In a move that undoubtedly set off
alarm bells in Washington, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced
that Venezuelan and Russian ships could soon hold joint naval exercises
in the Caribbean.
"Russia's naval fleet is welcome here," Chávez said on his weekly
broadcast program. "If it's possible, we'll stage an exercise in our
Caribbean waters." Russian naval vessels, including a nuclear cruiser,
are due to call on Venezuelan ports in late November or December,
The Venezuelan leader is known for his rhetorical ripostes and once
again he did not disappoint. "Go ahead and squeal, Yankees," he said,
taunting the Bush White House.
Even before the April 2002 coup in Venezuela that sought to topple
Chávez from power, diplomatic relations between the South American
nation and the United States were tense. Chávez for example criticized
U.S.-style free trade in the region and pursued a nationalistic oil
policy. When it emerged that the United States had aided opposition
forces involved in the coup, relations took a nosedive and never fully
Unfortunately the Bush White House has done everything in its power
to provoke Chávez yet further. Last April, the Pentagon announced that
it would revive its Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean. The fleet is based
at the Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, Florida and answers to
the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom) in Miami. Southcom has about 11
vessels currently under its command, a number that could increase in
An April 24 Bloomberg report claimed that the fleet would be lead by
the nuclear aircraft carrier USS George Washington. But a subsequent
report appearing in the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal
quoted U.S. Admiral James Stavridis as saying that the force would not
have an offensive capability. "We have no intention whatsoever to have
an aircraft carrier as part of the Fourth Fleet," Stavridis said.
The Navy claims it resuscitated the Fourth Fleet to combat
terrorism, to keep the economic sea lanes of trade free and open, to
counter illicit trafficking, and to provide humanitarian assistance and
Such claims notwithstanding, it's no secret that the United States
would like to head off the left wing-alliance between Venezuela, Cuba
and Bolivia. And Chávez is probably correct in seeing the Fourth Fleet
in Caribbean waters as a "shot across his bow."
In an interview with Cuban television, Bolivian President Evo
Morales remarked that the U.S. naval force constituted "the Fourth
Fleet of intervention." Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro asked why the
Pentagon sought to revive the Fourth Fleet at the current time. Writing
in the Cuban newspaper Granma, Castro suggested that the move
constituted a return to U.S. gunboat diplomacy. Castro, whose island
nation confronted a U.S. naval blockade during the Cuban missile crisis
of 1962, declared, "The aircraft carriers and nuclear bombs that
threaten our countries are used to sow terror and death, but not to
combat terrorism and illegal activities."
Echoes of the Cold War
Like Castro, who sought out a diplomatic alliance with Russia to
protect Cuba from the United States, Chávez is now cozying up to
Moscow. For years, oil-flush Venezuela has been buying up Russian arms
including Kalashnikov assault rifles and Sukhoi fighter jets. Chávez
has justified the arms purchases as a necessary measure to dissuade the
North American "empire" from invading his country.
Just two months ago, Chávez called for a strategic alliance with
Russia to protect Venezuela from the United States. Caracas and Moscow
agreed to extend bilateral cooperation on energy, with three Russian
energy companies to be allowed to operate in Venezuela.
The Russian naval squadron and long-range patrol planes could arrive
in the Caribbean for the exercises later this year. The deployment is
expected to be the largest Russian naval maneuvers in the Caribbean,
and perhaps the Western Hemisphere, since the Cold War.
Worryingly, the nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Peter the
Great, a vessel with massive firepower whose missiles can deliver
nuclear or conventional warheads, will participate in the Caribbean
maneuvers. The ship is armed with the Granit long-range anti-ship
missile system, which is known in military circles as the Shipwreck
missile. It also has a sophisticated air defense missile system capable
of striking both air and surface targets.
Jon Rosamund, editor of Jane's Navy International, a
specialist maritime publication, said the Peter the Great is large and
heavily armed with both surface-to-surface and around 500
surface-to-air missiles. "On paper it's an immensely powerful ship," he
said. "We are not really sure if this is a show of force or if it poses
a viable operational capability at this stage."
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said the
Admiral Chabanenko, Russia's most modern anti-submarine destroyer,
would also join the exercises, along with an unspecified number of
anti-submarine naval aircraft. Venezuela's naval intelligence chief,
Admiral Salbatore Cammarata Bastidas, said that 1,000 Russian military
personnel would take part in mid-November exercises with Venezuelan
frigates, patrol boats, submarines, and aircraft.
