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Pompeo-Lavrov meeting comes as Venezuela tension grows

MOSCOW (AP) — The top diplomats of Russia and the United States are to meet next week, just days after they sparred over the crisis in Venezuela. The meeting on the sidelines of an Arctic Council session in Rovaniemi, Finland — confirmed Friday by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov — would come just days after a testy phone call between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

"It's clear that Venezuela will be the main topic of the meeting," Ryabkov said, according to the Interfax news agency. In the Wednesday call between Pompeo and Lavrov, each accused the other's country of interfering in Venezuela. Russia supports President Nicolas Maduro while the U.S. recognizes opposition leader Juan Gudaio as the legitimate interim president.

The call brought a notably withering assessment from Lavrov, who characterized Pompeo's allegations of Russian interference as "surreal." Pompeo has also raised tensions by saying the United States could intervene militarily in Venezuela "if that's what's required."

Resolution of the dispute appears distant, as both Moscow and Washington are heavily invested in Venezuela. The United States has thrown its support behind a series of economic and diplomatic measures that as yet have not succeeded in ousting Maduro. Russia in turn has a political, military and economic alliance with Venezuela forged under Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez.

Venezuela owes Russia more than $6 billion in loans, which it is struggling to pay, about half of which is owed to state oil company Rosneft, according to Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"Russia is now so deeply invested in the Maduro regime that the only realistic option is to double down," he said. In the face of Pompeo's suggestion that military intervention could be launched, Russia could be hard-pressed to counter. Russia has supplied Venezuela with an air defense system, operates a training center for Venezuelan pilots of Russian helicopters and has sent military advisers to the country. But manpower for real intervention would be more demanding.

"China will not provide military support ... Russia would like to, but it cannot," commentator Maxim Shevchenko said on Ekho Moskvy radio this week. There is also some resistance at home to Russia raising military involvement in Venezuela.

"First, we need to stabilize the situation in the country. Placing a base in conditions of possible opposition, including those who are armed, will mean being drawn into an internal conflict in Venezuela. I would not do this categorically," said Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy chairman of the foreign relations committee of Russia's upper house of parliament.

Russia's backing of Maduro, who is refusing to cede power, is just the latest wedge to emerge in relations between Washington and Moscow following on from Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, its military intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its 2014 annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine.

Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this story.

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