MOSCOW – Russia said Monday it will send a naval squadron and long-range patrol planes to Venezuela this year for a joint military exercise in the Caribbean, an announcement made at a time of increasingly tense relations with the United States.
The apparently retaliatory move follows the U.S. deployment of warships to deliver aid to the former Soviet nation of Georgia, barely a month after Russian armor and aircraft crushed the Georgian military in a five-day war.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko insisted Monday that Russia’s decision to send the squadron and planes to Venezuela was made before Russia’s war with Georgia.
“This deployment had been planned in advance, and it’s unrelated to the current political situation and the developments in the Caucasus,” Nesterenko said at a briefing.
But the announcement was made just a week after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned that Russia would mount an unspecified response to recent U.S. aid shipments to Georgia.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an unbridled critic of American foreign policy, was specific and blunt Sunday night about the possibility the U.S. might be concerned about the exercises.
“Go ahead and squeal, Yankees,” Chavez said in a national broadcast in which he announced the exercises.
Nesterenko said the Peter the Great missile cruiser and three other Russian navy ships would visit Venezuela before the year’s end, and would be joined by a unit of long-range anti-submarine patrol aircraft.
He did not say how many planes would be sent, but said they would be “temporarily based at one of Venezuela’s air bases.”
Nesterenko did not name the type of planes that would be deployed to Venezuela. Russia has two such planes: the Tu-142, which is an anti-submarine version of the Tu-95 Bear strategic bomber, and the smaller Il-38.
Chavez said the Russian vessels would call on Venezuelan ports in late November or December.
The Venezuelan leader, who has cultivated close ties with Moscow and placed big orders for Russian jets, helicopters and other weapons, has repeatedly warned that the U.S. Navy poses a threat to Venezuela.
Diplomatic relations between Caracas and Washington have been tense for years. U.S. officials have said Chavez poses a threat to democracy, and Chavez has emerged as Latin America’s most outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy.
Nesterenko said the joint exercise would not be directed against any third country.
But the Interfax news agency quoted Vyacheslav Nikonov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, as saying that the Russian cruise to Venezuela was a response to the deployment of U.S. Navy ships to Georgia’s Black Sea coast.
“That shows that Moscow won’t leave such challenges unanswered,” Nikonov was quoted by Interfax as saying.
Russian officials said past U.S. military assistance for Georgia had encouraged the Caucasus country to launch its offensive in South Ossetia, and argued that the new shipments could be a cover for weapons deliveries.
U.S. officials have dismissed those accusations, saying the ships are carrying only humanitarian supplies such as blankets and powdered milk.
Putin last week warned that Russia would respond to the U.S. aid shipments to Georgia, but he did not say how.
“We don’t understand what American ships are doing on the Georgian shores, but this is a question of taste, it’s a decision by our American colleagues,” Putin said. “The second question is why the humanitarian aid is being delivered on naval vessels armed with the newest rocket systems.”
Russia’s reaction to the U.S. deployment to the Black Sea “will be calm, without any sort of hysteria. But of course, there will be an answer,” Putin said.
By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press Writer
Sept. 08, 2008