Large missile launchers appeared stationed on the highway connecting Caracas to its airport, blocked by military personnel coinciding with the return of opposition leader Juan Guaidó to the country, proceeding Lisbon.
The next day, similar teams were spotted at La Carlota airbase in the city centre. Several users on social media sent similar photos that they located in Puerto Cabello, one of the most important coastal locations.
It is an unusual print that caught the attention of many, who set out to comment on the networks.
Also that of Andrei Serbin Point, international analyst and director of the Cries thought center. «This deployment is very rare,» he said.
What it’s all about
Serbin identified the vehicles shown in the photographs as part of a BUK M2E group, a russian-made medium-range anti-aircraft defense system that the Venezuelan army has.
Two other military sources consulted by BBC Mundo distinguished in the photographs vehicles of an S-125 Pechora, another intercept icepting group exported by Russia, older than the M2E.
The BUK was the weapon that shot down a Malaysia Airlines civilian aircraft flying over Ukraine, then mired in a war, killing the 298 people on board.
Both the BUK M2E and S-125 Pechora are attached to the Integral Aerospace Defense Command and form together with the most sophisticated and advanced S-300 the bulk of the anti-aircraft response media of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB).
Although Venezuela also has Swedish-made RBS 70 systems and the French Mistral, these are much more modest and not comparable in capacity and importance to the BUK, Pechora or S-300, the experts note.
Also Russian are the Igla-S, which abound in the FANB, but these are individual portable missile launchers, while the BUK, S-125 and S-300 are made up of several vehicles and radars.
Why Venezuela has them
Russian anti-aircraft systems were delivered to Venezuela between 2011 and 2014.
According to data from the Stockholm International Institute for Peace Studies (Sipri), Venezuela received three units of the S-300, three from the Buk M2A and eleven from the S-125.
The S-125 is no longer manufactured. Venezuela acquired used equipment that was modernized prior to delivery.
The purchase of these and other teams was the result of then-President Hugo Chavez’s alliance with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, with which he built a relationship with which he wanted to counter American dominance in Latin America and which still stands.
As a result, it was also the addition to the Venezuela Chavista arsenal of Su-30Mk2 fighters, according to experts, a model capable of competing with NATO’s most advanced fighter jets thanks to its firepower, maneuverability and performance.
On his recent visit to Caracas, Russian Chancellor Sergey Lavrov reaffirmed that military cooperation is a priority area in relations between the two countries.
«It is important to develop our technical-military cooperation capacity to increase our friends’ ability to defend against these threats from the outside,» Lavrov said.
It was interpreted as a message to the United States, which recognizes Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela and has not ruled out an intervention to evict Nicolás Maduro from power in Venezuela.
In recent months several aircraft with Russian personnel landed in Caracas, although it was never officially reported what their mission was.
The acquisition of these equipment involved the collaboration of another preferred military partner, Belarus, where the Venezuelan military received the courses to manage them.
How effective they are
«We’re really talking about systems that would put the most modern air force in a bind and that no other Latin American army has,» says Serbin Point.
«The United States did not want Russia to sell them to Syria, which gives an idea of their potential,» the expert adds.
Capable of tracking more than a hundred targets simultaneously, the S-300 is considered in the military industry world as one of the most complete and advanced long-range surface-to-air missile systems.
Something older, the BUK M2E is still valued.
But experts doubt the operability of the units Venezuela bought. «In recent years Venezuelans have suffered the desertion of much of the staff who could operate them,» Serbin Point said.
According to a Venezuelan military command that asked not to be identified, «they are now not optimal due to neglect, and lack of planning and economic resources.»
Venezuela’s endowments are also thought to be more modest than those handled by the Russian armed forces.
An S-300 system typically consists of four heavy vehicles. One of them is equipped with a long-distance radar and a second has a radar for tracking targets.
A third command vehicle receives and processes radar information. Finally, the missile launcher is mounted on a quarter.
However, in Caracas these days none of these groups have been seen in full.
«A battalion is usually made up of six groups with these four vehicles, while in the case of Venezuela it is estimated that it has only groups of, at most, three,» says Serbin Point.
Why they were there
The government did not report on the reasons for the deployment of the systems in the country’s capital and on the highway leading to its airport, although Nicolás Maduro announced that on February 15 and 16, the military exercises «Bolivarian Shield 2020» will be held , with which to prepare in the face of hypothetical external aggressions.
On August 5, 2018, a drone exploded while Maduro presided over a military parade in Caracas and the year before, in 2017, a group of policemen attacked the headquarters of the Supreme Court by helicopter.
On April 30, 2019, Juan Guaidó was accompanied by a group of armed guards alongside the La Carlota base and announced the «end of the usurpation» of Maduro, ushering in a day of violence between groups of government detractors and security forces.
Serbin says, «We’ll probably never know what happened this week, but it’s possible that intelligence had some information that would make a similar episode scary.»
Although the coincidence with Guaidó’s return to Venezuela after an international tour in which he gained the support of, among others, the United States, and the military deployment that closed access to the airport in the hours before his arrival, led many to suspect an alleged intimidating intent, including the military man who did not want to give his name.