A day after Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers were deployed in Venezuela, the US reacted sharply to Moscow’s move, calling it a “squandering of public funds” without realising the irony.
Russia sent about 100 pilots and other personnel along with two Tupolev-160 bombers and two other aircraft to Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday, in a show of support. The deployment arrived within days of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the beleaguered socialist state last week, when he met with his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro.
What is a Tupolev-160 bomber?
Known as White Swans in Russia, or as Blackjacks by NATO, the fleet was first launched in 1981 and modernised later in the ’00s. The Tu-160 bombers fly at a range of over 12,000 kilometres and at twice the speed of sound.
The swing-wing aircraft is further capable of carrying nuclear missiles, and have notably taken part in Russia’s Syria campaign since 2015.
How has the US responded?
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo strongly condemned and criticised Russia over Twitter, for sending bombers “halfway around the world”. He further said that the deployment was a case of “two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer”.
Several other Republicans lashed out at Venezuela for accepting the help when the US had been sending the bankrupt country medical aid via a navy hospital ship. Hundreds of doctors and nurses marched to Venezuela’s presidential palace to protest low pay and shortages of medical supplies amid the nation’s deepening economic crisis this August.
#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. pic.twitter.com/bCBGbGtaHT
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) December 11, 2018
The move may also be seen, especially by Washington, as a direct response to the US sending planes to Ukraine, whose longstanding crisis with Russia took a naval dimension last month.
How did Russia react?
The Kremlin slammed Washington’s hysterical and undiplomatic reaction, to what appears to be military drills or air force exercises aimed at strengthening the defence of the South American country currently in midst of a grave economic and political crisis.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded to the US criticism saying, “We don’t agree with this, what’s more it’s probably not very appropriate for a country to make such statements when half its defence budget could feed the whole of Africa.” Other senior Kremlin aides called it “unacceptable”, “inappropriate” and “unprofessional”, especially considering USA’s colossal military spending in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
Why were the bombers deployed?
This is not the first instance of Moscow lending military support to the Latin American nation. Both countries have been close allies. Russian bombers were first sent to Venezuela in 2008, followed by a visit from the supersonic bombers in 2013.
About the latest drill, the commander of the Russian air force’s long-range aircraft General Sergei Kobylash explained that the exercises “will help us understand better how Venezuela’s pilots are organised and trained (and) share our experience with them”.
“We are preparing to defend Venezuela to the last inch when necessary,” the country’s defence minister Vladimir Padrino said on Monday, referring to alleged threats by imperialist powers to destroy the leftist state. In fact, President Maduro on Sunday had categorically accused the White House of coordinating a coup d’etat “to disturb democratic life in Venezuela” by attacking the “constitutional, democratic and free government of our country”.
In a precarious position, Maduro currently faces the wrath of Venezuelans who have risen to revolt against the government. He has blamed several external and internal factors on numerous occasions, including ruthless sanctions from the US and conspiracy plots hatched by the opposition.
The backdrop of the crisis
The Latin American country once thriving on an oil economy is now languishing in poverty, economic depression and utter anarchy. The fall of Bolivar and oil prices has brought the economy on the verge of collapse as mass migration, food shortage, increase in crimes and grinding poverty reach epic proportions.
Millions of Venezuelans have been fleeing hyperinflation and shortages of goods and medicines in their home country since 2014. Crime rates have surged, resulting in almost 27,000 violent deaths in the last year and the second highest murder rate in the world. After two decades of socialist rule, the country is gripped by tumultuous social, political and economic deadlock which shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.