Two Russian Air Force planes carrying around 100 members of the Russian military and a handful of strategic advisers landed in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, in a shockingly overt demonstration of support from Vladimir Putin's government for embattled socialist president Nicolas Maduro.
Reuters reports that the two planes took off from Russia Friday and landed in Caracas on Saturday. A third plane left Russia on Sunday and is expected to arrive in Venezuela on Monday. All three planes are carrying Russian troops as well as high-placed military advisers who are reportedly in Venezuela to advise Maduro on how to handle the country's ongoing crisis.
"The flights carried officials who arrived to 'exchange consultations,'" according to Russian state media, via Reuters. “Russia has various contracts that are in the process of being fulfilled, contracts of a technical military character."
The BBC added that reporters on the ground saw around 35 tons of equipment offloaded from the planes but could not identify the cargo. Maduro told Venezuelan state media last week that Russia intended to bring "medicine" to the ailing country, which has blocked all aid from the United States, Canada and other western nations. Russian officials were mum on what the shipments contain.
Whatever Russia is delivering to Maduro seems secondary to the message they are clearly trying to send to the Trump Administration about their increasingly close ties to the Venezuelan government, however.
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Monday morning, and Lavrov was clear that the Russians want the United States to back off sanctions placed against Venezuela, and to dial down their support for Maduro's political opponent, self-proclaimed Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó, who has been pursuing a claim to power since last summer when he says Maduro fixed local elections.
Pompeo, Reuters reports, called on Lavrov and Russia to cease their "unconstructive behavior" and labeled Russia's sudden interest in providing military support to Maduro's government a "reckless escalation" of the situation on the ground.
"The United States condemns Russia’s deployment of military aircraft and personnel to Caracas, which is another contradiction of both Nicolas Maduro’s and Russia’s calls for non-intervention in Venezuela and is a reckless escalation of the situation,” a State Department spokesperson told reporters Monday.
In response, Lavrov accused Pompeo and the United States of "orchestrating a coup" in Venezuela by supporting Guaido and continuing to impose deep sanctions on Venezuelan oil.
The situation in Venezuela has degraded markedly in recent weeks. Maduro has dug in his heels and maintained his claim to power in the country, even as the Venezuelan people are hit by a lack of food, clean water, and medical supplies. Earlier this month, an explosion at the country's most significant hydroelectric plants led to rolling blackouts across the country, some lasting for days, and by last week, it became clear that the complete failue of Venezuela's electric grid could be imminent.
Blackouts are continuing, according to Reuters.