November 26, 2008
The visits by Russia's president and the nation's warships to Venezuela mark a convergence of interests between two oil-producing nations.
CARACAS -- Venezuela fired a 21-gun artillery salute Tuesday as Russian warships made their first trip to this South American nation since the Cold War ended.
Protocol officials will have little time to rest, for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev arrives Wednesday for the first visit by a top Russian leader. Medvedev, who left for Venezuela from Brazil, where he signed accords to increase ties in aerospace, nuclear and defense industries, will visit Cuba on Thursday.
It was a long journey for the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko, which docked at La Guaira port, near Caracas' international airport, and Peter the Great, a nuclear-powered cruiser and one of Russia's biggest vessels, which anchored offshore. Along with two other vessels, they traveled two months from their home port near Murmansk, Russia.
The visits by the warships and Medvedev mark a convergence of interests between two oil-producing nations -- both of which want to be taken more seriously by the rest of the world, but especially by the United States.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been trying to muscle his way onto the world stage and loves to tweak ''the Empire,'' as he calls the United States.
U.S. officials weren't concerned.
''I don't think a few Russian ships in the Caribbean with the Venezuelans is really going to raise anybody's eyebrows,'' said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. Still, he said, ``We'll watch it closely.''
Analysts think Russian leaders are still smarting from the Pentagon's decision to send American warships into the Black Sea, ostensibly to deliver humanitarian supplies to Georgia in September, only weeks after Russia invaded that country.
''Russia is making a point to the United States,'' said Anna Gilmour, a military specialist with Jane's Intelligence Review in London. ``If the United States wants to project its influence in the Russian sphere, then Russia wants to show that it can counteract that.''
Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based military analyst for the online Yezhednevny Zhurnal (Daily Journal), said sending the ships to Venezuela ``makes no military sense.''
''One can hardly imagine any kind of military cooperation between the two navies,'' he said. ``They cannot do anything together.''
Russia's navy continues to be organized along Cold War lines, prepared to engage U.S. aircraft carriers, Golts said.
Venezuela's navy consists of 17 ships, according to Gilmour, and spends most of its time patrolling coastal waters to combat drug trafficking.
The joint exercises will begin Dec. 1 in Caribbean waters. ''The exercises will involve joint sea rescue, maneuvering and artillery firing drills,'' said Viktor Zavarzin, chairman of the Defense Committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, according to the Russian information agency, RIA Novosti.
Gilmour said she thought Russians who learned Spanish to serve in Cuba -- and officials who handled recent arms deals -- would bridge the language gap between the two navies.
Three Chávez trips this year to Russia preceded Medvedev's visit to Venezuela.
Igor Danchenko, a Russian senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution, called the trip a pragmatic effort by Medvedev to meet with Russia's best arms customer in Latin America. Venezuela has purchased $4 billion in Russian weapons since 2005 and would like to buy more, as part of Chávez's ambition to extend his influence.
Only China and India have been bigger buyers lately than Venezuela, said Alexander Pikayev, a military specialist at the Moscow-based Institute for World Economy and International Relations.
Medvedev's visit comes after a flurry of activity between Russia and Cuba that RIA Novosti called a ''trend toward a dizzying improvement'' of relations between the two countries.
''Russia has withdrawn from Latin America, but now it is coming back,'' he said. ``But don't expect massive economic aid to Cuba like before. Russia won't make Soviet mistakes.''
The Soviet Union propped up the Cuban economy for 30 years with billions of dollars in subsidies until it collapsed 20 years ago and the Cold War ended.
''Cuba has reemerged as a priority,'' said Daniel Erikson, a senior associate at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue and the author of The Cuban Wars, published this month. ``Russia has begun to extend credit again.''
The Russian government recently announced that Russian oil companies could soon begin searching for crude in deep Gulf of Mexico waters off Cuba.
Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin visited Cuba this month, using the 10-hour visit to seal a series of deals, including granting Cuba a $335 million credit line. The two countries reached other agreements in nickel, automotive, military and communications.
Russia has offered to advise Cuba on how to improve its defense capabilities.
Medvedev had attended a summit meeting of 21 Pacific Rim nations in Peru. Afterward, he announced Russia would send technicians to train Peruvians how to repair the military's Russian-made helicopters.
Bolivia announced last month it would purchase five Russian civil defense helicopters as the first step to deepen ties between the two countries.
Miami Herald staff writer Frances Robles and Herald translator Renato Pérez contributed to this report.