(CNSNews.com) – Two Russian strategic bombers, which held joint exercises with Venezuelan fighter jets over the Caribbean Sea this week, will end their visit on Friday, according to the White House.
The arrival of the nuclear-capable Tupolev Tu-160 bombers – the third visit of its kind to Venezuela in a decade – sparked terse exchanges, as officials in Washington, Moscow and Caracas criticized each other’s spending priorities.
Russia’s defense ministry said the Tu-160s had flown over the Caribbean Sea for about ten hours, accompanied at times by Venezuelan air force F-16s and Su-30s, with pilots from the two countries practicing “air cooperation while fulfilling air tasks.”
(The F-16s were bought from the U.S. in the 1980s but servicing has been a problem since the U.S. in 2006 cut off arms sales to Hugo Chavez; the Russian-supplied Sukhois were acquired over the last decade.)
The ministry said the flight had been carried out “in strict accordance with international rules on airspace use.”
On Thursday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was quoted as saying, “We have spoken with representatives of Russia and have been informed that their military aircraft, which landed in Venezuela, will be leaving on Friday and going back to Russia.”
That prompted some reporting suggesting Russia had agreed to withdraw the bombers, although there had been no indication from the outset that their presence this time was anything but temporary.
However, Russia and Venezuela for a number of years reportedly have been mulling the prospect of Russian aircraft being based on the island of La Orchila, about 110 miles northeast of Caracas, where Venezuela has a naval air station.
Back in 2009 a Russian general claimed that Chavez had offered to host Tu-160s on the island, although Chavez denied that amounted to a proposal for a Russian military base there. (Months earlier two of the supersonic bombers had visited Venezuela, the first time they had flown to the Western Hemisphere since the end of the Cold War. Tu-160s paid a second visit in 2013.)
This week, unnamed military and diplomatic sources told Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper that the purported plan for Tu-160s on Le Orchila could be back on the table, in the light of the Trump administration’s threat to withdraw from a Cold War-era nuclear arms-control treaty with Russia.
The paper quoted Academy of Military Sciences member Col. Eduard Rodyukov as saying that “the arrival of Russia’s Tu-160 strategic bombers in Central America is kind of a signal to Trump to make him realize that abandoning nuclear disarmament treaties will have a boomerang effect.”
Commenting on the bombers’ visit to Venezuela, Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis told CNSNews.com, “The U.S. approach to the region differs from Russia's.”
“In the midst of the man-made disaster in Venezuela, Russia is sending bombers, while the United States sent the [USNS] Comfort hospital ship to provide much needed medical aid to the region,” Davis said.
“Russia has a history of not respecting the territorial sovereignty when conducting these missions. In 2013, Russian bombers twice violated Colombian airspace. [U.S.] Southern Command continues to stand with the people of Venezuela.”
On Twitter, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented, “Russia’s government has sent bombers halfway around the world to Venezuela.”
“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.”
Pompeo’s comment drew a strong reaction in Moscow, where Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it undiplomatic and inappropriate.
Regarding the “squandering” accusation, RT quoted Peskov as telling reporters, half of the U.S. military budget “would be enough to support all of Africa.”
Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement it could not discount Pompeo’s “brazen disregard for diplomatic ethics.”
“Before counting other people’s money, Washington should take a look at its own spending,” the ministry said, raising longstanding criticism about U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Libya.
“Aimed at ensuring U.S. hegemony in a world entangled in a network of Pentagon bases, U.S. military spending has brought death and suffering and not freedom or democracy to people,” it said.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza also weighed in, calling Pompeo’s tweeted message “not only disrespectful but also cynical,” and pointing to the presence of U.S. military bases around the world.
“It’s outrageous that the U.S. gov’t questions our sovereign right to defense and security cooperation with other countries when [Trump] has threatened us publicly with a military intervention,” Arreaza tweeted.
President Nicolás Maduro on Wednesday claimed, not for the first time, that the U.S. is plotting to assassinate him.