The arrival of a Russian naval squadron and anti-submarine aircraft in the Caribbean for exercises with the Venezuelan navy next week will mark Moscow’s first significant military deployments in the Western Hemisphere since the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
However, this exercise presents a political rather than a serious military challenge to the United States.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Russians see the exercise as a provocative way to challenge U.S. influence in Latin America and what they describe as Washington’s “unipolar vision.”
It also allows Mr. Chavez to push his accusations of a growing U.S. threat to the region and his notion that Latin American leaders should look elsewhere for security partners.
The United States can’t just continue efforts to isolate Mr. Chavez or dismiss Russia‘s involvement in his dangerous game, particularly a growing arms trade. Countering these trends will require sustained U.S. engagement in hemispheric affairs and new partnerships with our southern neighbors to address common security concerns.
Mr. Chavez and the Russians seem to recognize that their posturing, which played well opposite the Bush administration, will have less traction against a President Obama, who is committed to a new era of activist diplomacy and more nuanced strategies for dealing with the hemisphere and a resurgent Russia.
The day after the U.S. election, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened countermeasures if the U.S. proceeded with construction of missile defenses in Europe. But in a subsequent speech in Washington, he expressed hope that he and Mr. Obama could overcome accumulated problems in bilateral relations.
Mr. Chavez set aside inflammatory rhetoric, at least for a day, and welcomed “a respectful discussion” with the new U.S. president.
The Russians are leveraging their relationship with Mr. Chavez for a larger geopolitical gambit. Moscow wants to put Washington on notice that if the U.S. continues to support neighbors of Russia such as Georgia, which Russia claims as part of an exclusive sphere of influence, it is prepared to intrude in the U.S. backyard.
The fact that the Russian squadron could deploy far from its Barents Sea base is remarkable given the poor state of the Russian navy, illustrated by yet another submarine disaster this month.
While Mr. Medvedev is committed to military modernization, Russia spends about one-tenth what the U.S. does on defense. It will be years before Russia can sustain even such modest long-distance operations.
Russia also has found a client for its arms who can readily pay cash. Since 2005, Mr. Chavez has placed orders for more than $4 billion worth of weapons, including 24 SU-30 multirole combat aircraft, dozens of attack helicopters and 100,000 assault rifles and ammunition.
A Russian firm plans to build two factories by 2010 for licensed production of AK-103 assault rifles and ammunition in Venezuela. The Kremlin recently extended Mr. Chavez an additional $1 billion credit that he may use to acquire anti-aircraft systems, transport aircraft, diesel-powered submarines and armored personnel carriers.
This expanded arsenal could trigger a needless arms race and be used by Mr. Chavez to sow further instability in the region. While Venezuela had long planned to replace 60,000 of its aging FAL rifles, there is concern that many of these older rifles, as well as some of the AK-103s and ammunition, could find their way to FARC insurgents fighting the Colombian government.
To ensure that Latin America remains a zone of relative peace, the Obama administration should work with our neighbors to promote norms that allow countries to procure weapons for legitimate self-defense but not for regional destabilization.
It also could push for ammunition markings to simplify monitoring of smuggling, and for Senate ratification of the 1997 Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials, which most countries in the hemisphere - including Venezuela - already have ratified.
Episodic U.S. engagement in the Western Hemisphere has helped Mr. Chavez’s populist demagoguery gain traction at home and in Bolivia and Nicaragua, and the Bush administration’s efforts to denounce him actually have strengthened his hand.
But Washington’s distraction elsewhere also has encouraged countries in the region to become more self-sufficient in addressing their security needs. Leaders in Brazil, Argentina and Chile have chosen to cooperate on defense and security issues. South American military units are major contributors to the U.N. peace operation in Haiti.
The newly formed South American Cooperation Council (UNASUR) was called upon to defuse a potentially violent situation in Bolivia. Moreover, the conflict prevention mechanisms of the Organization of American States were used when Colombian aircraft strayed into Ecuadorian airspace in pursuit of narco-terrorists.
A recent poll by Latinobarometro - an annual public opinion survey conducted in 18 countries in Latin America - reflected not only the loss of U.S. influence in the hemisphere, but also a strong desire for a more collegial relationship with Washington.
This is an important opening that the Obama administration seems poised to seize.
Our regional security policy should embrace a renewed commitment to multilateral approaches to addressing mutual security concerns, including the fight against terrorism, organized crime, gang violence and narco-traffickers.
A more sustained U.S. engagement in political and security cooperation with countries in the region will reinforce our good intentions, strengthen the resolve of partners to do more, and provide an effective antidote to both Mr. Chavez’s demagoguery and Russia’s destabilizing meddling in hemispheric affairs.
• Stephen J. Flanagan is director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs. Johanna Mendelson Forman is a senior associate of CSIS’ Americas Program.