Russian Bombers Deployed into Venezuela Shows Lack of Concern for National Crisis

Russia takes advantage of the Maduro regime’s difficulties to project its military power in Latin America.
Gustavo Arias Retana/Diálogo | 4 January 2019

Transnational Threats

Venezuelan Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino (second from left) welcomed about 100 Russian pilots and other personnel, after two Russian Tupolev Tu-160 long-range supersonic bomber aircraft and two combat aircraft landed at Maiquetia International Airport, north of Caracas, December 10, 2018, to conduct combined military exercises. (Photo: Federico Parra/AFP)

Venezuelans live times of turmoil due to their country’s serious crisis, and thousands of citizens flee to access minimal health and food needs. Meanwhile, the government of Nicolás Maduro focuses its efforts on asserting its partnership with Russia, a situation the Eurasian country uses to project its military power in Latin America.

A Venezuelan woman walks into a ballot room in Caracas during Venezuela’s municipal elections, December 9, 2018. The election, in which opposition parties were banned from participating, caused a decrease in voter participation, and comes one month before Nicolás Maduro begins his second tenure (2019-2025), after winning an election the political opposition considered illegitimate and the European Union, the United States, and most of Latin America do not recognize. (Photo: Yuri Cortez/AFP)

The latest display of indifference for the needs of the Venezuelan people, both from Venezuelan and Russian authorities, came with the deployment of two Russian Tu-160 supersonic bombers to Venezuela on December 10, 2018. According to Carlos Murillo, an international relations analyst at the National University of Costa Rica, Maduro seeks to flaunt his prominent military partner, disregarding the problems that the population experiences.

“With Iván Duque [Colombian president] and Jair Bolsonaro [Brazilian president] now in power, Maduro fears that there will be more pressure against his government,” Murillo told Diálogo. “He has to find the support of an important partner to deter the neighbors. In addition, it sends the message to the Venezuelan opposition that he has powerful friends that back him up.”

Alejandro Barahona, a member of the School of Social Sciences at the National University of Costa Rica, made a similar analysis and said that the arrival of the military aircraft will increase dissatisfaction with the regime. “There are other countries that cater to the needs of Venezuelans, especially those who have migrated elsewhere in Latin America,” Barahona added.

In contrast

The U.S. humanitarian mission Enduring Promise 2018, which recently came to an end, is an example of the U.S. commitment to its partner nations and friends in the region. U.S. Southern Command hosted U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort’s 11-week mission, with stops in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Honduras between October and December 2018. The mission provided humanitarian assistance to partner nations and populations in need while relieving pressure on national medical systems, which the increase in Venezuelan migrants in their territories partly caused.

Due to the proximity with Venezuela, the hospital ship made two stops in the Caribbean coast of Colombia in Turbo, Antioquia, and Riohacha, La Guajira. Hundreds of military, civil technicians, and medical specialists from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, the United Kingdom, and the United States assisted Colombian patients in need, as well as Venezuelan migrants who needed surgery, general medical care, preventive medicine, dental exams, and dermatology and optometry services, among others.

“The United States’ focus toward the region is different from Russia’s. Amidst the tragedy, Russia sends bombers to Venezuela, while we send a hospital ship. Most importantly, we are on the side of the Venezuelan people in their time of need, and that’s what the USNS Comfort stands for,” said U.S. Army Colonel Robert Manning, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Defense, about the impact of this mission to Venezuelans living in Colombia.

A Colombian police officer checks the documents of Venezuelan migrants in the municipality of Villa del Rosario, on the border with Venezuela, December 11, 2018. Colombia won’t be “provoked” by the Russian-supported Venezuelan defense exercises, said Colombian Minister of Defense Guillermo Botero a day before the Russian combat aircraft landed on Venezuelan soil. (Photo: Schneyder Mendoza/AFP)

In addition to the two Tu-160 bombers, Russia sent to Venezuela an An-14 military transport aircraft and an IL-62. Russian troops arrived after Maduro visited Moscow in early December 2018 and announced Russian investments of $6 billion in Venezuela’s oil and mining sectors.

After the bombers arrived, Russian mass and social media reported that the Eurasian nation would build a military base in the Venezuelan island of La Orchila. Diosdado Cabello, second-in-command in the Venezuelan regime, denied the information during a session at the Venezuelan National Constitutional Assembly. Cabello also said, “I wish it were true. Not one, but two, three, four, 10 [Russian military bases].” The Venezuelan constitution forbids the installation of foreign military bases on its national territory.

Russia takes advantage of crisis

Murillo and Barahona believe that Russia isn’t very interested in the difficulties Venezuelans experience. Rather, the country seeks to bolster its international position and gain military areas in Latin America, a region where it has few strategic partners.

“As the superpowers confront each other, Moscow needs to have a stronger presence in Latin America, a region where Chinese presence is also increasing rapidly. Therefore, Russia finds in its relationship with Caracas the chance to show its global projection and tell its Latin American partners that it also has interests in the region, not only in Europe and neighboring countries,” Murillo said. “From a strategic viewpoint, it’s important to keep in mind that Russia, like China, delves into the military projection phase of its hegemonic aspirations.”

Barahona thinks that Russia’s way of presenting itself in the region is more threatening than cooperative. It isn’t a friendly presence for Venezuela’s neighbors that already face difficulties due to the human exodus the Maduro government caused.

“Russia and Venezuela’s partnership is not only an unfriendly gesture, but also threatening toward the rest of the region, which could generate a new arms race or even military polarization in Latin America. These are situations that can even explain partnerships in multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations’ system,” he said.

It’s clear that Maduro’s regime lacks empathy for the circumstances Venezuelans face, both within and out of the country. While the people cry out for help, the Venezuelan government and Russia respond with a military display that provokes the region and reminds Venezuelans that Chavism stopped caring for the people long ago.

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