Russian Tu-160 Bombers Fly 10-Hour Caribbean Patrol From Venezuela Drawing Ire From U.S.

The flights come as both Russia and Venezuela are embroiled in major crises that have drawn fierce international rebukes.

Russian MoD

Russia says a pair of its Tu-160 Blackjacks flew a 10-hour patrol over the Caribbean Sea from a base in Venezuela. The Kremlin had recently sent the strategic bombers, along with other aircraft and supporting personnel, to the Latin American country, which is in the grips of a protracted political and economic crisis. The deployment also came in the wake of renewed criticism of Russia's intervention in Ukraine following a skirmish in the Kerch Strait in November 2018.

The Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the sorties over the Caribbean had taken place on Dec. 12, 2018. Venezuelan Air Force F-16A/B Viper and Su-30MKV Flanker-C fighter jets also flew with the bombers during certain points of the mission, according to Russia. The two Tu-160s, along with an An-124 cargo plane and an Il-62 passenger transport, touched down at Maiquetía "Simón Bolívar" International Airport in Venezuela’s capital Caracas, which also serves as a military airbase, on Dec. 10, 2018.

“During the international visit of the Aerospace Defense Forces' delegation to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, pilots of strategic bombers Tu-160 conducted a flight in the airspace over the Caribbean Sea. The flight lasted for about 10 hours,” according to a Russian Defense Ministry press release. “In certain parts of the route, the flight of Russian bombers was conducted together with Su-30 and F-16 fighter jets of the Venezuelan National Bolivarian Military Aviation. The pilots from the two countries practiced air cooperation when fulfilling air tasks.”

The U.S. government, which is highly critical of Venezuela’s dictatorial President Nicolás Maduro, admonished the Russians for sending the contingent to the country. The Latin American nation has been dealing with political and economic upheaval for years now, which has led to extreme shortages of food, medicine, and other basic necessities.

“Russia’s government has sent bombers halfway around the world to Venezuela,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Tweeted out on Dec. 10, 2018. “The Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is: two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Tu-160s, Russia’s premier, supersonic strategic bomber, capable of carrying conventional and nuclear weapons, have made a stop in Venezuela. Blackjacks first traveled to the country in September 2008, in what appeared to be a response to international criticism over its brief war with Georgia the month before.

In October 2013, the bombers returned, in what seemed like a show of support for the Venezuelan government after the death of long-time anti-American populist firebrand and increasingly repressive President Hugo Chavez. Maduro, then Vice President, had succeeded him.

André Austin Du-Pont Rocha via Wikimedia

A Venezuelan Air Force Su-30MKV Flanker-C fighter jet.

During that deployment, the Tu-160s touched off a minor international incident as they made their way from Venezuela to Nicaragua, another long-time Russian partner, for a brief visit. The bombers did not have the appropriate clearance to fly through Colombian airspace on the way and Colombian Air Force IAI Kfir fighter jets eventually scrambled to intercept and escort them out.

This new deployment appears to be another signal from both Russia and Venezuela to the United States and its allies to stay out of Venezuelan affairs. There have been a number of reports that U.S. President Donald Trump has been personally supportive of a military intervention in the country to unseat Maduro, who has increasingly clamped down on political dissent and consolidated his own power in recent years. Certain members of Congress have implicitly voiced support for a military coup to bring down the government.

This, in turn, has given new ammunition to Maduro, who already routinely accuses the United States and its allies, especially the Colombians, of seeking to undermine and overthrow his regime. In August 2018, he survived an assassination attempt involving drones loaded with explosives, which he promptly blamed on foreign operatives. There is no evidence to support a direct link between that incident and the U.S. or other foreign government authorities.

At the same time, the Russian bombers may also be visiting Venezuela in order to give Russian President Vladimir Putin his own means of needling the United States in its own hemisphere in response to U.S. government criticism over a recent incident in Ukraine. On Nov. 25, 2018, Russian and Ukrainian forces engaged in a violent skirmish in the Kerch Strait, which separates the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov.

Russian state and quasi-state media have been hyping up the deployment of the Tu-160s to Venezuela and outlets have conducted the usual to-close-for-comfort-style reporting that is popular in the country and among many former Soviet republics, as seen below.

There was widespread international condemnation of Russia over the incident, which appeared to be an unprovoked attack on Ukraine’s ships sailing in international waters and past Russian territory in accordance with international and bilateral agreements. The U.S. government, as well as NATO, subsequently pledged their full support to for the Ukrainian government. Under President Donald Trump, the United States has stepped up deliveries of weapons and other military equipment to Ukraine, as well as continuing on-the-ground training activities, to the ire of the Kremlin.

Since it illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and subsequently began actively supporting a pair of breakaway regions within Ukraine, Russia has looked to expand its military and intelligence activities, including reported covert attacks on American diplomatic personnel, in the Western Hemisphere in response to American criticism and economic sanctions. In addition to increasing ties with Venezuela and other friendly governments in Latin American, the Kremlin has looked to reboot more permeant operations at Soviet-era facilities in Cuba.

Whatever the case, the Russian bombers’ visit to Venezuela looks set to be brief. “We have spoken with representatives of Russia and have been informed that their military aircraft, which landed in Venezuela, will be leaving on Friday [Dec. 14, 2018] and going back to Russia,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told Reuters in an Email on Dec. 12, 2018.

Russian MoD

A member of the Russian contingent, at right, gives a Venezuelan officer a Tu-160 model after arriving in the country on Dec. 10, 2018.

It’s not at all clear if the Russians could afford the expenses of a more protracted, semi-permanent deployment of bombers or other combat aircraft to the region, or that the Venezuelan Air Force has the necessary infrastructure to support such a presence anyway. Russia only has 16 operational Blackjacks, to begin with, though it claims it is planning to more than double the size of the fleet in the future.

The Kremlin could look to deploy Tu-95 Bear bombers, which are also nuclear capable, or the related Tu-142 long-range maritime patrol aircraft, assets that it has in far greater numbers than the Tu-160, to Venezuela on a semi-permanent basis. Smaller maritime patrol or other combat aircraft might also be options. 

Any Russian bombers or similarly long-range aircraft in the region conducting regular flights in the Caribbean would be something of a thorn in the side of the U.S. government. It's, of course, worth noting that the U.S. military routinely flies along the edge of Russia's airspace, especially in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions, and the Kremlin has long been eager to do the same to the United States more broadly. At present, Russian planes generally only conduct similar flights near Alaska.

Regardless, the deployment does show that Russia remains intent on proving it continues to be capable of worldwide military operations and that it is willing and able, at least to some degree, to come to the aid of its international partners. It also reflects an eagerness to challenge the United States in its own proverbial backyard, something that the Kremlin has already been doing through a significant uptick in submarine activity in the North Atlantic Ocean, in particular.

With U.S.-Russian relations persistently chilly and no clear end in sight for the crisis in Venezuela, we may see the Kremlin look to step up military engagements with its Venezuela counterparts, which could include more deployments of bombers or other combat aircraft, naval vessels, and more.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com