Putin voices support for Venezuelan leader visiting Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin offered firm support Wednesday for Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, who is visiting Moscow to shore up political and economic assistance even as his country has been struggling to pay billions of dollars owed to Russia.

Maduro has become increasingly isolated in the world under growing sanctions led by the U.S. and the European Union which accuse him of undermining democratic institutions to hold onto power, while overseeing an economic and political crisis worse than the Great Depression.

At the start of their talks, Putin told Maduro that Moscow is aware that the "situation in Venezuela remains dire."

As food and medicine become increasingly scarce, masses of Venezuelans are fleeing, stretching resources in neighboring Colombia and Brazil. Runaway inflation this year could top 1 million percent, the International Monetary Fund predicts.

"We support your efforts to achieve rapport in society and reach out to the opposition," the Russian leader said. "Naturally, we condemn any terrorist action, any attempts to use force to change the situation."

Maduro responded by saying that his government has overcome the challenges it faced.

"We have faced various threats and aggression, but we have learned how to deal with them," he said. "We are standing firmly, we are winning."

The Venezuelan leader added that he was looking forward to expanding economic ties with Russia.

Russia is a major political ally of Venezuela, and Russia's largest oil company, Rosneft, is heavily invested in the South American nation's oil fields, which produce less crude each month.

Critics blame two decades of socialist rule, corruption and mismanagement for destroying Venezuela's once-thriving oil industry under the state-run PDVSA.

Even as crude production shrinks, Venezuela must maintain deliveries to Russia, China and Cuba to meet debt payments and appease political allies, while also shipping oil to the United States for hard currency that Maduro needs to run his country.

Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin recently visited Caracas, pressuring the Maduro government to continue making good on its commitments to Russia.

"Once people realize Maduro can't deliver on what he promised, they may lose interest in supporting him," said Eric Farnsworth of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society, a Washington-based think tank. "I think that's what he fears more than anything."


Scott Smith in Caracas, Venezuela, and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, contributed to this report.