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Venezuela Increases Ties with Russia

Recently, several Russian bombers spent time in Venezuela and, for many, revived images of the Cold War such as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

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 dummy weapons.

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 Fourth Fleet.

"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.