As Venezuela continues to be gripped by political instability, reports of Russian aircraft and troops arriving in the country have begun circulating, despite denials by Russia’s Defence Ministry.

In this file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro during a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia December 5, 2018.
In this file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro during a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia December 5, 2018. (Maxim Shemetov / Reuters)

Russian aircraft, including an An-124 and Il-62 carrying cargo and military personnel, reportedly landed in the Venezuelan capital’s airport last Sunday.

The controversial news was initially broken over the weekend by several Latin American newspapers.

All of them quoted Venezuelan journalist Xavier Mallorca, who said he had discovered two planes en route from Moscow to Caracas, with a stopover in Damascus, on the Flightradar24 website.

Peruvian El Comercio newspaper ‘confirmed’ the aircraft had made a trip, adding that there were two stopovers: in Damascus and Dakar.

Mallorca also reported that the two aircraft had delivered 99 troops and 35 tonnes of cargo to Caracas, with a high-ranking official of  Russia's Chief of Staff, Colonel General Vasily Tonkoshkurov, on board.

If true, this would have been the first airlift since the opposition in Venezuela started its push to oust President Nicolas Maduro in early 2019.

Still, as of Monday, the Russian Defence Ministry has kept silent about the airlifting of troops and cargo to Venezuela. Not a hint could be found on the ministry's official website.

In January, similar news about an alleged deployment of 400 Russian troops in support of embattled Maduro turned out to be fake.

TRT World investigated and found the source of the false report published by Reuters, which had neglected to thoroughly fact-check the information.

The fake news was fabricated by Eugeny Shabayev, an obscure Russian political activist. Shabayev claimed that he had obtained the sensitive information from the relatives of the troops.

When contacted by TRT World, Shabayev categorically refused a request to share the names of those ‘relatives’, citing their safety concerns.

Shabayev accused officials in Moscow and Caracas of a ‘blatant lie’ and attempts to conceal the information. He also insisted resolutely that only his information about Russian troops in Venezuela was true.

"I don't give s*** for what Kremlin or whoever else says about it. [Kremlin spokesman] Dmitry Peskov is a liar. I obtained that information from the first hands - from the relatives of the men sent to Venezuela," he said.

Shabayev then corrected himself, saying that it was a Reuters ‘glitch’ that the news agency had reported his words as fait accompli and not as just his suggestions.

He also insisted that the ‘troops’ he mentioned in the interview with Reuters were private mercenaries, not regular Russian military units.

However, people close to the private military business called Shabayev’s revelations ‘fantasies’.

“Dmitry Utkin [commander of the Wagner private military company] has zero interest in Venezuelan domestic affairs because there’s no warfare. And if there’s no combat, all the rest is not of his business,” said Yevstafy Botvinyev, one of the company’s men, reached by a St Petersburg journalist Anna Dolgaryeva in January at the request of TRT World.

One other Wagner soldier said in January on the condition of strict anonymity that no one among his ‘colleagues’ had ever mentioned Venezuela as a possible operational field.

“We operated in Syria, Central African Republic and Madagascar, but we haven’t even heard about Venezuela," he confessed.

On Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry reported no activity of the Russian air force in or around Venezuela.

Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov re-addressed journalists’ questions about the controversial reports to the Defence Ministry.

The Defence Ministry's official representative Artyom Sherstyukov told TRT World that he has not been briefed about any aircraft departing to Venezuela recently.

"If any operation of that kind is underway, we'd report it in a few hours. This is our regular procedure. As you can see for now, no reports about any activity regarding Venezuela have occurred. So I would recommend you to dismiss these reports as rumours," Sherstyukov suggested.

"Don't quote some obscure sources, quote the Russian Defense Ministry's official spokespeople only," he said.

Eugeny Plinsky, another Defence Ministry press officer, also said he has not heard about any flights to Venezuela operated by the Russian air force recently.

The comments in relation to the news suggest it could be another bogus story aimed at undermining Maduro's image outside Venezuela, said the Director of the Center for Latin American studies Yegor Lidovskoy.

"In a view of the Venezuelan opposition, any ties between Nicolas Maduro and Moscow are the kiss of death. They need to prove that Maduro has been Russia's puppet incapable to rule the country without Moscow's military backup," he explained.

The most recent visit of the Russian warplanes to Venezuela officially confirmed by Moscow happened in December 2018 when a Tu-160 White Swan strategic bomber had landed in Caracas for a two-day stay.

Source: TRT World