Europe, Global Governance, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

RUSSIA-VENEZUELA: Cold War Coming to the Caribbean?

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Sep 12 2008 (IPS) - Two Russian Tupolev TU-160 strategic bombers landed at Venezuela’s main Libertador military airbase, 60 kilometres from the capital, “to carry out training flights” in the region, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

“Yes, eat your heart out, ‘pitiyanquis’ (little Yankee imitators),” said Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, in two lengthy nationwide radio and television broadcasts Wednesday. “What’s more, I’m going to pilot one of those insects (planes),” he added jokingly, while confirming that the bombers are at the airbase for training flights.

Russia announced a few days ago that a naval task force would be sent to the Caribbean, and military spokesman Captain Igor Dygalo said the vessels “would carry out a series of exercises, including joint search and rescue manoeuvres, as well as telecommunications trials” with their Venezuelan counterparts.

Moscow’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Andréi Nesterenko, said the navy would send four ships in November, including the nuclear-powered cruiser Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great) and the anti-submarine frigate Admiral Shabanenko. Russian anti-submarine fighter planes are also to take part in the exercises and will be “temporarily stationed” at one of Venezuela’s air bases, he said.

“We want to calibrate our defensive capability with that of our strategic allies, one of which is Russia,” said Chávez, calling for applause in response to the arrival of the TU-160s.

Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said the United States would “watch” the Russian bombers’ manoeuvres “very closely.”

Although he said that he still had no official confirmation, if Russia intended to send ships to the Caribbean, he quipped that “then they (the Russians) found a few ships that can make it that far,” making light of the announcement, according to the Venezuelan government’s Bolivarian News Agency.

Martha Lucía Ramírez, who was Colombia’s Defence Minister in 2002-2003, the first year of the rightwing President Álvaro Uribe’s administration, asked her country “to consult, as necessary, with international bodies such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Organisation of American States (OAS).”

Now a senator, Ramírez said this should be done “to discuss the convenience of bringing to Latin America the global tensions between powers, which are being transferred into the Andean and Caribbean scenarios and constitute a threat to the security and stability of the region.”

The possibility of war between Colombia and Venezuela has been studied for decades, as a hypothetical conflict with a foreign nation, at the military academies of both countries.

Ramírez called to mind that “Chávez reacted angrily when there were rumours that a U.S. anti-drug base might be installed in Colombian territory (on the peninsula of La Guajira, along the Venezuelan border), and threatened imminent war (with Colombia) if the base was actually built.”

“Why should we now accept a foreign power’s military exercises, and presence of its warplanes in Venezuela? We must sound the alarm about the imbalance this will cause. The tensions between two military powers (Russia and the U.S.) could have tragic consequences for the region, like those experienced in Georgia,” Ramírez said.

In August, war broke out between Russia and Georgia, a former Soviet republic on the Black Sea in the Caucasus region in August, over the secession of the Georgian region of South Ossetia, causing a heavy toll of deaths and damages among the civilian population.

In response, Poland and the Czech Republic, which are members of the Western military alliance NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), accelerated their plans to instal NATO missile and radar systems.

According to Thomas Gomart, an analyst with the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), sending Russian military units to Venezuela “is a double move by Moscow: increasingly open questioning of U.S. hegemony, and support for energy nationalisation, in which President Chávez is a standard-bearer.”

Dmitry Orlov, of the Russian Agency for Political and Economic Communications (APECOM), said the plans for military cooperation with Venezuela indicate that Russia may opt to increase its military presence in different parts of the world. While Moscow does not necessarily have an aggressive anti-U.S. policy, it is taking steps to defend its geopolitical interests, he said.

Chávez mocked his critics, repeatedly calling them “pitiyanquis” and accusing them of “seeing the ghost of Soviet Union-style communism appear, which no longer exists; instead, a sovereign and independent Russia is rising.”

He defended the procurement of weapons from Russia and China for over 4.5 billion dollars in the past three years, including Sukhoi fighter jets, Mi helicopters, Kalashnikov assault rifles, radar and missile systems, patrol boats and reconnaissance planes. Submarines and other equipment may be added to the list.

“The ‘pitiyanquis’ criticise the manoeuvres with Russia, but they say nothing about the United States redeploying its Fourth Fleet after an interval of 60 years, and having a base right there in Curaçao (one of the Netherlands Antilles islands, 50 kilometres off the Venezuelan coast),” Chávez said.

Teodoro Petkoff, an opposition leader who is fiercely critical of Chávez in the columns of his newspaper Tal Cual, complained that the president “wants to get mixed up in the mini-Cold War between the United States and Russia,” and quoted a popular saying meaning, roughly, “when predators fight, their prey should stay out of the way.”

Chávez “accuses Georgia, with reason, of being a pawn of (U.S. President George W.) Bush, but he is thoughtlessly offering himself for free, in the context of a quarrel that has nothing to do with us, as a pawn for (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin,” Petkoff criticised.

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