As unrest continues in Venezuela, some analysts are questioning how much support Russia will give beleaguered President Nicolas Maduro and if Moscow could be ready to strike a deal with the U.S. to end the Latin American country's political and humanitarian crisis.
The U.S. and Russia have traded fresh barbs over Venezuela in the last few days, each accusing the other of interfering in the country as protesters took to the streets for a second day in support of opposition leader Juan Guaido.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Maduro was prepared to leave the protest-wracked country Tuesday morning but said he had changed his mind after Russia intervened.
"They had an airplane on the tarmac. He was ready to leave this morning, as we understand it. Russians indicated he should stay," Pompeo told CNN.
Russia rebuffed that accusation, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova saying Wednesday that the U.S. assertion was part of an "information war," Reuters reported.
The two sides may be more open to discussing what to do about Venezuela behind closed doors.
On Wednesday, Pompeo held a call with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with both sides once again accusing each other of destabilizing the country.
"The Secretary stressed that the intervention by Russia and Cuba is destabilizing for Venezuela and for the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship," a State Department spokesman said, adding that Pompeo had urged Russia to cease support for Maduro.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said Lavrov had stressed that "Washington's interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, the threat against its leadership is a gross violation of international law." Russia warned that "the continuation of aggressive steps is fraught with the most serious consequences. Only the Venezuelan people have the right to determine their destiny," the ministry said. It noted that the conversation was "held at the American side's initiative."
Lavrov and Pompeo have had several telephone conversations regarding Venezuela in recent weeks, ministry records show.
Russia is particularly upset with the potential for U.S. military action in Venezuela and for now, both sides seem focused on the deescalation of the situation. Pompeo said the U.S. wants a "peaceful transition," when speaking to NBC News on Wednesday.
While he didn't rule out military intervention when pressed on the matter, he said "our task is to make this a political and diplomatic resolution. We've been working on this for months. We've made enormous progress, and we're hoping that progress continues," he told NBC.
Some analysts think that the two heavyweight countries might be coming to some kind of deal over Maduro's potential departure.
"(There's) little doubt in my mind that the Russians and the U.S. have been talking for weeks about some kind of deal to ease Maduro out of office," Timothy Ash, a senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, said in a note Wednesday.
He said several factors led his to this conclusion — firstly, that Moscow had gained leverage to negotiate with the U.S. by sending military advisers to Caracas and, secondly, that President Trump had so far not signed off on new sanctions on Russia for its alleged use of a chemical weapon following the nerve agent poisoning of former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, in the U.K. in 2018.
"I think the U.S. administration held back getting Trump to sign this as something was cooking on Venezuela. They saw sanctions as a negotiating chip with Moscow."
Ash believed that, for the Russians, the "deal" was no more sanctions, allowing Russian oil companies to retain the right to operate in Venezuela and get paid back in full for debts owed, and some deal around "spheres of influence."
CNBC contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment on a possible deal Wednesday but no one was immediately available.
Battle for influence
The international battle for influence over Venezuela's future kicked off in January when opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president. Many countries, including the U.S., endorsed that leadership bid and backed regime change in a country wracked by poverty and political unrest.
The military stayed loyal to President Nicolas Maduro, however, and Russia (as well as allies in China, Syria and Iran) backed the incumbent leader.
Russia has a vested interest in backing Maduro after it gave the country financial aid. Reuters estimates that the Russian government and state energy company Rosneft have handed Venezuela at least $17 billion in loans and credit lines since 2006. It has also provided the Venezuelan government with military equipment and it has stakes in the country's energy sector.
As such, Moscow wants to protect its assets from regime change as well as preventing the U.S. from increasing its sphere of influence.
"Russia's bottom line is to stop regime change by external intervention, but if it falls from within they'll go with the flow," Christopher Granville, managing director of EMEA and Global Political Research at TS Lombard, told CNBC Wednesday.
"If the political situation evolves internally and a new regime emerges that is strong and stable I'm sure they would pragmatically support it," he noted. "But a driving force for Russia is to stop a process of regime change by outside forces ... and the U.S. using its power to overthrow governments it doesn't like."
Whatever Russia's distaste for regime change — seen as a hangover from the collapse of the Soviet Union — more analysts have questioned how far Russia is willing to go to protect Maduro.
Eileen Gavin, senior politics analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said that, ultimately, Russia "has bigger fish to fry" than Venezuela, but will try to protect its own interests.
"Russia has assets on the ground in Venezuela and has considerable financial interests there and it would want a seat at the table in any discussions over Venezuela's future," she told CNBC Wednesday.
"Their support for Maduro is rhetorical. I think they would be happy to let him go, but they want that seat at the table to protect their assets."