Did Putin Just Send Two Supersonic Nuclear Bombers to Venezuela?

A December 2018 incident was not the first time Russian Tu-160s had been spotted in Venezuela.

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Claim

Russian president Vladimir Putin sent two supersonic nuclear bombers to Venezuela in December 2018.

Origin

On 10 December 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that they had transported two Tu-160 strategic bombers to Venezuela:

Two Tu-160 strategic bombers, An-124 heavy military transport aircraft and Il-62 long-haul aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces, flew from airfields in the Russian Federation to the international airport of Maiquetía of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela on December 10.

The TU-160s are long-range supersonic planes capable of carrying conventional or nuclear-tipped cruise missiles — a set of facts that led to the creation of memes suggesting the move was intended to place Russian bombers in range of the United States:

The technical facts stated in this meme are accurate. It is true that these bombers were flown to Venezuela: the flight was monitored by the Norwegian air force, announced by Russia, and denounced by the United States. The TU-160 is indeed “capable of carrying conventional or nuclear-tipped cruise missiles with a range [of] 3,410 miles.”

It is also true that Florida is 1,763 miles away from Venezuela.

These bombers, given the nickname “Blackjacks” by NATO forces, have been in service in the Soviet or Russian air forces since 1988. They have most recently seen combat, armed with conventional weapons, in Syria.

This occurrence was not the first time Blackjacks had been spotted in South America, either. In November 2013, Colombia formally protested to Russia that two Russian Tu-160s, traveling between Venezuela and Nicaragua, were in violation of their airspace:

Colombia is preparing a letter of protest to Russia after two Russian bomber planes twice entered the Andean nation’s airspace without authorization when flying between Venezuela and Nicaragua, President Juan Manuel Santos said …

Military sources told Reuters the planes were Russian-made Tupolev Tu-160 bombers flying from the Venezuelan coastal city of Maiquetia to Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. The sources said the bombers flew into Colombian airspace over its San Andres y Providencia archipelago in the Caribbean Sea.

While the technical facts about the Tu-160s are not in dispute, the implication that the most likely reason for their transport to Venezuela is to bomb the United States is dubious. Russia, a close ally of the embattled Venezuelan government, has sold a substantial amount of arms to that country going back to the early days of former President Hugo Chávez’s tenure, and Russian has vested interests in supporting the current government, as argued by U.S. Naval War College Professor Nikolas Gvosdev in National Interest:

[Former President Hugo] Chávez, in order to gain greater maneuvering room, turned to Russia as an alternate source of investment in the country’s energy and mining sectors, and as a source of military hardware to equip his defense and security forces. In turn, access to Venezuelan oil and gas has become an indispensable part of Russia’s state oil company Rosneft’s strategy to turn itself from a Eurasian provider of energy into an international major [provider] …

Long-term contracts to equip the Venezuelan military and the party militias that [current President Nicolás] Maduro increasingly relies on for security are also important for the Russian defense industry. In short, over the last several years, Russia has acquired in Venezuela, as it has in Syria, a need to preserve the current regime in order to safeguard its investments.

According to the Associated Press, the reason for the transport of the bombers from Russia to Venezuela is unknown, but internal political factors in both countries that do not involve the United States could easily be playing a role. The Russian Ministry of Defense did not indicate how long the planes would be there, disclose whether they carried any weapons, or describe their purpose for being in the country:

Minister of Defence of the National Armed Forces of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela General-in-Chief Vladimir Padrino López and representatives of the Russian Embassy in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela took part in a solemn welcome ceremony of the Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers crews at the international airport of Maiquetía.

Highlighting the U.S. military’s role in providing medical support to Venezuelan refugees fleeing the country’s crisis, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Rob Manning drew a contrast between Russian military support and the U.S. presence in the region, telling reporters on 10 December 2018 that “The Venezuelan government should be focusing on providing humanitarian assistance and aid to lessen the suffering of its people, and not on Russian warplanes.”

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Sources

Ministry of the Defense of the Russian Federation.   “Long-Range Air Force Aircraft fly from Airfields in the Russian Federation to International Airport of the Republic of Venezuela.”
    10 December 2018.

Isachenkov, Vladimir.   “Russia Sends 2 Nuclear-Capable Bombers to Venezuela.”
    Associated Press.   10 December 2018.

Vergun, David.   “DOD Spokesman: As U.S. Provides Aid to Central, South America, Russia Sends Bombers.”
    Defense.gov.   10 December 2018.

Moore, Jason Nicholas.   Soviet Strategic Bombers: The Hammer in the Hammer and the Sickle.
    Fonthill Media, 2018.   ISBN 1230002408811.

Reuters.   “Colombia Says Russian Bombers Violated Its Airspace.”
    5 November 2013.

Gvosdev, Nikolas K.   “Why Venezuela Proves That Russia Is Still a World Power.”
    The National Interest.   7 June 2017.