After several relatively positive news cycles coming out of Venezuela, things are now taking a darker turn. We recently learned a growing number of leaders from other countries have recognized Juan Guaido as the interim president of that nation and the pressure on dictator Nicolas Maduro to step aside has been growing. But as I’ve repeatedly reminded everyone, Maduro still has friends in places like Iran, Turkey, China, and most especially Russia.

Just this weekend, while discussing some Venezuelan military officers who turned their backs on the tyrant, I mentioned the possibility of one of those countries potentially sending troops to prop up the Maduro regime and how that could make things substantially more “complicated.” (To put it charitably.) It’s been less than a week and now that depressing possibility already seems to be coming to pass. It’s not the official Russian army showing up in Caracas, but Vladimir Putin is sending in “military contractors.” (Washington Times)

Mr. Putin has called Mr. Maduro to relay his support for the regime, and Russian officials reacted angrily to President Trump’s suggestion Sunday that U.S. military action was an option to resolve the crisis.

“The international community’s goal should be to help [Venezuela], without destructive meddling from beyond its borders,” Alexander Shchetinin, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Latin American department, told the Interfax news agency Monday.

Russia has repeatedly opposed U.S. suggestions of foreign intervention to install opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president, and supported Mr. Maduro’s calls for mediation on the crisis.

The arrival of 400 Russian military contractors after Mr. Trump’s Jan. 23 recognition of Mr. Guaido, the head of the National Assembly, triggered speculation that Moscow was reinforcing Mr. Maduro’s personal security or even preparing his evacuation.

Aside from some vague statements from President Trump about “nothing being off the table,” there is pretty much zero indication that American troops will be going into Venezuela to physically remove Maduro from office. This alleviates one of our major concerns, that being the possibility of Russian and American troops winding up fighting a proxy war in a South American nation. (Though John Bolton’s show of flashing his yellow legal pad with a note about thousands of troops going to Colombia probably still has people nervous.)

Even if the Russians aren’t fighting American troops, it’s still worth asking precisely what these “contractors” are doing in Caracas. If they are there preparing an armed escort to safely get Maduro out of the country if the pressure grows too much for him (as some are speculating), that’s fine. The sooner he leaves, the better, and if an armed escort makes him feel more secure, that’s cool. Just put him on a plane.

But if the Russians are there to protect Maduro from a possible military or police uprising, that implies they’ll be there for a while. And it probably won’t be just the Venezuelan soldiers who have to worry. We’ve already seen reports that police in some cities are refusing orders to suppress the protesters. I wouldn’t put it past Maduro to send out the Russian jackboots to beat down or even murder some opposition activists. And I definitely wouldn’t put it past the Russians to do it. That’s just business as usual back home for them.

So do we still think Putin is Trump’s bosom buddy? His position on Venezuela is 180 degrees out of whack with ours and this injection of armed troops into that nation is undermining international pressure to call new elections and allow the Venezuelan people to elect a legitimate leader. Sadly, the best we can hope for at this point is to ensure the media is following these Russians around and exposing any violence they may engage in.