MOSCOW – Russia on Thursday downplayed the two strategic long-range bombers that flew to Venezuela in the first such flight since the Cold War, saying the bombers carried no live weapons — nuclear or otherwise — and would return to Russia next week.
The bombers arrived in South America ahead of planned joint military maneuvers between Russia and Venezuela — maneuvers that appear to be a tit-for-tat retort to the United States for sending warships to deliver aid to U.S.-allied Georgia following last month's war.
Russian analysts said it was the first time strategic bombers have landed in the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War. The foray, and the coming military exercises with an avowed U.S. enemy, are likely to strain the already tense relationship between Moscow and Washington.
Russian air force Maj. Gen. Pavel Androsov said in televised comments that the Tu-160 bombers were carrying only test missiles.
He said the jets would conduct several test flights over neutral waters then return to Russia on Monday. That indicates that the jets would not participate in military exercises that Venezuela and Russia plan to hold in the Caribbean Sea sometime this year.
The deployment — which will include a naval squadron and long-range patrol planes — is expected to be the largest Russian naval maneuvers in the Caribbean and perhaps the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War.
President Dmitry Medvedev said he had ordered the Tu-160s to make the flight at the invitation of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has expressed interest in flying the massive bombers.
"We long-range pilots are responsive people. If they kindly ask us and if we have permission, we will fly him safely and will show him the Caribbean Sea from an altitude of the operating ceiling," Androsov said.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry tried to quash speculation that Russia was establishing military bases in South America.
"Russia has no military bases in Latin America. The bombers landed in Venezuela in line with an earlier bilateral agreement," spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said in a statement.
"The Russian Air Force has always strictly complied with international rules of flights above neutral waters. These flights do not breach the air space of other nations," Nesterenko said.
Separately, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested the reaction to the Russian planes' flight and the upcoming naval exercises was excessive. He again criticized the United States for using warships to deliver aid to Georgia's Black Sea Coast — even as Russian military forces were close by.
He said the Americans would react strongly if any planes should fly over the United States:
"I mean, God forbid there should be any sort of conflict over the American continent, this is considered the 'holiest of the holy'," Putin said. "And they drive ships with weapons to a place just 10 kilometers from where we're at? This is normal? This is an equitable move?"