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
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
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
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
Ariel Cohen is
senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the