Venezuela Agreed To Let Russia Set Up A Bomber Outpost On This Caribbean Island: Reports

A Russian base with strategic aircraft in the Western Hemisphere would significantly change the regional security situation for the United States.

Google Earth

Russian media outlets are reporting that the Kremlin is planning to establish a forward outpost on the Venezuelan island of La Orchila in the Caribbean Sea and base nuclear-capable Tu-160 Blackjack bombers, two of which just wrapped up a recent deployment to the country, at the site. If true, this could help bolster the embattled regime of Venezuela’s dictatorial president Nicolás Maduro and would significantly change the strategic reality in the Western Hemisphere for the United States.

Russian newspapers Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Kommersant both reported the possible basing deal on Dec. 12, 2018. Russia had sent a pair of Tu-160s to Venezuela on Dec. 10, 2018, and those bombers left the country on Dec. 14, 2018. This was the third visit by these type of aircraft to the Latin American country since 2008 and they conducted a 10-hour long-range patrol in the Caribbean for the first time ever during this trip.

“Our strategic bombers will not only not have to return to Russia every time, but also won't perform aerial refueling while on a patrol mission in the Americas,” retired Colonel Shamil Gareyev, formerly chief of the Uzbekistan Defense Ministry's Operations Department and now a commentator on military affairs, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “Our Tu-160 aircraft arrive to [sic] their base in Venezuela, conduct flights, execute their missions and are then replaced on a rotating basis. This is how it should be done.”

So far, there are no details about what the Russian outpost might consist of, what forces might go there and when, and what timeframe the Kremlin and Venezuela might have agreed to for starting the project at all. La Orchila, which sits less than 500 miles from Puerto Rico and less than 1,500 miles from Florida, has significant space for new and expanded military facilities, though, as seen below.

Having a forward base capable of accommodating strategic aircraft would enable Russia to conduct flights near the United States on a regular basis, something it is otherwise largely incapable of doing at present. As it stands now, Russian aircraft are generally only able to fly sorties in the vicinity of Alaska without the commitment of substantial support assets.

For the Kremlin, the imbalance has long been glaring. The Russian government routinely complains about the large number of intelligence-gathering and other missions that Western military aircraft, especially those from the United States, fly near its borders on a regular basis.

Google Earth

Satellite imagery of the runway on La Orchila as of 2015.

The recent deployment of Blackjacks to Venezuela came after a surge in American aerial activity along Russia’s western flank after the Kremlin launched an unprovoked attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch Strait, which separates the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov, on Nov. 25, 2018. The United States and its allies condemned Russia's actions and offered to increase military and other support for Ukraine, to the ire of the Kremlin.

That the Tu-160s have the ability to carry nuclear weapons, including nuclear-armed cruise missiles that give a stand-off capability, would also give the forward location an added deterrent quality, presenting an unprecedented standing strategic threat to the mainland United States within the Western Hemisphere. The outpost could also potentially accommodate other types of combat aircraft, as well as anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles and associated radars and other sensors. 

All of this would present potential threats to American warships and combat aircraft operating in the Caribbean during a crisis. China has already had increasing success in denying maritime areas to opponents, including the United States, by using similarly militarized islands in the South China Sea.

Russian MoD

Two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack bombers fly in formation with a Venezuelan F-16B fighter jet in December 2018.

It is worth remembering that the Soviet Union’s decision to base nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962 was driven, in part, by a similar desire for more flexibility and the ability to directly threaten the United States proper. Though there’s no indication that a Russian presence on La Orchila would immediately create the same level of crisis, at least not initially, the U.S. government would almost certainly furiously object to a similarly provocative deployment to Venezuela.

All told, it goes without saying that this could significantly alter the U.S. government’s strategic calculus. This, of course, would be the point.

The United States was quick to decry the brief deployment of the two Tu-160s, and the rest of their supporting force, to Venezuela last week, as well as the Kremlin’s overall support for Maduro. Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov chided U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo and others as being “undiplomatic” and “inappropriate.”

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.

In establishing a more permanent Venezuelan outpost, Russia would gain a foothold it hasn’t had in the Caribbean region since the height of the Cold War and it would also be better able to help shield a friendly regime from outside intervention in the process – a model that has worked particularly well for the Kremlin in defending the Syrian regime of dictator Bashar Al Assad. Though there is no clear evidence to support claims that the U.S. government is actively seeking to overthrow Maduro, the Venezuelan president repeatedly claims that foreign agents from the United States and elsewhere are attempting to destabilize his regime.

Maduro's attacks have only grown amid President Donald Trump regular suggestions that he could launch a military intervention into the country and that his administration has met with potential coup plotters. Maduro, who took power in 2013 after the death of his populist predecessor Hugo Chavez, has overseen the country as it has slid into a massive economic crisis characterized by hyperinflation and shortages of basic necessities. He has responded by consolidating power and cracking down on opposition political parties, who say his domestic policies are to blame.

Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. 

All this being said, there is no guarantee that an actual base will ever materialize on La Orchila, which features a runway long enough to accommodate Tu-160 operations, but with limited infrastructure to support regular operations by large combat aircraft. In addition to serving as an outlying Venezuelan military outpost, the island is also a presidential retreat. Rebellious military officers briefly held the late Hugo Chavez captive there during their abortive coup attempt in 2002.

Russia and Venezuela would have to invest significant time and resources they may not have into expanding facilities on the island, especially fuel and weapons storage, as well as and living areas before regular operations could commence. This could be a multi-year endeavor and it is not at all clear how long Maduro might remain in power. 

On top of that, the idea of actually deploying nuclear weapons to the base, even temporarily, seems highly unrealistic without massive improvements in security. There is no indication that Russian Tu-160s have carried any weapons whatsoever on their previous visits to the Latin American country.

It is worth noting, however, Russia and Venezuela did discuss a similar arrangement in 2009, which Chavez eventually rejected. However, publicly available satellite imagery shows that between 2009 and 2013, Venezuelan authorities did expand and refurbish the runway, the associated ramp, and other infrastructure on the island, potentially with an eye toward combined operations with the Russian in the future. The present facilities are certainly austere, the base is not bare.

Google Earth

The runway turnaround getting expanded in 2009.

Google Earth

The same area in 2013, showing the completion of the work. 

Regardless of whether the outpost becomes a reality, just scheduling more regular deployments of Tu-160s and other strategic aircraft, such as Tu-95 Bear bombers, to Venezuela, as well as using La Orchila as a temporarily staging location for training flights and other aerial activities in the Caribbean, would be a significant development. It is possible that Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Kommersant or their sources misunderstood what they had heard and that the Kremlin is simply planning to increase military cooperation in the near-term.

With Venezuela's crises far from over and Russian relations with the United States at the West at a new low, it is possible that both parties may now see it in both their interests to invest in developing an expanded, shared military presence. How, or even if that involves La Orchila still needs to be confirmed.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com