Putin and Maduro Play Blackjack in Venezuela

Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López said that the governments of Venezuela and Russia are preparing for the defense of the country before a possible armed attack, so he said that they welcome two Russian bombers Tu-160. Venezuela Ministry of Defense photo.

Russia deployed two Tupolev Tu-160 “Blackjack” bombers and two support aircraft to Venezuela Tuesday, eliciting criticism from the US but no threat of retaliation. The deployment comes just a week after Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro visited Moscow to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Maduro personally welcomed the crews and toured the bombers after they landed.

The two combat aircraft—swing-wing bombers resembling the US B-1B Lancer, but larger—landed at an airport near the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Neither Russia nor Venezuela said whether the aircraft were carrying any weapons, or how long they’d stay. They did say the bombers would participate in exercises. Venezuelan state media displayed graphics on television showing the Blackjacks as capable of reaching the US from Venezuela.

The Tu-160 is can carry nuclear bombs and cruise missiles. Also deployed was an An-124 cargo aircraft and an Il-62 passenger airplane, presumably carrying support gear and technicians.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that the deployment should be seen by the Russian and Venezuelan people as “two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer.” Russian government officials called Pompeo’s remark “inappropriate” and “undiplomatic.”

The deployment bolsters Maduro in the wake of President Trump’s comment last year that he would “not rule out a military option” to oust Maduro, and a comment earlier this month from Defense Secretary James Mattis, who said Maduro would “have to go.” For his part, Maduro has accused the US of waging an “economic war” against his country. He reportedly returned from Moscow with $6 billion in investment pledges.

Venezuela’s air force boasts a number of Russian Su-27 Flanker fighters purchased under the regime of Hugo Chavez.

The deployment is not the first time Blackjacks have visited Venezuela. Similar deployments occurred in 2008 and 2013. On this visit, the bombers flew from Engels air base, Russia, and were reportedly escorted for part of the flight at the periphery of Norwegian airspace by Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16s. Russian aerial tankers accompanied the bombers for part of the journey, as well.