A new Cuban missile crisis? Russia eyes bomber bases in Latin America

It could be bluffing or it might be payback – Russia says it's 'ready to fly' bombers to Venezuela and Cuba.

By , Contributor

MOSCOW – A top Russian military official has confirmed that the Kremlin is thinking of parking some of its strategic bombers in Cuba or Venezuela, within easy range of the continental United States.

That's just one of several options currently under discussion in Moscow that, if carried out, would see Russia's armed forces take up positions around the world on a scale unseen since the cold war ended almost two decades ago.

Venezuelan President Hugo "Chavez has proposed to us a whole island with an airfield that we can use for temporary basing of strategic bombers," Maj. Gen. Anatoly Zhikharev, chief of Russia's strategic aviation forces, told journalists on Saturday.

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"There are four or five airfields in Cuba with 4,000-meter-long runways, which absolutely suit us," he added. "If the two chiefs of state display such a political will, we are ready to fly there."

In late 2007 Russia resumed its cold war-era bomber patrols along the North American coast, using lumbering 1950s-vintage turboprop Tu-95 Bear bombers as well as a few needle-nosed supersonic Tu-160s, which were introduced in the 1980s.

But Russian generals complain that in the absence of refueling and maintenance facilities in the western hemisphere, the planes are able to remain as little as half an hour on station before beginning the long flight back to their bases in Russia.

As the Monitor reported recently (see story here), two Tu-160s visited Venezuela last September as part of joint war games that included a large flotilla of Russian warships and a visit to the region by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Last week, the two Georgian breakaway statelets of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose de facto independence was established by Russian military intervention against Georgia last summer, offered long-term leases for the construction of Russian military bases on their territory. South Ossetia has offered basing rights to Moscow for 99 years, while Akhazia says it is ready to lease facilities for 49 years. Russian media reports suggest those bases, housing thousands of troops and naval facilities on the Black Sea, are likely to be completed by year`s end.

The two statelets' self-declared independence has been recognized only by Russia and Nicaragua, while Georgia, with the support of most Western countries, insists that it has full sovereignty over the territories under international law.

"Russian troops are the only factor supporting the independence of South Ossetia, which is why they should stay there for a long time," Alexander Khramchikhin, an expert at the independent Institute for Military and Political Analysis, told the Moscow daily Novye Izvestia last week.

And Moscow has recently been in talks with former Soviet allies about re-establishing cold war-era naval bases at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam and Tartus in Syria (see the Monitor's recent story here) as well as taking steps to beef up its own regional security alliance with several countries of the ex-USSR.

But some experts suggest that the noises coming out of Moscow about basing nuclear bombers in Cuba or Venezuela could be just a propaganda gimmick in advance of forthcoming US-Russian negotiations for a new strategic accord (story on treaty discussions here).

"Talking about building Russian bases near the US is a good way to get Washington's attention, and drive home the point that this is exactly what they've been doing to us for years," says Irina Zvigelskaya, an expert with the independent Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Moscow.

She says that Moscow still has an institutional memory of the stinging diplomatic defeat suffered by the USSR in 1962, after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev deployed medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, and no one in the Kremlin today is likely to repeat that mistake. But for Moscow, she adds, US intentions to station strategic anti-missile weapons near Russia's borders and the continuing Washington-backed drive to include Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, are seen as similar encroachments on Russia's strategic comfort zone.

"We are hopefully going to see some rethinking of the US-Russian relationship, and so we are positioning our arguments. The talk of basing Russian bombers in Cuba is more of a bargaining ploy than a real plan," Ms. Zvigelskaya says.

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