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Medvedev's Venezuela, Cuba trips may provoke US ire

Video by François-Xavier FRELAND

Text by Freya PETERSEN

Latest update : 2008-11-27

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visits to Venezuela and Cuba during a week-long trip to Latin America look set to irk Washington.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev is scheduled to visit Venezuela and Cuba on November 26 and 27. Both Latin American countries are avowed foes of the US and are looking to increase military and trade ties with Moscow.


Medvedev's stay in Venezuela will coincide with the joint military exercises of the Russian and Venezuelan navies -- an event interpreted by Russia-watchers as a possible retort to the US’s indirect involvement in the Georgian conflict of last August. Or at least in part. There was also the matter of US support for bids by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO and the US's moves to expand its missile defense shield into Eastern Europe, which prompted Medvedev to warn of “retaliatory steps.”


Latin America has been traditionally regarded by the US as part of its sphere of influence, just as parts of Eastern Europe, and particularly the Caucasus region, are claimed by Russia.


The Russian naval contingent for the Caribbean exercises reportedly includes two Russian Tu-160 long-range bombers, sent in early September, several anti-submarine patrol aircraft and – perhaps most notably - the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Piotr Veliky (Peter the Great). It is the first time Russian warships have visited the region since the end of the Cold War.


Experts, however, point out that the majority of these ships lack modern communications and surveillance systems and mostly date to the Soviet era.


But despite a scenario eerily reminiscent of the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, which also involved Soviet ships in Caribbean waters -- and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war -- Samuel Wells, an expert on trans-Atlantic security, cautions against interpreting the exercises as “a revival of Russian-American confrontation.”


“Contrary to Cold War nostalgia, I see this as political theater by Medvedev/Putin and Chavez,” says Dr. Wells, Associate Director of the Washington think tank the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


Experts agree that Venezuela’s ties with Russia have lately taken on a decidedly military tone, the main indicator being purchases during a July trip to Moscow of three submarines and a dozen anti-aircraft systems, bringing Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez's total arms purchases from the Russians to $4.5 billion in the past four years.


“I think that [Russia's] primary interest is selling weapons, and Chavez, until now, has been a very good client,” says Arlene Tickner, head of the political science department at Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Columbia.



Americans in the Black Sea, Russians in the azure


Russian officials have denied the Caribbean exercises are in any way linked to a US decision to send a command ship and two other naval vessels into the Black Sea, on its southern border, to deliver aid and show support for President Mikheil Saakashvili after Moscow sent troops into Georgia.


Although critical of the US move (Medvedev asked at the time how Washington would feel "if we now dispatched humanitarian assistance to the Caribbean...using our navy”), both Moscow and Caracas maintain the exercises were planned months before the conflict over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia began.


“I would see the Russian deployment of a naval task force to the Caribbean as an element of a planned Russian-Venezuelan program of strategic cooperation which President Hugo Chavez has dramatized by linking it to the Russian-Georgian war of last August,” Dr. Wells says, adding that, for their part, “Russians include the joint exercise with Venezuela as part of a broad reassertion of global power which includes their overwhelming use of force against a weak Georgian military.”


Says Professor Tickner: “I think that it is a gauged response to irk the US government following its meddling in Georgia, as well as an attempt to play along with Chavez’s desire to involve Russia in regional dynamics.Obviously, Chavez’s interests in doing so are probably different than Russia’s. I have no doubt that he would like to see a revival of Russian-American confrontations, or at least to incline the balance of power regionally further away from American influence.”



Economic imperative: Russia seeks renewed trade ties with Latin America


Wells joined other Latin America experts in pointing out that Chavez had long sought a strategic alliance with Russia, as had many other Latin American states dependent on non-US economic trade.


Andre Serbin, general secretary of CRIES (Coordinadora Regional de Investigacion Economico y Social), says that while Russian intolerance of US encroachment on their sphere of influence was “one part of the message” attributed to Medvedev’s visit to Venezuela, it was “largely related to the importance of diversifying the Russian economy.”


“They're selling a lot of arms in Latin America, not just in Venezuela, so this is also business,” he says. “It is also a message to the rest of Latin America, that - OK, you see, we can have good business in terms of selling our arms and our aircraft.


"I would say the last two or three years there had been an offensive from Russia in terms of recovering all the old links -- not only political -- the trade and business links with Russia that were lost in Latin America after the Perestroika. In the early '90s, still there was a lot of trade between Latin America and Russia, and then it decreased," due to the economic shock that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Despite all the conjecturing, however, the U.S. government has dismissed the importance of Medvedev's trip to Venezuela.  U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack derided the Russian navy visit, by wondering if the ships were "accompanied by tugboats."  "We'll watch it closely," he said, "but I don't think a few Russian ships in the Caribbean with the Venezuelans is really going to raise anybody's eyebrows."

Date created : 2008-11-26