Cold war echo: Russian military maneuvers with Venezuela

Russia sent two long-range bombers to Venezuela Wednesday and will send warships and soldiers for joint exercises in November.

Jorge Silva

The last time a Russian Navy ship plied the azure waters of the Caribbean for major joint maneuvers with an anti-US country was during the cold war.

But in a move out of Cuban leader Fidel Castro's historical playbook, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez announced this week that his nation will host four Russian warships and 1,000 troops in November for joint military exercises.

That was followed Wednesday by the arrival in Venezuela of two Russian long-range bombers.

Although Latin American leaders so far have shrugged off the moves as another act of bravado in Mr. Chávez's push against what he calls "Yankee hegemony," some diplomats and US officials see the potential for real trouble.

The US typically ignores the leftist leader's angry tirades, and is playing down the news.

Still, an extensive military relationship between Venezuela and Russia could heighten tensions and signal the start of a new regional cold war.

"This is a risky step that could provoke the US," says retired Navy Vice Admiral and former Vice Minister of Defense Rafael Huizi Clavier. "Any incident, any error, could bring problems." This week, Russia announced that it will send a naval squadron, including the nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great, as well as long-range patrol planes for the upcoming joint exercises with Venezuela.

On Wednesday, two Russian strategic bombers landed in Venezuela for training. Russian officials say they will leave in four days.

Commenting on the deployment, Mr. Chávez dismissed comparisons to the cold war, but said he had hopes of flying one of the Russian planes.

Addressing Mr. Castro, the Cuban leader is a close friend and mentor, Chávez said: "I'm going to fly a Tu-160. Fidel, I'm going to fly low past you there."

The announcements, and the arrival of Russian bombers, come as Venezuela has stepped up military purchases from Russia, including fighter jets, helicopters, and Kalashnikov rifles.

And it's not just Russia that Venezuela has become close to.

Venezuela has developed political and commercial alliances with China, Cuba, and Iran, three key US competitor. China is helping Chávez put a communications satellite in orbit this year.

"The objective is clear: to tell the world 'we are sovereign,' " says Hector Herrera, a retired lieutenant colonel of the National Guard and founder of the Bolivarian Civic Military Front, a pro-Chávez organization that works on security and defense issues. "Venezuela is a free and sovereign nation and can have friends and enemies."

US-Russian ties grow tense

The joint military exercises come at a time of tension between the US and Moscow, after the two went head-to-head over the brief war between Georgia – an ex-Soviet republic – and Russia last month.

The US has pushed for Georgia to enter NATO, and US plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe are seen as a threat by Russia.

Russia has denied the latest moves with Venezuela are a tit-for-tat response to the recent deployment of US warships to the Black Sea.

Mervin Rodriguez, head of the International Studies department at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, says that the move to align so explicitly with Russia at this time could be perceived as "taking sides."

Historically, he says, Venezuela has taken on a pacifist and neutral position in world affairs, maintaining official neutrality for most of World War II.

Politically, the announcement pays off for both Russia and Venezuela. "This is probably a mutual thing," says Robert Work, the vice president for strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "Russia was upset that US and NATO were moving into what they consider their near abroad [with Georgia]. And anything Chávez can do to vex the Americans is a good thing from his perspective."

Chávez also sends a message to the US that he has outside support if the US attempts an invasion, a notion the socialist leader has claimed since the US tacitly supported a 2002 coup that briefly ousted him from power.

Claims of US intimidation in the region grew recently with the US Navy reactivation of its Fourth Fleet, more than 50 years after it was disbanded, to conduct missions in the Caribbean.

Pushing for a multi-polar world

The Russian Navy visit likely is meant as a response to the US reactivating the Navy fleet, says Steve Ellner, the Venezuela-based author of "Rethinking Venezuelan Politics."

"Chávez has, from the beginning, very clearly pushed this idea of a multipolar world in response to US domination," says Mr. Ellner. "So this move is not inconsistent and not surprising."

But taking Russia's side doesn't necessarily serve Venezuela's interests, some analysts say. It runs contrary to the South American country's past neutrality. "That language of multipolarity contradicts our foreign policy," says Mr. Rodriguez. "It's a fallacy. Now we are simply becoming followers of one side. Just as we criticize the Fourth Fleet."

On his weekly Sunday TV show, Chávez attempted to play down the geopolitical angle, focusing on supporting the work of a "strategic ally."

That position was reiterated by his administration. "The objective is to unify the ties of friendship and cooperation between both navies," said Salbatore Cammarata Bastidas, the head of naval intelligence for Venezuela, according to a statement on the Information Ministry website.

But the geopolitical message is clear, says Larry Birns, the director of the left-leaning Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "The new patterns of military relationships [in Latin America] are a function of the drift away of Latin America from the US," says Mr. Birns.

That no one seemed riled in the region is even more proof, says Mr. Birns.

"After all these years," he says, "it is not pariah nations that have become isolated; it's Washington."

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