U.S. shrugs as Russian ships, president visit Venezuela

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 25, 2008 

CARACAS, Venezuela — 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, however, will have little time to rest, for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev arrives on Wednesday — the first visit by a top Russian leader.

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 U.S.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been trying to muscle his way onto the world stage and loves to tweak "the Empire," as he calls the U.S.

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 added, "We'll watch it closely."

Analysts think that 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."

However, 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, the 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.

Medvedev is coming to Venezuela after Chavez has made three trips this year to Russia.

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 Chavez's ambition to extend his influence.

Only China and India have been bigger buyers than Venezuela lately, 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 oil 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, who was scheduled to arrive here from Brazil where he signed accords to increase ties in aerospace, nuclear and defense industries, heads to Cuba on Thursday.

He had also attended a summit meeting of 21 Pacific Rim nations in Peru. Afterward, he announced that Russia would send technicians to Peru to train Peruvians how to repair the military's Russian-made helicopters.

Bolivia announced last month that it would purchase five Russian civil defense helicopters as the first step to deepen ties between the two countries.

But with the expected souring of Venezuela's economy with the collapse of oil prices, it isn't clear that Chavez can continue his own spending spree

"At some point, Chavez will have to decide whether he wants to keep buying tanks and Kalashnikovs or decide to build new schools and hospitals," said Alex Sanchez, a research fellow at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs who's studied Russia's activities in Latin America. "Chavez will probably be forced to choose the social projects."

(Miami Herald special correspondent Renato Perez contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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