Vladimir Putin is thinking about deploying supersonic bombers, known as “White Swans”, to one of Venezuela’s islands in the Caribbean Sea, Russian media outlets reported last month.
The suggestions by several Russian military experts led to speculation Putin could be embracing Venezuela’s socialist president Nicolas Maduro with a view to intimidating the United States.
The island of La Orchila, located 200 km northeast of Venezuela’s capital Caracas, was mentioned by Russian media in reports about potential the military base.
Maduro, who has repeatedly accused the US of seeking to destabilise his regime, did not object to the proposals put forward by Moscow, according to Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Aside from reports by pro-Putin Russian newspapers, few details are known about the plan and the Kremlin is yet to publicly declare any interest in such a project.
Moscow angered Washington in December by flying two Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela, where, after landing at Maiquetia airport, they conducted military drills.
The presence of Russian bombers in Latin America and the reported plans for a base there has caused alarm in the US, whose officials are still haunted by the memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
A long-term commitment to base nuclear bombers in the Caribbean would likely change the precarious dynamic of mutual deterrence observed by the US and Russia.
Situated around 1,400 miles (2,380 km) from Florida and 444 miles (715 km) from Puerto Rico, La Orchila can be observed in satellite images taken by Google Earth.
Russia’s reported intention to have a permanent military presence in Venezuela has been described as “cheap talk” and an attempt to “intimidate” the US by international security analysts.
“The Russians are clearly looking for asymmetric responses”
John Pike, international security analyst
Russian military sources have described the December flight of the two Tu-160 strategic bombers as mutually beneficial to both nations.
Their deployment came just days after Maduro, whose left-wing administration has an acrimonious relationship with the Trump administration, held talks with Putin in Moscow.
The meeting between Maduro and Putin “did not go well”, Latin American affairs expert Evan Ellis told Daily Star Online, citing a source with knowledge of their talks.
Russia is frustrated with Venezuela for mismanaging their oil relationship, Ellis, a research professor of Latin American studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, said.
But despite apparent friction between the two leaders, Ellis said Russia’s declared military intentions in Venezuela “represent a threat to the US and the region” and “have to be taken seriously”.
“I believe that this was likely an extension of Russian efforts to intimidate the United States, with little evidence of real intention to proceed,” Ellis said.
The Russians conducted similar Tu-160 flights in 2008 when tensions with the US were rising over Georgia and our presence in the Black Sea near that conflict zone, and again in 2013 over the Ukraine.”
He said in 2013, the Russians mooted similar plans to set up a base in La Orchila, alluding to the recent Russian reports that referenced the island.
Given Russian bombers did not visit the island during the December trip, Ellis said the suggestions could be a “complete bluff” or there was an “absence of preparatory work”.
Evgeny Buzhinsky, a former lieutenant-general under the Soviet Union, told Daily Star Online he is not aware of any plans to open a Russian military base in Venezuela.
He said the possibility of hosting nuclear bombers on the island of La Orchila, where Venezuelan military infrastructure is already in place, appears to be speculation.
Russian military expert John Pike also believes the commentators who spoke of the plans were probably looking to torment the Trump administration.
“Talk is cheap, and it is easy to draw attention and create a distraction with such talk,” Pike, founder and director of GlobalSecurity.org, a US-based think tank, said.
“The Russians are clearly looking for asymmetric responses to the USA, since theylack the resources to be a peer competitor.”
He said any placement of nuclear-capable warplanes would amount to a violation of the Monroe Doctrine, a US policy of opposing colonialism in the Americas.
Such a scenario would be comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Pike said.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union that was deemed to be the closest the world ever came to a global nuclear conflict.
Pike said that a similar situation would mean “the pressure to impose a ‘quarantine’on Venezuela would come as fast as you could spell ‘blockade’”.
He added: “The US imports a lot of oil from Venezuela, but the effect of cutting off that tradewould mainly be to jack up the price of oil, which would thrill the US fracking folks.”
Russia has a vested interest in keeping Maduro’s socialist regime in place, according to Emil Dabagyan, a Latin American researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“Since Russia benefits from oil exploration, it wants the Venezuelan regime to stay in place,” he said.
Military cooperation with Russia is important for Venezuela at the moment “to protect the country from the potential aggression of the United States”, Dabagyan said.