A Russian warship will sail through the Panama Canal this week for the first time since World War II, the navy announced Wednesday, pushing ahead with a symbolic projection of Moscow’s power in a traditional U.S. zone of influence.
The destroyer Admiral Chabanenko will arrive Friday at a former U.S. naval base in Panama’s Pacific port of Balboa for a six-day visit after carrying out joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan navy in the Caribbean Sea, navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo said in a telephone interview.
The Panama Canal has long been a symbol of U.S. clout in Latin America, and Dygalo said no Soviet or Russian military ship has sailed through it since World War II. The wartime alliance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union swiftly gave way to the mistrust, military buildups and proxy conflicts of the Cold War.
In a throwback to those times, the Russian navy statement announcing the plans referred to the base the Admiral Chabanenko will visit as Rodman naval base — its name when it was a U.S. base many years ago.
Rodman was the hub for all U.S. naval activities in South America and supported fleet units transiting the 50-mile (80-kilometer) canal. But control of the facility shifted to Panama a decade ago, and it is now called the Balboa naval base.
Show of Kremlin anger?
Monday’s joint maneuvers with Venezuela, which brought the Admiral Chabanenko and the nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great across the Atlantic along with two support ships, were widely seen as a show of Kremlin anger over the U.S. use of warships to deliver aid to Georgia after its August war with Russia.
Russian warships tailed U.S. ships in the Black Sea, where Russia borders Georgia, on that mission.
The Russian squadron’s voyage to Venezuela was Russia’s first such deployment to the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War era, aimed to showcase the Kremlin’s global reach and reassert its claim to great-power status. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a staunch U.S. foe.
U.S. officials dismiss show of force
The voyage coincided with a trip to Latin America late last month by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who visited four nations in what he acknowledged was an effort to raise Moscow’s profile in a region he said it has long neglected.
U.S. officials have mocked the Russian show of force, saying that the Russian navy is a shadow of Moscow’s Soviet-era fleet and suggesting that the U.S. retains far more influence in the region than Russia.
“Are they accompanied by tugboats this time?” U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack joked to reporters in Washington last week ahead of the Russian ships’ arrival off Venezuela.
Dygalo would not say where the Peter the Great, which led the Russian squadron, would be located while the destroyer visits the Panama base.