Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is a well-known provocateur.  He plays his weak hand by carrying out outrageous stunts that are both dangerous and costly. They are dangerous because a fast-flying jet fighter buzzing a US ship or a NATO base could very well trigger a lethal reaction or lead to a fatal accident. One is reminded of the fate of Wang Wei, the Chinese fighter pilot who in 2001 flew his J-8 aircraft too close and collided with a US EP-3E ARIES II aircraft. Wang Wei’s plane was destroyed and he died in the now-famous Hainan Island incident.

In the case of Russia, provocations are costly and rarely do much more than heighten tensions, sometimes undermining productive engagements between the powers.

So why do the Russians continually do it? Are the Russians trying to compensate for military weakness by taking risks and carrying out reckless stunts?

It isn’t so easy to get into Putin’s head, or for that matter to know the true thinking of the Russian General Staff.  The fact that they keep up the antics tells us that they apparently see that these displays of power help to keep Russia up as a serious player, demanding respect from the West.

But chance-taking can get out of hand, as happened in the Sea of Azov at the Kerch Strait. Here the Russians took a bigger step, ramming a Ukrainian tugboat and shooting up three Ukrainian vessels, wounding either three (claimed by Russia) or six (claimed by Ukraine) Ukrainian sailors and capturing three Ukrainian boats. The sailors were also interred in Crimea, which the Russians have already annexed at Ukraine’s expense.

Intimidation exercise

Of course, Ukraine is a weak adversary as far as the Russians are concerned, and the Russians have renewed pressure on Ukraine’s current leadership, not only by restricting access to the Sea of Azov (which was relaxed days after the Kerch Strait incident), but also according to the Ukrainians, by Russia massing tanks and soldiers close to Ukraine’s eastern border.  Whether this is just more of the same – an intimidation exercise – or a prelude to an actual military invasion of Ukraine is far from clear.

There were, of course, other consequences from the Kerch confrontation, including additional sanctions from the West and US President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel an important face to face meeting with Putin at the G-20 summit.  Of course, the meeting cancellation put off negotiations on important matters, especially the fate of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement (INF agreement) which Trump has declared he will cancel because of Russian violations.  The Russians have been trying to head off Trump’s decision and have offered negotiations, but Russia once again shot itself in the foot by their poor behavior at Kerch.

But if that wasn’t enough, the Russians went even further when they sent Backfire bombers to Venezuela after the G-20 summit.

Supposedly this was to show solidarity with the failed Venezuelan “thugocracy” that has all but destroyed a once affluent and productive nation.  But Russia could have shown solidarity in many other ways instead of sending nuclear bombers.

This latest stunt was not really about Venezuela. It was designed to highlight Russia’s umbrage at the threatened US cancellation of the INF Treaty.  That is why Russia sent two strategic Backfire bombers (Tu-22M) to Venezuela and not some other equipment.  And it is probably why the Russians flew the Backfires around in Caribbean airspace for some 10 hours in a meaningless exercise during which, at least part of the time, Venezuela joined the two Backfire bombers with their F-16’s and Su-30 fighter jets.

The Backfire bomber was long a bone of contention between Russia and the United States in the START (1991, 1994) and START II treaties. START (Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty) and START II is the follow-up treaty. The Russians cancelled participation in START II  when the US pulled out of the ABM (Anti Ballistic Missile) Treaty. In the START II negotiations it was agreed that the Backfire bomber would be produced in limited numbers and would not have intercontinental range, meaning the Backfires would not be air to air refuelable.

The Backfires that flew to Venezuela covered 10,000 km (6,200 miles) meaning they had to be refueled  since the Backfire range is roughly 6,800 km. Today there are less than 70 Backfire bombers in service.  They have been used as conventional bombers in the Chechen war, in Afghanistan and in Syria (where they were also used to launch long range cruise missiles).  The Backfire carries ordnance internally and externally with a maximum overall capacity of 24,000 kg (53,000 lbs).  In the 2008 Russo-Georgian (South Ossetia) war, a reconnaissance version of the Backfire was shot down by Georgian Air Defenses.

