- Russia deployed nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela earlier this week.
- Their arrival prompted backlash from the US, which drew sharp responses from Russia and Venezuela.
- The bombers conducted exercises over the Caribbean on Wednesday, and Russia has said they will depart Friday.
Days after their arrival in Venezuela triggered a verbal duel between Washington and Moscow, two Russian strategic bombers carried out drills over the Caribbean Sea, Russia’s defence ministry said Wednesday.
The two Tu-160 nuclear-capable bombers in Venezuela “conducted a flight in the airspace over the Caribbean Sea. The flight lasted for about 10 hours,” the ministry’s press service said, according to state-media outlet Tass.
“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,” it added.
As with the flight from Russia to Venezuela, the flight over the Caribbean was “in strict accordance with [international] rules of using airspace,” Tass said.
It is not the first time Tu-160 supersonic bombers have been to Venezuela. They visited in 2013 and in 2008. The earlier occasion came during a period of heightened tensions stoked by Russia’s brief war with Georgia that year.
The latest trip, which comes during heightened tensions over Russia’s meddling the 2016 US election and recent clash with Ukraine, prompted sharp words from all sides.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also chastised Caracas and Moscow, saying on Monday that people in Russia and Venezuela “should see this for what it is: two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer.”
The Pentagon also chimed in, saying that while the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro sought visits from Russian aircraft, the US was working with “regional partners and international organisations to provide humanitarian aid to Venezuelans fleeing their crisis-racked nation.”
The Organisation of American States also expressed “the greatest concern” about the visit, saying it was not authorised by Venezuela’s national assembly, as required by the constitution.
Venezuela and Russia responded in kind.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called Pompeo’s remarks“rather undiplomatic” and “totally inappropriate.”
Arreaza also said it was “outrageous” for the US to question Venezuela’s defence cooperation with other countries after President Donald Trump “threatened us publicly with a military intervention,” referring to Trump’s references to the possibility of military action to oust Maduro.
On Tuesday, Diosdado Cabello – a powerful Venezuelan official who has been accused of involvement in drug trafficking and been sanctioned by the US – mocked the “poor opposition leadership,” who he said had called for foreign military intervention but became frenzied at the arrival of the Russian bombers.
“One thing is to call for the devil and other is to see him coming,” Cabello said.
The Trump administration has cast Venezuela as the US’s most significant foe in the region and sought to isolate the Maduro government, largely through sanctions on Maduro and officials around him.
The US and other countries in the region have condemned Maduro for ongoing political strife and economic deterioration in his country – turmoil that has prompted some 3 million Venezuelans to flee, straining resources and prompting backlash in the neighbouring countries that have received many of them.
On Wednesday, after speaking with Russian officials, the White House said the bombers currently in Venezuela would depart on Friday and return to Russia.
However, according to an unverified report in Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, cited by Tass and by Reuters, a longer-term Russian military presence in Venezuela has been discussed, in part as a response to US plans to exit the Cold War-era Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty.
Russian officials wanted to deploy “strategic aircraft” to a Venezuelan base in the Caribbean, to which Maduro not object, according to the report. They could go a base on La Orchila island, northeast of Caracas. (Russia said at the end of 2014 it would conduct long-range air patrols in the Caribbean.)
A military expert quoted by the paper said such a deployment would remove the need for those aircraft to return to Russia and for aerial refuelling during “patrol missions in the Americas.” The aircraft could conduct missions in the region and be replaced on a rotating basis, the expert said.
While Venezuelan law prohibits foreign military bases, military aircraft could be hosted temporarily, the Russian newspaper said.
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