The arrival of a Russian passenger jet in Caracas on Monday evening has set off an avalanche of theories and rumours on Venezuelan social media. Some claim that it brought Russian mercenaries, others that it was there to escort Nicolas Maduro into exile — an opposition lawmaker even said that it was there to carry gold out of the country.
What do we know?
According to publicly available flight tracking data, a passenger plane belonging to Russia’s Nordwind Airlines landed at Caracas Simon Bolivar International Airport in Venezuela on Monday evening. The Boeing 777-200 carrying the registration VP-BJG came directly from Moscow’s Vnukovo airport.
It had previously departed from Phuket, Thailand and was scheduled to land at Sheremetyevo but rerouted to Moscow Vnukovo airport instead.
Photos released by Reuters show the Nordwind Airlines plane parked at Caracas airport. It left to return to Moscow on January 30.
Have gold bars been flown out of the country?
Venezuelan Assembly member Jose Guerra claimed on Tuesday, January 29, in a speech in parliament that he had heard from Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) officials that a Russian plane was meant to transport at least 20 tonnes of gold out of the country.
“We demand the BCV details of what is going on. That gold is not Calixto Ortega’s, it is of the Venezuelan people,” read part of Guerra’s address posted to the The National Assembly’s official Twitter account.
Calixto Ortega is the president of the Central Bank of Venezuela. Guerra provided no evidence to support his claims. Euronews has contacted Guerra for clarification but had not received a response at the time of writing.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed Guerra’s claims that Moscow has tried to move 20 tonnes of gold to Russia, according to TASS. "Russia is prepared to promote a settlement to the political situation in Venezuela without meddling in that country’s internal affairs," he said. "Russia is categorically against any meddling by third countries in Venezuela’s internal affairs."
Venezuelan debt to Russia
Russia is one of Venezuela’s biggest investors with Rosneft — a Russian company and the world's largest publicly traded petroleum firm — having stakes in five onshore oil projects and two gas ones. According to Bloomberg News, the Russian oil company has fed more than $7 billion in Venezuela, largely through loans to be repaid in future crude deliveries.
The Finance Ministry of the Russian Federation said on Tuesday that it expects the next payment at the end of March as scheduled.
Amid the dispute over whether any gold has left Venezuela, another battle is raging about a shipment of the precious metal to the country. The Bank of England has so far refused to release some of the €1 billion in gold it is holding on behalf of the Venezuelan central bank as the US pressures its allies to divert resources towards opposition leader Juan Guaidó.