Two Russian Planes Land in Caracas, Exacerbating Political Tension
CARACAS, Venezuela — A visit to Venezuela by two military airplanes from Russia, which landed in broad daylight at the international airport in Caracas, has set off alarms that the Kremlin might be acting more brazenly to protect President Nicolás Maduro from the uprising against him.
Russian and Venezuelan officials have not disputed the arrival of the airplanes, which were first seen at the airport on Saturday. Such flights ordinarily would be sent to a protected military air base beyond the site of the public.
The planes brought supplies and technical advisers to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, according to a Russian state news agency and a Russian diplomat. The visit was related to military cooperation contracts signed years ago between Russia and Venezuela, said the news agency, Ria Novosti, suggesting it was routine.
A Russian diplomat in Caracas, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the diplomat was not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed the Ria Novosti account and said there was nothing unusual.
But opposition members said the visibility of the military planes was unusual and had been meant to send a message. The timing showed that both Russian and Venezuelan officials wanted to convert a routine technical stop into a show of strength, said Rocio San Miguel, a Venezuelan security analyst.
“They want to make it as visible as possible,” said Ms. San Miguel. “This is a sort of bluff in a strategically important moment for Maduro.”
Russia has emerged as Mr. Maduro’s main backer since opposition leader Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself interim president in late January with support of the United States and about 50 other states.
Russia has maintenance contracts for weapons sold to Venezuela under late President Hugo Chávez, including air defense systems, fighter jets and tanks, that are worth billions of dollars.
Flight tracking websites showed an Ilyushin IL-62 jet and an Antonov AN-124 cargo plane flew from Moscow’s military airport to Caracas’s international airport via Syria. The cargo plane flew back to Syria on Monday, according to flight tracking website bosphorusobserver.com.
The arrival of the advisers came as Venezuela activated Russian-made S300 air defense systems last week, according to satellite imagery analysis firm ImageSat Intl. Russia has also recently deployed the S300 in Syria.
Members of Venezuela’s opposition have accused Mr. Maduro of escalating the country’s deepening political crisis. They have pointed to widespread irregularities during the last election, consider Mr. Maduro’s government illegitimate and have asked him to step down and to allow them to call new elections.
President Trump has repeatedly said that all options are on the table to remove Mr. Maduro, not ruling out military intervention.
State Secretary Michael Pompeo told his Russian counterpart in a phone call Monday that the United States will “not stand idly by as Russia exacerbates tensions in Venezuela.”
Last week, Venezuelan secret police detained Mr. Guaidó’s chief of staff on terrorism charges, a move that the Trump administration said would be punished.