SIMON ROMERO / CLIFFORD J. LEVY
The New York Times
September 09, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela — Chafing at the reactivation in recent weeks of an American naval fleet in Latin American waters, President Hugo Chávez said Sunday that Venezuela could engage in naval exercises with Russian ships in the Caribbean before the end of the year.
Mr. Chávez’s words echoed news reports here over the weekend that four warships with as many as 1,000 sailors from Russia’s Pacific Fleet could take part in a training exercise in November off Venezuela’s coast. Salvatore Cammarata Bastidas, Venezuela’s chief of naval intelligence, said the exercises were aimed at strengthening military ties.
Russian officials confirmed on Monday that Russian naval ships, including the nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Peter the Great and the anti-submarine ship Admiral Chabanenko, will dock in Venezuela by the end of the year.
The ships will engage in joint exercises with Venezuelan warships in the Atlantic Ocean, Russian Navy Assistant Commander Capt. Igor Dygalo told the Interfax news agency on Monday. “The ships will have joint maneuvers, practice search and rescue at sea and check communications," he said.
Anatoly Nesterenko, a Russian foreign ministry spokesman, said, “The temporary deployment of Russian Navy anti-sub aircraft at an air field in that country is also planned.”
He said the operations were not a reaction to the tensions between the United States and Russia over Georgia. “This is a planned operation, and is not in any way connected to current political events, nor to the situation in the Caucasus,” he said.
“These exercises will in no way be directed against the interests of a third country.”
But Mr. Chávez made clear he had the United States in mind when discussing the joint naval operations. “Go ahead and squeal, Yanquis,” Mr. Chávez said in a mocking tone on his Sunday television program, adding, “Russia’s naval fleet is welcome here.” But Mr. Chávez qualified his remarks by saying that planning for the maneuvers was in the “preparation phase,” pending decisions by the Russian government.
After the war in Georgia, the Kremlin has expressed increasing frustration over the presence of NATO and American ships in the Black Sea. On Saturday, after an American ship delivered humanitarian aid to Georgia at its Black Sea port of Poti, President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia suggested that the United States was encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence.
A few days before the conflict in Georgia, Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, announced that Russia would bolster its relations with Cuba, Venezuela’s top ally. But Russian officials at the same time denied that they would deploy military hardware there.
Venezuela has gone out of its way to strengthen relations with Russia. In addition to welcoming Russian investment, Mr. Chávez has emerged as a major buyer of Russian arms. Last month, he also backed Russia’s recognition of two Georgian breakaway regions.
Mr. Chávez has framed his warming to Russia within his government’s concern over the reactivation in July of the United States Navy’s Fourth Fleet in Latin American waters after a five-decade lull.
Simon Romero reported from Caracas, and Clifford J. Levy from Moscow. Ellen Barry contributed reporting from Moscow.