task force headed by the guided missile frigate Admiral Gorshkov in the eastern Pacific around June 11 and followed the warships through the Panama Canal.
The ships showed up in Havana harbor Monday and the official said it may conduct a passage near Venezuela, or make port there after it leaves Cuban waters. Support vessels included the logistics vessel Elbrus, medium sea tanker Kama, and rescue tug Nikolai Chiker, according to the Russian Navy.
The official said the Gorshkov is one of the newer Russian warships but noted that "it's probably lucky it made it all the way across the Pacific Ocean."
The dispatch of the naval group is "sending a signal by pulling into Havana at the same time that everything is going on in Venezuela."
"There's no surprise that they would do that intentionally to kind of remind us they perceive they have some sort of leverage in the region," he said.
Additionally, a Russian Air Force Il-62 transport brought in technicians to work on Russian military equipment used by the Venezuelans.
"That sends a signal in its own right," the official said. "You've got millions of people starving in Venezuela. You've got no medicine, you've got no electricity, you've got gas shortages, lines for miles, and you're paying the Russians to come in and fix really old hardware, money that certainly should be used for humanitarian aid."
The Il-62 brought both military personnel and equipment but no humanitarian aid.
By contrast, the USS Comfort, a hospital ship, recently crossed through the Panama Canal on the way to Ecuador to provide medical relief.
Elliott Abrams, U.S. special representative for Venezuela, told reporters that instead of caring for millions of poor, sick, and hungry citizens, the Maduro regime is spending millions on military goods.
"We learned recently of a $38 million purchase of military uniforms," Abrams said. "In May, Venezuela signed a $209 million air defense contract with Russia to repair an air defense system, to buy nine Sukhoi fighter jets, and to buy eight transport helicopters. The regime also continues giving foreign aid to Cuba, providing oil without payment in exchange, unless the payment is the repressive intelligence apparatus, manned by about 2,500 Cuban agents that Cuba maintains in Venezuela to help keep the regime in power."
The Comfort, he said, will provide medical care to Venezuelan refugees and local residents "while Russia is sending its warship the Gorshkov and more military technicians to Venezuela."
The official noted "a very troubling dichotomy where the United States is bringing humanitarian aid, bringing doctors and medicine and the Russian government, guided missile frigates, and military personnel to Venezuela."
"That speaks to some of the hypocrisy that we've seen with both Russia and Venezuela where they've said they don't want foreign troops in Venezuela. There aren't any U.S. foreign troops there, but there are certainly Russian foreign troops there."
White House National Security Adviser John Bolton said in an interview last week that the Maduro regime is on its last legs since the emergence of the interim government headed by Juan Guaido.
Bolton said the administration has put pressure on both the Maduro regime and Cuba by imposing new sanctions on the communist regime in Havana.
"The fact is the current regime is unsustainable," Bolton said. "The top regime figures are like scorpions in a bottle. They don't trust each other. It's not just going to be in power for a sustained period of time."
Twenty years of misrule by Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez have created massive suffering, and conditions continue to worsen. "The importance of getting a peaceful transition of power is actually greater now than before to ease the suffering of the Venezuelan people," Bolton said.
The White House is seeking to force the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Cuban military and security personnel to leave the country. Bolton said making the Cubans disappear would speed a transition of power to a new Guaido government.
The administration is planning additional sanctions on people in Venezuela and Cuba and to prevent Venezuela from transferring oil to Cuba.
The official said the numbers of Russians in Venezuela are not clear but some may leave when the Il-62 departs.
At least several hundred military personnel are there along with additional military contractors from the private army called the Wagner Group that are providing security for the Maduro regime.
In March, President Trump warned Russia to remove all troops from the country. "Russia has to get out," he told reporters.
The official said new measures against Cuba are likely to include targeted sanctions on cargo ships taking Venezuelan oil to Cuba. The oil is "the lifeblood" of Cuba's economy.
"We're looking to take disciplined surgical steps to cut off that exchange of personnel that are propping up the illegitimate Maduro regime for oil," the official said.
The goal is to make it more difficult for the Maduro regime to provide oil to Cuba.
Insurance carriers also could be sanctioned, and new sanctions are planned that will target corruption among officials within the Maduro regime.
The official said events of the past several days—the Gorshkov in Cuba, the Il-62 visit, and the arrest of five or six Venezuelan military officers allegedly for plotting a coup—are signs of deteriorating support for the regime. Venezuela recently canceled an annual army day parade.
"It's very clear at this point that Maduro does not and cannot trust his military or his advisers around him," the official said.
Also, Maduro announced recently that he plans to create a 4 million-member armed militia force by 2021.
"Again, a very clear sign that he doesn't trust his professional military to fulfill what he views as a role protecting him, instead of their constitutional duty to support the National Assembly and protect the people of Venezuela, the official said.