Worst Case Scenario: McCain
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko insisted that
Russia's decision to send a naval squadron and planes to Venezuela was
made before Russia's war with Georgia and is unrelated to the conflict.
Last month, Russian forces fought a brief war with U.S.-ally Georgia
over the breakaway province of South Ossetia. During the brief war and
the ongoing standoff, Chávez has backed Russia's calls for Abkhazian
and South Ossetian independence in opposition to Mikhail Saakashvili's
government in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
U.S.-Russian relations hit their lowest point in years following the
crisis in Georgia and even sparked fears of a new Cold War. Following
the conflict, the Pentagon sent U.S. warships to the Black Sea to
deliver humanitarian aid for Georgia. Hardly amused, Prime Minister
Vladimir Putin warned that Russia would mount an unspecified response
to the aid shipments. Asked what he thought about the U.S. naval
presence near where the Russian Black Sea fleet was based, Putin said
that Moscow would definitely respond with "calm."
When asked about the possibility of Russian naval exercises in the
Caribbean, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack mockingly
responded, "If it is, in fact, true, then they found a few ships that
can make it that far."
Far from calming the situation, such flippant statements will only
serve to further antagonize Russia, which is already angry about NATO
expansion on its borders, not to mention the installation of U.S.
missile defense systems in Poland. With tensions in the Caucasus and
Eastern Europe already on the upswing, the last thing the world needs
is a naval face-off in the Caribbean.
Judging from recent campaign statements, a John McCain
administration would do little to calm the waters. During the war in
the Caucasus, the Arizona Senator remarked, "Russia should immediately
and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all
forces from sovereign Georgian territory."
A sharp critic of the Putin government, McCain said, "The
consequences of Euro-Atlantic stability and security are grave." McCain
also called for "a truly independent" international peacekeeping force
for South Ossetia, and said the United States should work with the
European Union to pressure Russia to halt its military efforts.
McCain is hardly a neutral arbiter when it comes to the conflict in
the Caucasus. His top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, works
for lobbying firm Orion Strategies. According to the Washington Post,
the company has provided "strategic advice" to the Georgian government.
Scheunemann himself helped McCain draft a strong statement in support
of Saakashvili during the war in South Ossetia.
If geopolitical tensions should spread to the Caribbean, McCain is
surely the last politician one might want in the White House. Speaking
in Miami's Little Havana, McCain argued that "everyone should
understand the connections" between Evo Morales, Castro, and Chávez.
"They inspire each other. They assist each other. They get ideas from
each other. It's very disturbing." McCain said Chávez breathed "new
oxygen" into the Cuban government, and that Washington should do more
to quell dictatorships throughout Latin America.
Time for Obama to Step Up
To his credit, Barack Obama has been somewhat less bellicose. At the
height of the war in South Ossetia, the Illinois Senator called for an
end to the violence but stopped short of assigning blame or making
strong demands on Moscow. "I strongly condemn the outbreak of violence
in Georgia, and urge an immediate end to armed conflict," he said.
On Venezuela, Obama has been somewhat vague. Speaking with his
supporters, Obama said Chávez had "despotic tendencies" and was using
oil money to fan anti-U.S. sentiment. The Illinois Senator did however
manage to stir the waters when he declared in a CNN-YouTube debate that
he would open diplomatic channels to "rogue nations" such as Venezuela.
Though certainly mild, Obama's remark quickly embroiled him in a
political firestorm with his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, who labeled
Obama is still a relative unknown on foreign policy but at least he
hasn't staked out hawkish stances like John McCain, a politician who
would surely continue the Bush legacy by antagonizing, bullying, and
pushing around smaller, poorer countries like Venezuela. In response,
Chávez might deepen his relationship with Russia if McCain pursues Big
Stick diplomacy in Latin America, ratcheting up tensions.
Obama has been eager to prove that he is "strong" on national
security. And this could be his chance. But rather than try outflanking
McCain by staking out a position further to the right, Obama would be
wise to use escalating tensions with Russia to his advantage. He might
declare, for example, that McCain has been reckless in dealing with the
unfolding conflict in the Caucasus. U.S. voters, Obama might argue,
have no desire to go back to the paranoid Cold War or to relive the
hair-raising days of the Cuban missile crisis
Nikolas Kozloff, a NACLA senior research associate, is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008).