Coming to Caracas?
We've long speculated about a potential resumption of Russian bomber flights along our eastern seaboard. During the Cold War, Soviet TU-95 Bear H heavy bombers staged occasional missions along the east coast before landing in Cuba, then returning to their home base a few days later. It was simply a Russian reminder of their ability to strike targets in North America with long-range strike aircraft and cruise missiles.
With the near-collapse of the Russian military in the early 1990s, bomber training virtually stopped and didn't resume (with any frequency) until a couple of years ago. Since then, Moscow's Bear and TU-160 have staged a series of high-profile missions against Alaska, Guam, Great Britain, Norway and, on one occasion, a U.S. carrier battle group in the mid-Pacific.
However, Russian bombers have yet to resume their flights against the U.S. east coast, raising speculation among intelligence analysts who follow long-range aviation units. Reasons for the lack of eastern seaboard missions include potential logistical problems in Cuba; there is some evidence that Raul Castro's regime doesn't have enough fuel to get the bombers off the island after they land.
But the most common explanation is that Moscow doesn't want to overly-antagonize the United States. While that argument made sense a few months back, Russia's recent invasion of Georgia suggests that the Kremlin isn't concerned about offending the U.S., eliminating one more hurdle for a resumption of bomber missions along the eastern seaboard.
Indeed, there is now another reason to believe that such flights are in the offing. During the most recent installment of the weekly TV show, Venezuelan blowhard Hugo Chavez announced plans for a joint exercise with Russian ground and naval forces later this year, and noted that Moscow's long-range aircraft are welcome to use his bases, where fuel is (presumably) not a problem. As Reuters reports:
Plans for the naval operations come at a time of heightened diplomatic tension and Cold War-style rhetoric between Moscow and the United States over the recent war in Georgia and plans for a U.S. missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland.
"If the Russian long-distance planes that fly around the world need to land at some Venezuelan landing strip, they are welcome, we have no problems," he said on his weekly television show last week.
It's rather doubtful that Chavez is referring to Moscow's heavy-lift transports, which have delivered arms to Venezuela in the past. And, his remarks came only a few weeks after Russian Prime Minister/political puppet master Vladimir Putin suggested that his country was contemplating some sort of military presence in the Western Hemisphere, a move that one senior USAF officer described as a potential "red line."
At this point, there are no signs of an imminent Bear or Blackjack flight along the east coast. But it's easy to envision that type of operation in conjunction with the upcoming exercise. Venezuela, not Cuba, is now Russia's most attractive basing option in Latin America.
It will be very interesting to see what types of vessels are dispatched by Moscow for that November exercise--and how we respond with our recently-reactivated Fourth Fleet.