Two Russian strategic bombers landed in Venezuela on Wednesday as part of military maneuvers, the government said, announcing an unprecendented deployment to a new ally at a time when both nations are involved in tense relations with the U.S.
Russia's Defense Ministry said the two Tupelov-160 Blackjack Bombers flew to Venezuela on a training mission. It said in a statement carried by the Russian news wires that the planes will conduct training flights over neutral waters over the next few days before heading back to Russia.
It was not immediately known whether the bombers were armed.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — an unbridled critic of American foreign policy — said Wednesday the bombers were welcome in Venezuela, and that he hopes to "fly one of those things" himself.
Chavez called the Russian planes' visit part of a move toward a "pluri-polar world" — a reference to moving away from U.S. dominance. "The Yankee hegemony is finished," Chavez said in a televised speech.
Also Wednesday, NATO said it ended a routine exercise by four naval ships in the Black Sea. Russia had denounced the exercise as part of a Western military buildup sparked by the Georgia conflict.
The alliance said the four ships — U.S. frigate USS Taylor and three similar vessels from Spain, Germany and Poland — were moving back to the Mediterranean Sea after the 18-day mission.
In Moscow, Defense Ministry spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky refused to say how long the Venezuela deployment will last or say whether the planes carried any weapons.
The military said NATO fighters escorted the two Russian bombers on their way to Venezuela.
The apparently retaliatory move follows the U.S. deployment of warships to deliver aid to the former Soviet nation of Georgia, barely a month after Russian armor and aircraft crushed the Georgian military in a five-day war.
Earlier this week, Russia said it will send a naval squadron and long-range patrol planes to Venezuela in November for a joint military exercise in the Caribbean.
The deployment of planes will be certain to anger Washington. Relations between the U.S. and Russia have been badly strained by the short war last month between Russia and U.S.-allied Georgia.
FOX News' Jennifer Griffin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.