IN October 1962, the United States discovered that Russian warships
had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The result was the Cold War's
most dangerous crisis until the Russians backed down. This November, 46
years later, Russian warships will be back in those same Caribbean
waters - this time at the invitation of South America's most dangerous
dictator, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, for joint exercises with his navy.
No one expects this to be a crisis of 1962 proportions. Venezuela's
navy packs less wallop than the New York Yacht Club, and the Russian
fleet is a shadow of its Cold War self. Only four ships will be going
to Venezuela. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack quipped the
wonder is the Russians "can find a few ships that can make it that
But don't be fooled by the bravado. Small though they are, these
exercises are a stark challenge to US interests in South America and
the Caribbean. They mark a major step in Chavez's bid to become the
leading power in the southern Western Hemisphere. They also put the
seal on Russia's aggressive re-emergence on the international scene
both in Eastern Europe and Asia, and now in the Western Hemisphere.
Unlike in 1962, no nuclear weapons are coming to the party (at
least, as far as we know). But the lead Russian ship, the
nuclear-powered 19,000 ton cruiser Peter the Great, is one of
the largest and deadliest missile cruisers afloat. It can deliver a
volley of 20 500-kiloton nuke warheads with its Granit long-range
missile system. Pravda reports that Russian strategic bombers will also
be free to use Venezuelan airfields during the exercise.
No aircraft carriers are slated to take part. But Vladimir Putin
will be pouring his petro rubles into building a new 50,000-ton carrier
in 2010, as Russia's navy prepares for a glorious new era of projecting
power around the world. Oil-rich Venezuela has been conducting a
similar military buildup - ostensibly to defend himself against "Yanqi
imperialism," in fact to intimidate its neighbors.
It's no coincidence that Chavez has used most of Venezuela's
weapons budget to buy planes, submarines and missiles from Russia,
including a bevy of SU-35 fighter jets. These two countries see a clear
convergence of interests. In July, Chavez even went to Moscow to sign
an alianza estrategica (strategic alliance) with Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, openly directed against the United States.
Both countries see fossil-fuel revenues as the key to their
prosperity and power, as does the third power in this emerging
petropower axis, Iran. All want monopolistic control over the oil and
natural-gas resources in their respective regions.
In Iran's case, that means getting nukes in order to dominate the
Persian Gulf, the world's lifeline for access to Middle East oil. For
Putin, it means gaining control over Georgia and its vital oil
pipeline. And for Chavez, the key to regional dominance has been
building up Marxist allies in natural resource-rich neighbors like
Bolivia and Ecuador.
All three regimes also recognize that the United States is the one
power with the will and capacity to stand in their way. If, in these
next eight weeks, Chavez can force the United States to acquiesce to
his new strategic ties to Russia, with our navy standing helplessly by
as Venezuelan and Russian warplanes and ships practice crushing a mock
US "invasion" for the benefit of the world media, then he'll be one
step closer to making the Caribbean a Venezuelan lake - and Putin will
be one step closer to making Russia a player again in the Western
The Russian Defense Ministry dismissed a July report in the
newspaper Izvestia that the Russian Air Force hopes to get permission
from Raoul Castro to base long-range bombers in Cuba. All in all,
however, Russia is telling Latin America: We're back and we're not going to let the US push us out again.
The end of this summer has brought the end of many things. Wall
Street came to an end last week, with the financial meltdown. The Bush
Doctrine came to an end on Tuesday, with President Bush's lackluster
speech at the United Nations endorsing multilateral "diplomacy" instead
of firm action for curbing rogue states. In a month or two, we will
learn if the Monroe Doctrine is headed the same way.