Russian warships are sailing towards the Caribbean for the
first time since the Cold War to take part in a joint naval
exercise with Venezuela.
In a display meant to show off Russia’s military resurgence and to provoke the United States, four vessels from the Northern Fleet set sail on a mission replete with an atmosphere of Soviet-era bombast and brinksmanship.
Symbolically at least, the manoeuvres represent the Kremlin’s boldest challenge yet to US military hegemony. By sailing so close to the American coastline for a series of exercises with Washington’s principal detractor in Latin America, Russia seems to be deliberately attempting to irritate the White House.
The flotilla that left the northern port of Serveromosrk on Russia’s Arctic coast was lead by the guided missile cruiser Peter the Great, one of the largest warships of its kind. The Kirov-class warship is equipped with cruise missiles that can be armed with nuclear warheads.
It was accompanied by the Admiral Chabanenko, an anti-submarine destroyer, and two support vessels.
Although navy chiefs insisted that the exercises had no political overtones, most analysts believe the Kremlin is signalling its determination to challenge the United States and retaliate for Washington’s support of Georgia during last month’s war in the Caucasus.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, vowed that Moscow would respond in kind after accusing American naval vessels ordered to Georgia to deliver aid of carrying weapons to re-arm the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The mission, which will formally begin in mid-November, will delight Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan President, who has already revelled in the presence of two Russian bombers in his country earlier this month.
“It is a message to the empire that Venezuela is no longer poor and alone,” Mr Chavez said last week.
Over the past 18 months, Mr Putin has unnerved the West by ordering the resumption of long-range bomber patrols close to the airspace of several countries, including Britain and the United States.
Whatever their private reaction, American officials are likely to mock Russia’s latest attempt at swagger. The White House has already derided the Kremlin’s attempts to court Latin America’s socialist states, including Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua as part of a newly assertive foreign policy that again has many echoes of the Cold War.
There were also insults from the Pentagon over the state of Russia’s ageing air force and those jibes are likely to be revived with even greater intensity over the feeble condition of the country’s navy.
According to some military analysts, about half of Russia’s navy is in dry docks at any one time undergoing repair. The Peter the Great itself was put out of commission for several months in 2004 after Russia’s navy chief warned it was in such poor condition it could “explode” at any moment.
Last week two sailors were killed aboard another Russian ship after it caught fire – a regular hazard on many vessels.
Even so, Russia is undergoing a rapid modernisation of its armed forces. While the focus has been on upgrading the country’s nuclear capability, Russia unveiled plans last week to increase its defence budget by 50 per cent over the next three years.
Moscow is also seeking the international presence of its navy by building naval bases outside Russia for the first time since the Soviet Union collapsed and could build a new port in Syria, another close ally.
As it tries to reassert itself as a power, Russia has offered itself as a champion of many countries that are bitterly opposed to the United States, among them Iran, Burma and Zimbabwe.
Many of Russia’s new friends will be addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which convenes on Tuesday. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran will address delegates in a speech that is expected to echo Russia’s demands for an overhaul of the world order.
Mr Chavez will make his speech on Wednesday, with President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe due to talk on Thursday.