Russian warships sailed into port in Venezuela on Tuesday in a show of strength as Moscow seeks to counter U.S. influence in Latin America.
Russia's first such deployment in the Caribbean since the Cold War is timed to coincide with President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Venezuela, the first ever by a Russian president.
Russian sailors dressed in black-and-white uniforms lined up along the bow of the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko as it docked in La Guaira, near Caracas, and Venezuelan troops greeted them with cannons in a 21-gun salute.Two support vessels also docked, and the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great, Russia's largest ship, anchored offshore.
Chavez, basking in the support of a powerful ally and traditional U.S. rival, wants Russian help to build a nuclear reactor, invest in oil and natural gas projects and bolster his leftist opposition to U.S. influence in the region.
He also wants weapons — Venezuela has bought more than $4 billion in Russian arms, including Sukhoi fighter jets, helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, and more deals for Russian tanks or other weaponry may be discussed after Medvedev arrives Wednesday.
Russia's ambitions in Latin America, however, may be checked by global events. Both Venezuela and Russia are feeling the pinch of slumping oil prices, and their ability to be major benefactors for like-minded leaders is in doubt given the pressures of the world's financial crisis.
The deployment of the naval squadron is widely seen as a demonstration of Kremlin anger over the U.S. decision to send warships to deliver aid to Georgia after its battles with Russia, and over U.S. plans for a European missile-defense system.
Russia sent two strategic bombers to Venezuela in September for a visit that drew comparisons to the Soviet Union's deployments to Cuba during the Cold War. 'Not a provocation'
But Moscow has also shown signs of trying to engage President-elect Barack Obama.
Chavez: No Cold War comparison
And Chavez told reporters Monday night that it's ludicrous to compare the upcoming naval exercises to a Cold War-type scenario.
"It's not a provocation. It's an exchange between two free countries," Chavez said.
Their ambitions may be checked by global events. Both Venezuela and Russia are feeling the pinch of slumping oil prices, and their ability to be major benefactors for like-minded leaders is in doubt given the pressures of the world's financial crisis.
The maneuvers starting Dec. 1 "should be viewed largely as a propaganda exercise," said Anna Gilmour, an analyst at Jane's Intelligence Review.
"Pragmatic Russian policy suggests that it will content itself with a brief high-profile visit, rather than a longer-term deployment that could cause severe tensions with the U.S., at a time when Russia may be looking to re-engage with the new administration," she said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack mocked the exercises, noting that Russia's navy is but a shadow of its Soviet-era fleet and reasserting U.S. dominance in the region. "Are they accompanied by tugboats this time?" he joked to reporters in Washington.
"I don't think there's any question about ... who the region looks to in terms of political, economic, diplomatic and as well as military power," McCormack said. "If the Venezuelans and the Russians want to have, you know, a military exercise, that's fine. But we'll obviously be watching it very closely."
'Simple, routine exercises'
Two of the Russian ships appeared on the horizon Tuesday morning off La Guaira, near Caracas, and one of them — the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko — docked at port while Venezuelan soldiers fired off cannons in a 21-gun salute. Russians sailors dressed in black-and-white uniforms lined up along the bow. The Peter the Great remained out of sight.
Next week, the warships will participate in "very simple, routine exercises," Gen. Jesus Gonzalez said, allowing sailors to practice reconnaissance, patrol, anti-terrorism and search and rescue operations.
Medvedev's tour this week to Peru, Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba was planned before the financial crisis, and Russia must now downsize its ambitions in Latin America because its pockets are no longer so deep, said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs Magazine.
"Russia will have to put off big projects like the construction of a gas pipeline across South America," Lukyanov said. The proposed natural gas pipeline is Chavez's brainchild, a controversial and ambitious plan for which he has explored Russian investment.
But Russia still has an economic interest in selling more weapons and boosting business in Latin America, and Venezuela can help "open the doors," noted Venezuelan political scientist Ricardo Sucre Heredia.
"It's a win-win relationship for the two countries," Sucre said. "Russia gains in terms of its international power and its presence, and Venezuela gains in terms of having an ally."