Russia held joint naval exercises with Venezuela late last year to demonstrate its growing strategic reach and political clout, particularly in Latin America, which many consider the traditional U.S. sphere of influence.
Provocative? Yes. But Washington and Moscow have restrained the verbal squabbling. Many observers take that as a sign that both sides hope for improved bilateral relations under the new Obama administration.
In the wake of Russia's invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia in the Caucasus last August, U.S. warships delivered humanitarian aid to the Georgian Black Sea ports. In response, Russia sent its own naval messengers to the Caribbean shores of Venezuela, America's key regional foe in the Western Hemisphere, for the VenRus-2008 joint exercises that took place Dec. 1-2.
For the maneuvers, Moscow dispatched 1,600 naval infantry (marines) aboard the nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great, the anti-submarine destroyer Admiral Chabanenko and two support ships -- the tanker Ivan Bubnov and an SB-406 rescue tug -- just in case.
According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Venezuela provided 12 ships: three frigates -- the F-21 Mariscal Sucre, F-22 Almirante Brion, and F-24 General Soublette -- a tank landing ship and eight patrol ships as well as a squadron of Sukhoi Su-30MK2V -- NATO designation Flanker -- fighter planes and 700 marines.
According to the Russian navy chief commander's spokesman, Capt. Igor Dygalo, the ships practiced joint tactical maneuvers, rescued a vessel in an emergency and refueled in the process.
The maneuvers seemed designed mainly to demonstrate power rather than provide practical defense training.
Retired Vice Adm. Vladimir Komoedov, the former commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and member of the Russian State Duma, told Kommersant that using a heavy missile cruiser and an anti-submarine ship for inspection and rescue operations was a "senseless expense."
In another symbolic move, the Admiral Chabanenko crossed the Panama Canal, the first time a Russian warship had done so since World War II. The destroyer visited Panama's Balboa naval base (a former U.S. naval hub known as Rodman).
As mentioned, Venezuelan Sukhoi fighter jets, purchased from Russia, participated in the air defense component of the exercise.
Today Caracas has passed India and China to become the largest consumer of Russian weapons exports. Since 2005 Venezuela has inked massive arms contracts, exceeding $4.4 billion, to buy radar equipment, Sukhoi-30 aircraft helicopters, tanks, up to 200,000 AK-47 rifles and a factory to build more Kalashnikovs.
Soon Russia will build the first nuclear reactor in Venezuela. This is both dangerous and unnecessary. Venezuela has abundant energy resources such as natural gas and heavy oil to generate electricity. Moreover, it lacks the technological base and expertise to conduct and maintain a viable nuclear program. If Venezuela moves toward a military nuclear program, some fear it may trigger a nuclear arms race in Latin America, similar to what Iran may do in the Middle East.
Still, Moscow and Caracas have divergent geopolitical agendas. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez strives for a "strategic alliance" with Russia to stand together against the United States. Some observers note, however, that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently has been more discreet in his words and deeds aimed at the United States. It seems as though he wants to signal that the Kremlin may be ready for a new page in relations with Washington, as the incoming Obama administration takes the helm. For its part, the United States has largely ignored the naval maneuvers.
Russia's naval maneuvers around the globe will continue. Peter the Great sailed from Venezuela to India, where it will engage in joint exercises this month. The analytical community certainly will monitor these maneuvers carefully. But if Russia refrains from "follow-up" activities, such as opening a permanent Russian base in Venezuela or Cuba -- something Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin already denied -- the naval maneuvers should be regarded as a geopolitical chess move to boost Moscow's bargaining power before engaging in hard-nosed negotiations with the Obama administration eager to practice "soft power," rather than as a threat to international security.
Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared on United Press International