Two Russian aircraft have landed in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, offloading cargoes of troops and military equipment.
It's President Putin's latest play on the world stage, after blindsiding the US with its intervention in Syria and Ukraine.
Venezuela is in crisis.
Its currency is virtually worthless as hyperinflation spins out of control. Basic foodstuffs and medicine are simply not available. Law and order is breaking down, with its fishing fleets turning to piracy in the Caribbean. A mass exodus of its population is underway to neighbouring countries.
The US State Department has openly backed opposition leader Juan Guaido. But President Nicolas Maduro maintains control over the military.
In January, Guaido declared himself interim president, saying Maduro's re-election last year was rigged. Maduro alleges that Guaido is a collaborator in a US-directed plot to overthrow him.
The arrival of Russian troops — accompanied by Chief of Staff of Russian Ground Forces Vasily Tonkoshkurov — is set to strengthen Maduro's position significantly. It poses a major diplomatic and military upset for any US plans to intervene on Guaido's behalf.
The Russian aircraft arrived in Caracas on the weekend as part of "ongoing military co-operation" between the two allies, a Venezuelan official said overnight.
Russian military officials and troops are visiting to discuss equipment maintenance and training, and strategy, the official told local media on condition of anonymity.
Moscow has previously stated its intention to prevent "provocations" in Venezuela.
"We are very much concerned that the US could carry out any provocations to shed blood, to find a cause and reasons for an intervention in Venezuela," Close Putin ally and leader of the Russian upper house of parliament Valentina Matvienko told Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez during a recent visit to Moscow. "But we will do all in order not to allow this."
Now, the presence of a Russian 'force on the ground' threatens to confound any international efforts to restore order to the collapsing country.
And it's not the first time Moscow has signalled its support for President Maduro, who has rejected demands from the United States and dozens of other countries that he resign.
In December, two nuclear-capable Tu-160 strategic bombers were sent to Venezuela as a highly visible demonstration of Russia's ability to intervene.
United States officials and members of government expressed concern at discussions between Moscow and Caracas about the potential establishment of a Russian military air base on a Venezuelan island.
It's a scenario that evokes memories of the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s.
Now, President Putin has taken another bold step.
Troops fly in
Russia says it is concerned that the US is considering military intervention in Venezuela, with President Putin criticising US support for Guaido.
The US says it is focusing on economic and diplomatic efforts to oust Maduro, though President Trump has said "all options are on the table".
Last week, US and Russian officials met in Rome to discuss the crisis but remained split on how to resolve it.
Now, things have just become a whole lot more complicated.
Analysts noted a Russian air force plane apparently headed to Caracas while flying across the Caribbean on Saturday night. The Ilyushin IL-62 passenger and cargo jet had flown from Moscow via Syria, where Russia supports President Bashar Al-Assad.
News and social media pictures confirm the aircraft are on the ground at Simon Bolivar outside Caracas.
Venezuelan reporter Javier Mayorca tweeted that the first plane carried Tonkoshkurov, chief of staff of the ground forces, and up to 100 troops. The second was a cargo plane carrying 35 tonnes of material.
"In the presidential box of the airport, they were met by the head of the department of international relations (the Venezuelan army), Vice-Admiral Marianni Mata, representatives of the Russian embassy and the Venezuelan armed forces," said Majorca on Twitter.
Russian Government-owned news service Sputnik quoted an unnamed source as saying the flights carried officials to "exchange consultations" with Venezuelan authorities.
"Russia has various contracts that are in the process of being fulfilled, contracts of a technical military character," Sputnik cited a source as saying.
Game of thrones
Last week, President Maduro said Russia had promised another immediate shipment of humanitarian aid to the country. Some 300 tonnes of supplies have already been delivered by Moscow in February.
Washington, however, late last week issued new sanctions against Caracas's oil industry. National Security Adviser John Bolton declared on Twitter: "To those who are helping send the Venezuelan people's wealth out of the country to benefit Maduro and his cronies, you are on notice today that the United States is watching."
While the US has sent aid convoys to the Colombia-Venezuela border, they have been blocked by teargas-wielding border police. Bolton also sparked international concern in February when he — apparently carelessly — held a notepad out in plain sight to media with the words "5000 troops to the border" during an address on the crisis.
- With AP