September 27, 2008
CARACAS -- For the first time since the end of the Cold War, a Russian naval task force is on its way to this region, in what Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chávez -- who this week visited Moscow for the second time in less than two months -- claims is a sign of a burgeoning ''strategic alliance'' between the two nations.
Some of Venezuela's neighbors are none too pleased. But analysts argue that this is more a marriage of convenience between two countries that, for different reasons, want to irritate the United States.
The task force, headed by the flagship of Russia's northern fleet -- the nuclear-powered heavy cruiser Peter the Great -- left the Barents Sea port of Severomorsk on Sept. 22. It is expected to arrive in Venezuelan waters at the end of November for joint military exercises.
Earlier this month, two Russian strategic bombers visited Venezuela, in what Chávez described as a ''warning'' to Washington. Moscow, however, has insisted in public that these military moves are, ``not aimed at any third country.''
That is disingenuous, according to Oksana Antonenko, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, who said the Russians want to send a message.
''Chávez is being used to irritate the Americans,'' Antonenko said. ``It is mostly for domestic consumption. The message is, if the U.S. is going to mess around in our neighborhood, we're going to mess around in theirs.''
The reference is to the presence of U.S. naval vessels in the Black Sea, following Russia's intervention last month in Georgia, which brought relations between Moscow and Washington to a new post-Cold War low. Venezuela has strongly supported the Russian position over Georgia's breakaway, pro-Moscow provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The Bush administration responded with derision to the planned naval maneuvers, casting doubt on the ability of the Russian vessels even to reach Venezuela. It is a view shared by Antonenko.
''Russia's capability to project power is very limited,'' she told The Miami Herald in a telephone interview. ``It really needs to buy a new navy to be able to do this sort of thing properly.''
Russia last had a military presence in the Caribbean prior to 2001, when the then-president (now prime minister) Vladimir Putin ordered the closure of the Lourdes electronic surveillance base in Cuba. The move was welcomed by Washington at the time as evidence that Russia was no longer its adversary.
But while few in the western hemisphere are concerned about renewed Russian expansionism, some of Venezuela's neighbors are concerned about his courtship of Moscow.
Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos said this week that his country was ''analyzing'' the situation and was not ''indifferent'' to the Russian presence.
The Colombians' concern arises partly from a long-standing bilateral dispute with Venezuela over maritime limits between the two countries, and the possibility that the planned joint naval maneuvers might not respect Colombian territorial waters.
Meanwhile, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil is also said to be uneasy. His concern, according to press reports, is that an increasingly belligerent Chávez is dragging the region into a big-power dispute in which it has nothing to gain.
''Lula's frustration with Chávez (over Russia) is precisely because this ups the ante in terms of needling the United States,'' said Michael Shifter, vice-president for policy of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington D.C. think-tank.
Shifter says Lula is particularly sensitive because of Chávez's interference in the political crisis in Bolivia, where Brazil has important interests. Rather than fostering dialogue, Chávez has sought to use the crisis -- for which he blames U.S. ''imperialism,'' as an excuse to bash Washington.
The Venezuelan leader, who expelled U.S. ambassador Patrick Duddy earlier this month, also accuses the Bush administration of seeking to kill him and topple his government. Part of the official rationale for inviting the Russian military to Venezuela is the resurrection by Washington of the U.S. Navy's Fourth Fleet, which had been disbanded in 1950.
The Navy gave it headquarters in Mayport, Florida -- but no new warships or other vessels. Still, the idea of a command staff coordinating regional training exercises and humanitarian missions in the waters south of the border has stoked suspicions in some already leery quarters of Latin America.
While the Pentagon has portrayed the return of the fleet as administrative, Chávez and his regional allies see it as part of a U.S. plan to meddle more directly in the region, in response to the election of a number of left wing presidents in recent years.
''In Venezuela there is a revolution under way,'' he declared at a military parade in July, ``which not even the Fourth Fleet, with which the empire wants to scare us, will be able to stop.''
As Chávez has ratcheted up the anti-imperialist rhetoric in recent years, the United States has responded by blocking sales of military equipment to Venezuela. The leftist president has consequently begun using his considerable oil wealth to purchase hardware in other countries, particularly Russia.
Total Russian arms sales to Venezuela in the past two years are put by Russian sources at $4.4 billion. And in Moscow this week, Chávez secured a $1 billion credit to purchase yet more weapons, the Associated Press reported.
Big-ticket items so far delivered include 24 Sukhoi-30 fighter-bombers, several dozen military helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles.
He has also sought to cement the relationship by offering Russia's state-owned oil and gas corporations a slice of Venezuela's huge energy business.
Putin greeted Chávez on Thursday and vowed to make relations with Latin America a top Russian foreign and economic policy priority. He offered to discuss further arms sales to Venezuela and possibly help it develop nuclear energy.
The nations' energy ministers signed a memorandum calling for the establishment of a body that would oversee broader cooperation in oil and gas between the energy-rich nations. Russia's gas corporation Gazprom has invested $100 million in Venezuela, Gazprom chief Alexei Miller said on television after the signing.
Despite this week's friendly reception, Antonenko cast Venezuela's friendship as ultimately expendable -- and predicted Russia will in the end reach an agreement with the United States.
''It's a thousand times more important,'' she said, for Russia, ``to have good relations with the United States than with Venezuela.''