Russian President Vladimir Putin has "expressed support" to his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolas Maduro, in a telephone call, after an opposition leader declared himself interim leader of the South American country.
Moscow on January 24 condemned foreign powers for backing Maduro rival Juan Guaido, who declared himself interim president the previous day as tens of thousands of people marched across Venezuela against Maduro, calling it an attempt to "usurp power."
Guaido’s move was recognized by the United States, Canada, and some Latin American and European countries.
Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Turkey were among the countries voicing their backing for Maduro's government.
Maduro took office in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez. He was sworn in for a second term two weeks ago following elections in May 2018 that were marred by an opposition boycott and claims of vote-rigging.
Maduro has been criticized for alleged human rights abuses and for his handling of Venezuela's economy.
An estimated 3 million people have fled the country amid hyperinflation, power cuts, and shortages of basic items like medicine and food.
Guaido has said that articles within Venezuela’s constitution allow him, as the head of the National Assembly, to assume interim power because he believes Maduro's election is invalid.
He has vowed to lead a transitional government and hold free elections.
U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Guaido as the interim head of state moments after his declaration in Caracas, describing Maduro's leadership as "illegitimate."
In response, Maduro gave all U.S. diplomatic staff in the country 72 hours to leave the country, but Washington said it did not accept his authority to order the diplomats out.
However, the U.S. State Department announced late on January 24 that nonessential diplomats and staff at the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela would leave the country.
The department said it was taking the step for security reasons and that the embassy in Caracas will stay open.
Russia, which has had close relations with Venezuela under Maduro and Chavez, threw its weight behind the embattled Venezuelan leader.
The Kremlin said Putin called Maduro and "expressed support for the legitimate authorities of Venezuela in the context of a domestic political crisis that has been provoked from the outside."
The Russian president emphasized that "destructive foreign interference tramples on basic norms of the international law," according to a statement.
Earlier, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Maduro was "the legitimate head of state" and called Guaido's announcement an "attempt to usurp power," while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev denounced "this quasi-government coup."
The Russian Foreign Ministry warned that support for Guaido was a "direct path to lawlessness and bloodshed."
Moscow has lent billions of dollars to Venezuela and has backed its oil industry. The South American country has also purchased millions of dollars in Russian military equipment in recent years.
Russia has recently sent two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to the country to participate in military maneuvers in an unusual display of Russian military force in South America.