MOSCOW — A Russian Air Force chief said Saturday that the country could base some strategic bombers in Cuba or on an island offered by Venezuela, the Interfax news agency reported, but a Kremlin official quickly said the military had been speaking only hypothetically.
The U.S. and Russia have been trying to reset their relationship, severely strained over U.S. plans to position missile defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic and by Russia's invasion of U.S. ally Georgia last year.
Russia has nothing to gain strategically from basing long-range craft within relatively short range of U.S. shores, independent military analyst Alexander Golts said, calling the military statement a retaliatory gesture aimed at hitting back after U.S. ships patrolled Black Sea waters near Georgia.
The chief of staff of Russia's long range aviation, Maj. Gen. Anatoly Zhikharev, was quoted by Interfax as saying Saturday that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had offered "a whole island with an airdrome, which we can use as a temporary base for strategic bombers."
"If there is a corresponding political decision, then the use of the island ... by the Russian Air Force is possible," Zhikharev was quoted as saying.
Interfax reported he said earlier that Cuba has air bases with four or five runways long enough for the huge bombers and could be used to host the long-range planes.
Officials at both Venezuela's presidential administration and Defense Ministry refused immediate comment on Zhikharev's reported remarks. Cuban government officials could not be reached.
But Alexei Pavlov, a Kremlin official, told The Associated Press that "the military is speaking about technical possibilities, that's all. If there will be a development of the situation, then we can comment," he said.
Mike Hammer, spokesman for President Barack Obama's National Security Council, said, "We do not comment on hypotheticals."
Venezuela and Cuba, traditionally fierce U.S. foes, have close political and energy relations with Russia, which has been working to reassert itself as a military force. Russia resumed long-range bomber patrols in 2007 after a 15-year hiatus.
Venezuela hosted two Russian Tu-160 bombers in September for training flights and later joined Russian warships for exercises in the Caribbean.
Cuba has never permanently hosted Russian or Soviet aircraft, though Soviet short-range bombers often made stopovers there during the Cold War.
In the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet nuclear missiles stationed in Cuba pushed the world to the brink of nuclear conflict after U.S. President John F. Kennedy announced their presence to the world. After a tense week of diplomacy, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev removed the missiles.
Golts, the military analyst, said basing Russian bombers in Venezuela or Cuba "has no military sense. The bombers don't need any base."
He said the bombers are considered strategic because they are capable of reaching an attacking range of the United States from Russia without the need for stopovers.
"This is just a retaliatory gesture," he said, adding that Russia wanted to hit back after U.S. ships patrolled Black Sea waters.
U.S. plans initiated under former President George W. Bush to put elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic had particularly irked Russia, although the United States insists they are intended to counter potential future threats from Iran.
Russia has welcomed Obama's apparently more cautious approach to the divisive issue.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva earlier this month to push a symbolic red "reset" button, another sign of the desire for a clean slate.
Cuban authorities made no comment last summer when a Moscow newspaper reported that Russia could send nuclear bombers to the island. While neither confirming nor denying the report, ailing former President Fidel Castro at the time praised his brother President Raul Castro for maintaining a "dignified silence" on the report and said that Cuba was not obligated to offer the U.S. an explanation.
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