- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2008

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia

A Russian fleet sailing toward the Caribbean for military exercises with Venezuela‘s navy next month reflects a chill in Russia-U.S. relations, though analysts are divided on whether the drill represents a threat to U.S. interests or is merely a demonstration to embarrass Washington.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says the drill seals Venezuela’s “strategic alliance with Russia,” which he announced during a recent visit to Moscow, in which he signed billions of dollars worth of arms deals.

The exercises, led by flagship Peter the Great, will mark Russia’s largest naval deployment to the Caribbean in more than 20 years.

Like Cuba’s Fidel Castro, much of Mr. Chavez’s political career has been based on his opposition to the United States.



On Russia’s end, many analysts see the move as a face-saving payback for U.S. naval deployments around the Black Sea to show support for Georgia in its conflict with Moscow that led to a brief war in August.

U.S. Navy ships were used to bring food, medicine and other relief supplies to Georgia while keeping their distance from the Russian fleet.

Still, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned that Russia would respond to the deployment in an unspecified manner and with “calm.”

U.S. officials have dismissed the Russian maneuvers as insignificant.

“I’ve once said that the old Russian ships could not make it that far down to Venezuela. And I had seen one report where I think they were actually being accompanied by tugboats,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack shortly after the Caribbean exercises were announced last month.

Many analysts dismiss the exercises as a show of one-upmanship.

“This is a case of naval diplomacy, rather than a demonstration of capability,” said Jason Alderwick of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. “It’s all about strutting your stuff and [thumbing their nose] at the West.”

But the vast array of high-tech firepower reported to be on board the Peter the Great “is no laughing matter,” said Dee Dubroff, a chief analyst with Russian Innovations, a newsletter specializing in monitoring Russia’s growing defense industry.

Peter the Great belongs to a new generation of Kirov-class missile cruisers, which was commissioned in 1995.

It is armed with 20 long-range Granit anti-ship missiles, which can be tipped with 500-kiloton nuclear warheads and fired in a volley with devastating effect on surface targets.

The cruiser also carries hundreds of anti-aircraft missiles and torpedoes.

“On paper, it’s an immensely powerful ship,” said Jon Rosamund, editor of Jane’s Navy International. “We are not really sure if this is a show of force or if it poses a viable operational capability.”

The Peter the Great is being escorted by the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko, described by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko as “Russia’s most modern anti-submarine destroyer.” The task force also includes an intelligence-gathering ship and an oil tanker.

“Go ahead, squeal, Yankees,” said Mr. Chavez on a recent broadcast of his weekly TV show “Hello President,” when he announced plans for the naval exercise, which he said was intended to counter Pentagon plans for deploying a fleet to patrol the Caribbean and the South Atlantic.

In recent years, Mr. Chavez has purchased more than $4 billion in Russian arms, including 24 advanced Sukhoi fighter jets, 53 combat helicopters and 100,000 assault rifles, along with licenses to assemble some of the weapons in Venezuela.

He has recently expanded his purchases into the naval arena by contracting to buy nine diesel-powered, missile-carrying submarines, as well as patrol boats and amphibious landing vessels.

Russian officials have said that the naval exercise was taking place under an agreement sealed when Mr. Chavez met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow last July.

“The exercise was not in any way connected to the current situation in the Caucasus,” said Mr. Nesterenko, the Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Aside from the growing military relationship with Mr. Chavez, Moscow has also signed billions of dollars in joint energy deals with Venezuela, where the Russian state-operated company Gazprom has been granted major oil concessions.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin has said that the U.S. should not view Latin America as its backyard.

“It would be wrong to talk about one nation having exclusive rights to this zone,” he said.

According to Venezuelan Adm. Salbatore Cammarata, 1,000 Russian sailors and airmen on board the Peter the Great battle group and two TU142 Bear bombers being flown to Venezuela will operate with Venezuelan frigates, patrol boats, submarines and aircraft from Nov. 10 to 15.

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