MOSCOW (AFP) – A fleet of Russian warships led by a massive missile cruiser set sail from their Arctic base on Monday for naval exercises off Venezuela near US waters that have not been seen since the Cold War.
“They left at 10:00 am (0600 GMT). It’s the nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Peter the Great, the anti-submarine warship Admiral Chebanenko and other accompanying ships,” Russian navy spokesman Igor Dygalo told AFP.
Dygalo said he could not reveal how many ships were involved in the deployment or when they would arrive. The exercises in the Caribbean Sea are expected to take place in November or December, officials said.
The deployment follows the arrival of two Russian Tu-160 nuclear bombers in Venezuela earlier this month also for exercises, an event that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez branded a “warning” to the US “empire.”
Chavez was due in Moscow this week on his third visit since June last year.
“It’s a warning. Russia is with us… we are strategic allies. It is a message to the empire. Venezuela is no longer poor and alone,” the fiercely anti-US leader said during a public event this month after the bombers landed.
The state-owned Vesti-24 television channel, broadcasting from the deck of the Peter the Great, on Monday showed the vessel’s heavy artillery firing to test their readiness for the joint exercises with the Venezuelan navy.
“The planned naval exercises by Russia and Venezuela are not aimed at third countries and do not have an aggressive character. There is no political subtext to these exercises,” Dygalo said, Interfax news agency reported.
The nuclear-powered Peter the Great is one of the largest warships of its kind and carries a variety of weapons systems including Granit anti-ship cruise missiles that can be armed with nuclear warheads.
The pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia speculated the ships could stop in Syria as part of a broader show of force in the Mediterranean, quoting a navy source who said Russian engineers were expanding the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia.
“The possibility of basing aircraft carriers and missile cruisers there is foreseen,” the source told Izvestia, referring to the ports in Syria, a Moscow ally during the Cold War that hosted a Soviet naval supply base.
Dygalo declined to comment on the newspaper’s claim, saying only: “Next they’ll be saying we’re going to Australia.”
The Venezuela-bound ships are from Russia’s Northern Fleet and are based in Severomorsk, a port on the Barents Sea in the Arctic Ocean close to Norway.
Their visit to the Caribbean is the first such manoeuvre in the vicinity of the United States since the Cold War and it comes as relations between Moscow and Washington are in a deep chill over Russia’s war in Georgia last month.
Chavez, one of the few world leaders who backed Moscow in the conflict, said last week that the Russian fleet would arrive in his country’s territorial waters in “November or December.”
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington would monitor the deployment “very closely.”
Venezuelan Defence Minister Gustavo Rangel has said the military cooperation with Russia would prepare Venezuela to face possible US “threats,” citing the reactivation of the US Fourth Fleet for Latin America and the Caribbean.
The US Fourth Fleet, created during World War II, has been dormant since 1950 but was reactivated this summer.
Moscow’s decision to send warships to the Caribbean also came after Russian officials reacted angrily to the deployment of US naval vessels, including the flagship of the US Sixth Fleet, to Georgia for humanitarian aid deliveries.
Monday September 22, 11:27 PM