Recently, several Russian bombers spent time in Venezuela and,
for many, revived images of the Cold War such as the 1962 Cuban missile
Earlier this month, two Russian Tupolev-160
strategic bombers spent a week in Venezuela, engaging in training
exercises off the Venezuelan and Brazilian coasts. The Tu-160s are
long-range bombers, capable of carrying conventional and nuclear
weapons, including long-range nuclear missiles. But Russian officials
made clear that the two aircraft were not armed and were carrying only
Daniel Erikson with the Washington-based policy group Inter-American
Dialogue says Moscow's action brings back memories of the Cold War.
"Indeed, I would describe it as the most provocative action taken by
Russia in the western hemisphere since the end of the cold war." Erikson and other experts say the visit by the Russian strategic bombers
illustrates a deepening military relationship between Moscow and Caracas.
Arms and Exercises
Jason Lyall at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School for Public
and International Affairs says Russia is Venezuela's biggest arms supplier.
"It has been purchasing, over the last four years, about four-point-five
billion dollars worth of equipment: high capacity, high capability
aircraft. They are now negotiating for three diesel submarines. It has
also restocked its army with infantry carriers as well as small arms.
And so most of the Venezuelan arsenal now is actually coming from Russia."
As another example of closer military ties between Caracas and Moscow,
experts point to upcoming naval exercises in the Caribbean Sea involving
ships from Russia.
Lyall says four vessels have left the Arctic seaport of Severomorsk to
participate in the military maneuvers in November.
"The Russians chose to send 'Peter the Great,' which is an
atomic-powered heavy cruiser. This is the flagship of the Northern
Fleet and it is one of the most capable weapons systems in the Russian
Navy and is one of the newest and most modern," says Lyall. "And so they are not
sending that many ships, but the choice of ships shows that they are
anchoring a lot of importance into this particular mission. They want
to bring their best equipment with them on this one."
Lyall says one of the reasons for Russia's presence in the Caribbean is
to show that Moscow can exert influence in what often is considered to
be Washington's backyard.
"The naval exercise is a tit-for-tat response to NATO [i.e., North
Atlantic Treaty Organization] and the U.S. presence in the Black Sea
right now, as a consequence of the Russian-Georgian conflict. The
Russians are very, very upset that the United States and NATO put so
many ships into the Black Sea and are particularly upset that
humanitarian aid was delivered by combat warships," says Lyall. "So I think it's not
surprising that the Russians chose to match that type of reaction with a
reaction that is very, very similar -- so again, a naval exercise right
astride a major commercial and energy transit route looking very much
like the U.S.-NATO presence in the Black Sea."
Relations with Washington
For his part, Daniel Erikson says that by participating in naval
exercises with Russia, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is also sending
a message to Washington.
"Chavez clearly feels that he is the leading adversary to U.S. power in
the [Western] hemisphere and is seeking to reach out to Russia, in part,
to irritate the United States and to show his independence from the
U.S. And the fact is that he can get away with it. And so far he's
been proven correct," says Erikson.
Mr. Chavez says Venezuela's partnership with Russia is aimed at
countering possible threats from the United States. And he points to
the re-establishment of the U.S. Fourth Fleet as such a threat.
The Fourth Fleet was re-activated on July 1. It is responsible for
U.S. Navy ships operating in the Caribbean and in the Central and South
American regions. The Fleet is headquartered in the U.S. state of
Florida [in the city of Jacksonville] and comes under the leadership of the U.S.
Southern Command in Miami.
But analysts say the reconstituted Fourth Fleet does not pose a threat
to Venezuela. One reason, says Frank Mora from the National War College
in Washington, is that the Fleet has no permanent ships assigned to it.
"No new naval assets have been deployed or sent to Jacksonville as part
of the Fourth Fleet. The Fourth Fleet is in a sense just a headquarters
at the moment. It does not have any vessels or ships of any kind, other
than those assigned to it by other fleets in other parts of the world," says Mora.
Cassandra Newell with the British publication Jane's Defense Weekly agrees.
"They get ships from other fleets, from say the Third Fleet from the
West Coast and the Second Fleet up in Norfolk, Virginia and also down
in Florida. There are no ships assigned to the Fourth Fleet," says Newell.
Mora and other analysts say the Fourth Fleet was reactivated to engage
in what he calls "non lethal missions," such as humanitarian
assistance. Mora adds that whenever a specific mission is designated,
ships from other fleets will be assigned, essentially creating the
"The reason why the Fourth Fleet was created is to send a clear signal,
particularly on the part of Southern Command, not that we are trying to
return to the days of hegemony or invasion or anything of the sort that
Hugo Chavez and others have been trying to suggest, but to simply say to
Latin America that we are going to use whatever assets we have to engage
in joint exercises dealing with humanitarian assistance, disasters,
counter-narcotics and a whole series of missions," says Frank Mora.
Analysts say there is a chance that the U.S. Fourth Fleet could be
engaged in humanitarian missions in the Caribbean in mid-November when
Russian and Venezuelan ships are participating in joint military
maneuvers. At the same time, analysts say they do not foresee any kind
of confrontation between the two sides.