Monday, September 22, 2008

The Cold War Comes To The Caribbean

Russia seeks to get under America's skin by sending warships to Venezuela

A Venezuelan soldier stands by a mural showing Hugo Chávez in Caracas. Photograph: Francesco Spotorno/Reuters
BY Mark Tran
The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming. A Russian navy squadron – a nuclear-powered cruiser and three escorts – today set off for naval manoeuvres with Venezuela.

The deployment follows a week-long visit to Venezuela by a pair of Russian strategic bombers and comes as Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president, plans to visit Moscow this week, his second trip there in about two months.

Analysts say this is Russia's way of responding to what is sees as US meddling in its "near abroad" - specifically, entertaining the idea that Georgia and Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union, join Nato, and the presence of US warships in the Black Sea after the conflict over South Ossetia.

"Russia wants to annoy the US by being active in America's backyard," said Nick Day, the chief executive of Diligence, a business intelligence firm that deals in Russia.
The cold war has drifted into the Caribbean as Chávez has found it natural to turn to Russia because of his intense dislike of the US, which he accuses of trying to undermine him. Russia, looking for an opportunity to retaliate for Nato's eastward expansion, finds in Chávez a perfect foil.

Chávez has been a good customer for Russian weapons. Venezuela has spent more than $4bn (£2.1bn) on weapons from Russia since 2005 - fighter jets, helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles. It's an astronomical sum for a country under considerable economic pressure, with high unemployment and rising social tensions. Despite Venezuela's economic problems, Chávez wants even more Russian hardware. He is in talks to buy Russian submarines, air defence systems and armoured vehicles and more Sukhoi fighter jets.

Day believes that one reason Chávez is cozying up to Russia is that he has overstretched himself, promising more than he can deliver economically not only to his own people but to his neighbours. Chávez failed to come through with a promise to give Paraguay all the oil it needs and he faces growing domestic opposition. Human Rights Watch last week said that Venezuela's expulsion of two of its staff underscored the Chávez administration's increasing intolerance of dissenting views.

With Russia sitting on piles of cash from its oil revenues, Chávez may well see Moscow as a potential benefactor if Venezuela's economy deteriorates.

Russia's military presence in the Caribbean, however, means little in strategic terms. A few Russian ships is a piffling presence – without air cover they are sitting ducks in the very unlikely event that things turn nasty. The manoeuvres are just a way for the Russians to get under America's skin and score a bit of a propaganda coup. The Russians are coming to the Caribbean, but the Americans should brush it off as a joke rather than take it seriously.

Source: Guardian.Co.Uk

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