(CNSNews.com) – For the third time in a decade, Russian strategic bombers have landed in Venezuela, amid stepped-up tensions between Washington and Moscow, and continuing allegations by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro of U.S. plotting against his regime.
The deployment of the nuclear-capable Tupolev Tu-160 bombers is taking place days after Maduro met with President Vladimir Putin for talks at his residence near Moscow.
It also comes shortly after Russia seized Ukraine Navy vessels in the Black Sea, and the U.S. threatened to withdraw from an arms control treaty which it says Russia is violating.
The last two Tu-160 visits to Venezuela also coincided with escalating U.S.-Russia tensions – in 2008 over Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and in 2013 as work began on the first U.S. land-based missile defense facility in Europe.
The supersonic bombers, designated “Blackjack” by NATO, were accompanied by an Antonov heavy military transporter and an Ilyushin Il-62 airliner on the more than 6,200-mile trip aross the Barents, Norwegian and Caribbean seas and the Atlantic Ocean.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said Norwegian F-16s had followed the planes “at certain stages of the flight,” which it said “was carried out in strict accordance with the international rules on the use of airspace.” Norway is a member of NATO.
The Tu-160 can carry conventional and nuclear bombs and is also fitted with strategic cruise missiles. The ministry did not say whether the two were armed.
In late 2015, Tu-160s flew from an Arctic airbase to the Mediterranean, launched cruise missiles at ostensible terrorist targets in Syria, before returning home over Iran and the Caspian Sea, a round trip of almost 10,000 miles.
“Russia’s government has sent bombers halfway around the world to Venezuela,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter. “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.”
At the Pentagon Monday, spokesman Col. Rob Manning compared Russia’s sending of the bombers to the U.S. deployment of the hospital ship USNS Comfort, which is wrapping up an 11-week mission in the region, treating thousands of civilian patients including refugees from crisis-torn Venezuela. Its current and final stop is Honduras.
“Contrast this with Russia, whose approach to the man-made disaster in Venezuela is to send strategic bomber aircraft instead of humanitarian assistance,” Manning said.
“The Venezuelan government should be focusing on providing humanitarian assistance and aid to lessen the suffering of its people, and not on Russian warplanes.”
‘No hegemonic empire’
Welcoming the Russians at an airport in Caracas, Maduro’s defense minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said the bombers would carry out joint drills with Venezuelan Air Force planes, without elaborating.
“We are preparing to defend Venezuela, until the last step where necessary,” the official ABN news agency quoted Lopez as saying. The bombers’ presence there should be of concern to “nobody in the world,” he added.
Last Wednesday, Maduro held talks with Putin to discuss deepening trade and other ties. Lopez also met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, who indicated Russian military planes and warships would pay more visits to Venezuela.
On his return, Maduro said agreements signed with Russia would strengthen Venezuela’s economy and “promote a peace diplomacy that points to a democratic and multipolar world, where there is no hegemonic empire that imposes its conditions on others.”
On Sunday, Maduro made the latest in a long series of claims of coup plotting by the Trump and previous administrations.
"Today there is underway, and coordinated by the White House, an attempt to disrupt the democratic life of Venezuela and attempt a coup against the democratic and free constitutional regime that exists in our country,” ABN quoted him as saying, promising to provide more details soon.
Previous tensions and bomber deployments
In September 2008, two Russian Tu-160s landed in Caracas weeks after then-Prime Minister Putin’s war against Georgia ratcheted up tensions with NATO. (Russian troops invaded after Georgia’s government tried to rein in two pro-Moscow separatist regions. The brief war ended with Georgia having lost one-fifth of its territory.)
At the time, Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez declared that the visit of the bombers, and joint naval exercises that were held soon thereafter, was a sign that “the Yankee hegemony is finished and the world is becoming pluripolar.”
That 2008 visit was the first time Russia sent strategic bombers to the Western Hemisphere since the end of the Cold War.
In the fall of 2013 two Tu-160s carry out combat training patrols with aircraft from Venezuela and Nicaragua, amid tensions in Europe over NATO missile defense.
At the time, work was beginning on a ballistic missile defense (BMD) facility in Romania, to Putin’s annoyance.
The Pentagon insists the land- and sea-based system is designed to protect U.S. troops and allies against the threat of missiles launched by Iran.
But Moscow accuses the U.S. of trying to compromise its nuclear deterrent by locating BMD in its neighborhood.