The flight to Venezuela was not the first time Russia has sent Backfire bombers to Venezuela.  They did so in 2008 and in 2013.  In 2013 the Backfires flew with Tu-95 “Bear” long-range bombers and were refueled by IL-78 tankers.  In 2013 the Backfires got into trouble by not filing proper flight plans and were challenged by Columbian Air Force Israeli-built Kfir fighters about 80 miles from Barranquilla, where they were probably either en route to or coming from Nicaragua and heading back to Venezuela. Russia saw the Backfire bombers as a way of showing power in Central and South America and was engaged with Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua in an effort to arrange base rights for the Backfires. The fact that the Russians did not succeed earlier in their attempt to negotiate base rights, suggests that the US made it clear to these countries that giving base rights to Russia would be a hostile act against the United States.

Military force

Now Russia’s Tass is reporting that Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro has acceded to a Russian request to set up an air base on one of Venezuela’s offshore island. How Russia or Venezuela could support an offshore airbase depends on which island and to what degree Venezuela will supply fuel and manpower to man the infrastructure required.  But whether the latest report is true remains to be determined. A base like this could give the Trump administration all the encouragement it would need to intercede with military force, either at the base or, more likely, against the Maduro regime.  It suggests that Maduro is desperate to risk American ire and the chance for a Washington determination that enough is enough.

Meanwhile, the US has kept a military relationship with Venezuela, even though Russia has become a major arms supplier there supplying aircraft, artillery, military ground equipment including armored vehicles and tanks, helicopters and 12 S-300 air defense systems.  Recently the Russians delivered 5,000 SA-24 Manpads (Man-Portable Air Defense Missiles). Venezuela is the largest operator of Russian armament and military hardware in the Latin American region.

The US has been supporting Venezuela’s F-16’s for two reasons.  The first is that the US signed a long-term agreement with Venezuela to supply spare parts for the F-16’s and in 2005 the US Ambassador confirmed that the United States would continue that support.  Since then, of course, conditions in Venezuela – suppression of all opposition forces, arrests of opponents of the regime and rising anti-Americanism – provides more than sufficient grounds to stop weapon’s support. Secondly, there are those in the US government who continue to believe that the Venezuelan military could be a positive force for change and democracy.

There is some claimed evidence that the recent drone attack on Maduro was a military-run operation. Among those alleged by the regime to have been involved in the plot were two senior military officers who were arrested in August: Col. Pedro Zambrano Hernandez and Gen. Alejandro Perez Gamez of the National Guard. Whether their arrest reflects unrest in the Venezuelan military is an open question – it is also quite likely that as part of Maduro’s crackdown on opponents he is purging opposition in the military as well as civilian opponents. The drone attack could simply serve as a convenient excuse to justify arrests of opponents.

It isn’t clear if the United States was advised about the latest Backfire’s foray flying in circles in the Caribbean or if the flight path of the Backfires was shared ahead of time.  Nor do we know if the Russians filed advisories to the local countries that were near the military exercise. But there is no doubt that the Russians were hearing a lot from the United States, including threats that the Backfires had to be removed.  In fact, they are now gone, so the US demands were met, although Russia offered neither apologies nor excuses.

As anyone can see, the possibility of moving nuclear-capable aircraft or missiles into the backyard of the United States is exceedingly provocative and dangerous. The US could quite easily have confronted the Backfire bombers and tried to chase them away. Lacking fighter escort, the Backfire bombers are sitting ducks against the US Air Force which can easily operate over the entire Caribbean from multiple bases in Florida or air bases in Mississippi and Texas.

It turns out that the Trump administration exercised considerable restraint, apparently did not shadow or confront the Backfire bombers (although they were shadowed by Norwegian F-16 aircraft as they crossed Europe). There are no reports of US aircraft in the United States scrambling.

The fact that Russia carried out a military drill that was of no military purpose and then had to turn tail and go home, suggests the Russians got hard warnings from the Trump administration, discernible from the tone of the rhetoric especially from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and so they pulled back.

Perhaps in the back-channel communication the US administration reminded the Russians of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Putin may want to rethink the games he is playing. The Backfires certainly backfired.