Russia's Defense Ministry has sent two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to Venezuela, in an unusual display of Russian military force in South America.
The ministry said in a statement that the two Tu-160 bombers had arrived at an airport outside of Caracas on December 10. The statement did not say if they were carrying weapons.
The bombers' arrival came just days after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro visited Moscow, seeking Kremlin support for his country, whose economy is in shambles and which is deeply in debt to Russia.
Venezuela has purchased millions of dollars in military equipment from Russia in recent years.
In a ceremony at the Caracas airport, the Venezuelan defense minister, General Vladimir Padrino, welcomed about 100 Russian pilots and other personnel.
The deployment showed "we also are preparing to defend Venezuela to the last inch when necessary," Padrino said.
Known as Blackjacks by NATO members, the Tu-160 can fly at twice the speed of sound and is capable of carrying nuclear or conventional missiles.
Several bombers participated in Russian military strikes in Syria, firing the air-launched Kh-101 cruise missile in combat for the first time.
According to the Associated Press, the last time Tu-160 strategic bombers were sent to Venezuela was five years ago. Prior that, bombers and a naval ship visited the country in 2008 amid tensions over Russia's war with Georgia.
The deployment of the aircraft drew a particularly pointed response from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a posting to Twitter.
"The Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is: two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer," Pompeo wrote.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on December 11 that Pompeo's comments were "undiplomatic" and "completely inappropriate."
Oil-rich Venezuela has been racked by economic and political crises since 2010 under leftist leader Hugo Chavez and has continued into Maduro's presidency.
Millions have fled the country, driven by violence, hyperinflation, and major shortages of food.