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Russia's Next Bomber Base: Venezuela?

Russia's Next Bomber Base: Venezuela?

It won't happen. Here's why.

If you really want to get into a fight with the United States, start basing nuclear-capable bombers in America’s backyard.

Russia should have learned that in 1962, after its humiliation in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Nonetheless, it recently flew two Tu-160 Blackjack long-range strategic bombers—Russia’s equivalent to the B-52—from western Russia to Venezuela. Similar flights took place in 2008 and 2013, and this year’s flight comes after tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russian claims over the Black Sea and Sea of Japan.

And now there is talk in Russian media of Venezuela becoming a permanent Russian base. Which is probably a very bad idea, and has been since the 19th Century Monroe Doctrine warned how the U.S. would react to other major powers operating in North and South America.

“The two massive Tu-160 ‘White Swan’ bombers arrived at Simón Bolívar International Airport outside Caracas following a 10,000-kilometer (6,200-mile) flight across the Atlantic from Engels 2 Air Base, 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) east of Saratov, Russia,” according to Russia’s TASS news agency. “The aircraft belong to Russia’s elite 121st Guards Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment, the only unit to operate the approximately 11 operational Tu-160 aircraft of 17 reported total airframes from 6950th Air Force Base.”

The Blackjacks were accompanied by an An-124 transport carrying support equipment, and an Il-62 airliner carrying support and diplomatic personnel. The flight was to show support for embattled Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, whose socialist, pro-Russian (or at least anti-American) government is fighting to maintain power amid a collapsed economy plagued by shortages of food, jobs and consumer goods.

It’s questionable how much this helped the Maduro government, which needs food and cash much more than weapons or bomber flights. Even Russians doubt that their nation can actually provide the $6 billion in economic aid that Maduro claims Moscow promised. Ironically, the Blackjack bombers actually highlight Russia’s weakness: as during the Cold War, Moscow can provide plenty of weapons to its allies, but not economic aid.

More interesting was another TASS article that featured an interview with a Russian military expert. "Our strategic bombers will not only not have to return to Russia every time, but also won't perform aerial refueling while on a patrol mission in the Americas,” said Colonel Shamil Gareyev. “Our Tu-160 aircraft arrive to their base in Venezuela, conduct flights, execute their missions and are then replaced on a rotating basis.”

A permanent Russian bomber base in South America? Didn’t something like this happen in 1962, which almost triggered a nuclear war, and ended up with Soviet missiles being withdrawn from Cuba? True, the United States secretly agreed to remove its missiles from Turkey, but the debacle cost Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev his job.

Caracas and Miami are almost 1,400 miles apart, a bit further than the 90-mile divide between the U.S. and Cuba. But greater distance wouldn’t have much effect on any U.S. military response to either a Russian bomber base—or a Venezuelan government that agreed to host such a base. Unlike operating in Eastern Europe, which is on Russia’s border, Moscow has no bases in the Americas to support a Venezuelan outpost. Cuba is distant, easily blockaded again by the U.S. Navy, and with a post-Castro government that may not be nostalgic about reviving the old days of sparring with Washington.

 

A permanent Russian base would require more than an occasional bomber flight. It would require Russian airplane mechanics and logistics personnel, and the Russian soldiers that would guard them, to stay in Venezuela. There would need to be stockpiles of fuel, spare parts—and probably bombs. A base would also need air defenses, such as anti-aircraft missiles or jet fighters. Unless Venezuela could provide adequate defense, which is unlikely, then Russian troops would have to do it.

To be fair, Russia has long been accustomed to having hostile states on its borders. A few U.S. troops are assisting the Ukrainian military, while the Baltic States—also on Russia’s border— belong to NATO and host small numbers of NATO troops and aircraft. In Moscow’s eyes, American ire is hypocritical.

 

Russia is almost certainly playing mind games with the United States, and for the price of a few long-range flights, doing so most economically. Nonetheless, as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said of the bomber flights, "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."

And let’s hope that the situation stays that way. Anything more threatening in America’s backyard will not end well.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.