Russian warships neared Venezuela's Caribbean coast on Tuesday in a show of strength meant to send a cautionary message to the United States and showcase Moscow's ambitions of making inroads in Latin America.
The deployment of a naval squadron led by the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great is the first of its kind in the Caribbean since the Cold War and was timed to coincide with President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Caracas the first ever by a Russian president. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has eagerly welcomed the Russian ships for exercises with his navy, basking in the support of a powerful ally that has sold him billions of dollars in arms and has seen a chill in its relations with Washington.
Chavez is looking to Russia for help building a nuclear reactor, investing in oil and natural gas projects and bolstering him and his leftist allies in limiting US influence in Latin America. But just as Chavez is being forced to adapt to slumping oil prices, analysts say energy-rich Russia is also feeling the pinch and for now cannot afford a major benefactor role in South America.
"This whole crisis has affected Russia," said Ricardo Sucre Heredia, a Venezuelan political scientist. However, he said, Russia still has an economic interest in selling more weapons and boosting business in Latin America, and Venezuela can help to "open the doors."
"It's a win-win relationship for the two countries," Sucre said. "Russia gains in terms of its international power and its presence, and Venezuela gains in terms of having an ally." Medvedev's trip this week to Peru, Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba was planned before the financial crisis, and Russia will now have to downsize its ambitions in Latin America because its pockets are no longer so deep, said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs Magazine.
"Russia will have to put off big projects like the construction of a gas pipeline across South America," Lukyanov said. The proposed natural gas pipeline is Chavez's brainchild, a controversial and ambitious plan he has promoted while exploring Russian investment.
"It would be wrong to totally write Russia off. It will continue to try to refresh old friendships like Cuba and develop new contacts," Lukyanov said. "However, such efforts will become less intensive now that Russia's resources have shrunk." Chavez has been steadily building closer ties to Russia while tensions with the U.S. have grown, and he has bought more than $4 billion in Russian arms, including Sukhoi fighter jets, helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles.
More deals for Russian-made tanks or other weaponry may be discussed during Medvedev's talks in Caracas starting on Wednesday. Russia's deployment of the naval squadron including the behemoth flagship Peter the Great, a missile destroyer and two support vessels has been widely seen as a demonstration of anger by the Kremlin over the US dispatch of warships to deliver aid to Georgia after its war with Russia, and over US plans for a missile-defense system in Europe.
Russia sent two strategic bombers to Venezuela in September for a visit that drew comparisons to the Soviet Union's deployments to Cuba during the Cold War.
But Moscow has also shown signs of trying to engage President-elect Barack Obama.
And Chavez told reporters Monday night that it's ludicrous to compare the upcoming naval exercises to a Cold War-type scenario. "It's not a provocation. It's an exchange between two free countries," Chavez said, adding that he didn't know whether he would have time to visit the ships.
The maneuvers by the Russian and Venezuelan navies starting Dec. 1 "should be viewed largely as a propaganda exercise," said Anna Gilmour, an analyst at Jane's Intelligence Review. "Pragmatic Russian policy suggests that it will content itself with a brief high-profile visit, rather than a longer-term deployment that could cause severe tensions with the US, at a time when Russia may be looking to re-engage with the new administration." Russian warships were to reach the Venezuelan port of La Guaira on Tuesday morning and later participate in "very simple, routine exercises," Gen. Jesus Gonzalez said, allowing sailors to practice reconnaissance, patrol, anti-terrorism and search and rescue operations.
US officials have mocked Russia's decision to send ships to the Caribbean, noting the Russian navy is now a shadow of the Soviet-era fleet.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack quipped to reporters in Washington "Are they accompanied by tugboats this time?"
"I don't think there's any question about who the region looks to in terms of political, economic, diplomatic and as well as military power," McCormack said. "If the Venezuelans and the Russians want to have, you know, a military exercise, that's fine. But we'll obviously be watching it very closely."