guidance

Dec 13, 2018 | 00:35 GMT

5 mins read

The Explosive Implications of Russian Bombers in Venezuela

Russian air force personnel stand in front of a Tupolev Tu-160 long-range strategic bomber upon landing at Simon Bolivar International Airport, north of Caracas, Venezuela, on Dec. 10, 2018.
(FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Big Picture

Stratfor's 2019 Annual Forecast said that Russia would seek to expand its ties and involvement around the world to push against Western hegemony and challenge the U.S.-led world order. News that Russia has sent strategic bombers to Venezuela and unconfirmed reports that Moscow is considering a long-term deployment suggest that the analysis was correct.

What Happened

Russia is reportedly considering a long-term military presence in Venezuela. According to a Dec. 11 report from Russian paper Nezavisimaya Gazeta that cited anonymous sources, Tu-160 strategic bombers could be based in Venezuela. The report says that Russian and Venezuelan officials agreed to put the planes at a Venezuelan military base on the island of La Orchila in the Caribbean Sea, where Russian advisers will reportedly be dispatched this week.

The report comes after two Russian Tu-160 jets capable of carrying nuclear weapons landed in Caracas on Dec. 10, prompting harsh criticism from the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to Twitter to accuse the Venezuelan and Russian governments of misusing resources while their people suffer. Meanwhile, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Moscow claims the two planes will return to Russia by Dec. 14.

Background

The news of increased military cooperation comes after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where the pair signed investment contracts in the energy and mining sectors worth over $6 billion. In addition, Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu.

Russian strategic bombers have made flights to Venezuela in 2008 and 2013. Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez even once offered to host Russian long-range aircraft on La Orchila, though an agreement never materialized. Venezuelan law does not permit foreign military bases in the country, but temporarily deploying foreign military aircraft is permissible, and the government could allow the deployment to become permanent through a decree.

More recent Russian and Venezuelan efforts to strengthen military ties come as relations between Moscow and Washington are at their lowest point since the Cold War. The United States has announced that it will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a key arms control agreement. In response, Russia has warned that such a withdrawal would lead to a significant military buildup of immediate-range missiles.

Why It Matters

Russia has not, notably, confirmed the report that it intends to deploy strategic bombers to Venezuela for the long term. But if such plans were to materialize, they would push Russian-Venezuelan military cooperation to unprecedented heights.

As things heat up between the United States and Russia over arms treaties — as well as sanction expansions and the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria — Moscow could be using an increased military presence in Venezuela to boost its leverage in negotiations with Washington. To this end, Venezuela is a prime target for Russian influence because of its location and anti-American politics. And for Caracas, a stronger relationship could help shore up its deteriorating economy and keep the government from toppling.

In addition to political and symbolic benefits, stationing forces in Venezuela would enable Russia to challenge the United States in its own backyard — even if the forces remain relatively contained. Russia has only a few dozen Tu-160 bombers, but deploying some of them to the U.S. southern flank could force Washington to expend more resources in response and provide Moscow with greater leverage. And if Russia were to follow up a long-term bomber deployment with additional forces, the small deployment could punch well above its weight in sucking up U.S. resources if and when Washington reacts. Russia could also seek to draw comparisons between its own military buildup and the U.S. forces currently stationed near Russian borders in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.

What to Watch For

Russian Responses

A long-term deployment is currently just a rumor, so it will be important to watch for a confirmation from Russian authorities. In addition, further meetings between Russian, Venezuelan and even Cuban officials or movements of Russian military assets could provide insight into Moscow's plans.

Venezuela's Stability

If Russia decides to pursue a more permanent military presence in Venezuela, the South American country's domestic stability will become even more important to Moscow. As Venezuelan oil production continues to decline, Moscow may work to prop up Maduro's government by continuing to invest in Venezuela's energy sector or by adding mineral extraction projects to help the struggling country diversify its economy.

But even with Russian support, Venezuela will remain unstable. The government's ability to fend off challenges — particularly from dissident military forces — is steadily declining. Continued economic hardships will only provide more incentive for citizens and military commanders to challenge Maduro.

U.S. Action

If Russia does station bombers on Venezuelan soil that are capable of delivering a nuclear bomb, the United States would become concerned that further deployments will follow. Specifically, Washington will watch for the placement of the type of intermediate-range nuclear missiles that the INF treaty forbids. In addition, Washington's fears could prompt the United States to support opposition movements or military dissidents in Venezuela. As the great power competition and associated arms race between Russia and the United States continue, Washington will work to prevent Venezuela from becoming a weapon in Moscow's armory.

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