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Caribbean War Games By: Kathy Shaidle
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, September 15, 2008

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was widely ridiculed when he accused the United States of creating the conflict in Georgia – this even as invading Russian troops were encamped in sovereign Georgian territory – but one country echoed the surreal charge. A statement from the Venezuelan government alleged that the war in Georgia was actually “planned, prepared, and ordered” by the U.S. in an “incitement of violence.” At odds with the facts on the ground, the statement was nevertheless revealing of the growing alliance between the Kremlin and Caracas and its roots in a shared scorn for the United States.

The partnership has been underway for some time. This July, the Venezuelan government announced a five-year plan by Russian energy giants LUKoil and Gazprom to invest up to $30 billion in projects in Venezuela’s oil-rich Orinoco basin. The area boasts over 80 billion barrels of oil reserves, making Venezuela, an OPEC member nation, one of the largest oil producing countries in the world. With these resources at its disposal, Venezuela is eager to tap the Russian market.

Business goes both ways. During his July trip to Russia, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez indulged in an expensive shopping spree for military hardware. Chávez purchased a number of anti-aircraft systems; three "Varshavianka"-class submarines; 53 helicopters; and 24 Sukhoi fighter planes, with a total price tag of $4.5 billion. As well, construction of a long delayed Kalashnikov rifle factory, to be located in Venezuela, finally seems to be getting underway.

Then there are the war games. On September 10, a pair of Russian Tu-160 “Blackjack” bombers landed in Venezuela with the purpose of patrolling the neutral waters over the Caribbean and the Pacific. The planes are designed to carry nuclear weapons, and the Russian air force at first confirmed and then denied that the bombers were armed with nuclear missiles. This November, Putin and Chavez will hold joint military exercises in which the Russian missile cruiser Peter the Great and the anti-submarine vessel Admiral Shabanenko will join two additional vessels and a unit of long-range patrol aircraft for training with the Venezuelan military.

These troubling developments, marking the first Russian military foray into Latin America since the Cold War, are meant to signal to the U.S. that Russia counts a number of Western hemisphere nations among its allies. In addition, these military maneuvers let Chavez – whose reign relies heavily on his image as a strongman unafraid of “Uncle Sam” – strike a provocative pose in America’s backyard. “It's a warning,” Chavez has declared. “Russia is with us. ... We are strategic allies. It is a message to the empire. Venezuela is no longer poor and alone.”

Bluster aside, experts see these exercises in military muscle flexing as largely symbolic. Stratfor analyst Dr. George Friedman says that “the Russians are clearly signaling the Americans that their presence in the Black Sea will be met by a Russian presence in the Caribbean.” But he adds that Washington should not cower just yet. “Obviously, it’s an asymmetrical response,” Friedman observes. “The United States can put a lot more into the Black Sea than the Russians can into the Caribbean.” Case in point: the “Blackjack” bombers that landed in Venezuela were escorted by NATO and U.S. warplanes and would have been quickly destroyed in the event of a shooting war.

But while the Russian alliance with Venezuela is not yet a full-fledged threat, neither can it be dismissed as inconsequential. With the U.S. currently focused on the Middle East, Russia is trying to establish a Caribbean foothold. Bases in Cuba and Venezuela would allow Russia to support America’s enemies throughout the region, and the U.S. could face the prospect of straining its already heavily deployed forces in new war zones.

Another concern is that rogue states like Venezuela will feel emboldened by their ties to a newly resurgent Russia. Evidence suggests that this is already the case. Last week, Hugo Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassador, in “solidarity” with neighbor Bolivia, which, in the midst of a constitutional crisis had just expelled his fellow American diplomat. Chavez also threatened to halt crude oil sales to the United States, warning that such a move would double world crude prices. With Russia’s continued backing, Chavez’s anti-American bellicosity is only likely to increase.

Ultimately, though, the biggest loser in this game of geo-political shadowboxing is Venezuela. With economic peril looming – recent reports suggest that inflation could top 27 percent in 2008 – the Chavez government’s posturing is a distraction from the serious challenges facing Venezuela. Like Russia, Venezuela is largely dependent on revenues from oil exports. But unlike its big-power patron, it can ill-afford to antagonize the international community. In time, Chavez may discover that being a Russian puppet is not the privilege he assumes.

Kathy Shaidle blogs at FiveFeetOfFury.com. Her new book exposing abuses by Canada’s Human Rights Commissions, The Tyranny of Nice, includes an introduction by Mark Steyn.

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