- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

MOSCOW | Russia said Monday that it will send a naval squadron and long-range patrol planes to Venezuela this year for a joint military exercise in the Caribbean, an announcement made at a time of increasingly tense relations with the United States.

The apparently retaliatory move follows the U.S. deployment of warships to deliver aid to the former Soviet nation of Georgia, barely a month after Russian armor and aircraft crushed the Georgian military in a five-day war.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko insisted Monday that Russia’s decision to send the squadron and planes to Venezuela was made before Russia’s war with Georgia.

“This deployment had been planned in advance, and it’s unrelated to the current political situation and the developments in the Caucasus,” Mr. Nesterenko said at a briefing.

But the announcement was made just a week after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned that Russia would mount an unspecified response to recent U.S. aid shipments to Georgia.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an unbridled critic of American foreign policy, was specific and blunt Sunday night about the possibility the U.S. might be concerned about the exercises.

“Go ahead and squeal, Yankees,” Mr. Chavez said in a national broadcast in which he announced the exercises.

Mr. Nesterenko said the Peter the Great missile cruiser and three other Russian navy ships would visit Venezuela before the year’s end and would be joined by a unit of long-range anti-submarine patrol aircraft.

He did not say how many planes would be sent, but said they would be “temporarily based at one of Venezuela’s air bases.”

Mr. Nesterenko did not name the type of planes that would be deployed to Venezuela. Russia has two such planes: the Tu-142, which is an anti-submarine version of the Tu-95 Bear strategic bomber, and the smaller Il-38.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack mocked Russia’s plans to send a naval squadron for joint military exercises with Venezuela. If Russia really intends to send ships to the Caribbean, Mr. McCormack said, “then they found a few ships that can make it that far.”

Mr. Chavez said the Russian vessels would call on Venezuelan ports in late November or December.

The Venezuelan leader has cultivated close ties with Moscow and placed big orders for Russian jets, helicopters and other weapons.

Mr. Nesterenko said the joint exercise would not be directed against any third country. But the Interfax news agency quoted Vyacheslav Nikonov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, as saying that the Russian cruise to Venezuela was a response to the deployment of U.S. Navy ships to Georgia’s Black Sea coast.

“That shows that Moscow won’t leave such challenges unanswered,” Mr. Nikonov was quoted by Interfax as saying.

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