Tuesday, November 25, 2008

President Chavez of Venezuela Welcomes Russian Warships

Tuesday, November 25, 2008
21:36 Mecca time, 18:36 GMT

Chavez welcomes Russian warships

Chavez denied the joint manoeuvres were a deliberate provocation to the US

Russian warships have sailed into a Venezuelan port in the first deployment of its kind in the Caribbean since the end of the Cold War.

The vessels were greeted by a 21-gun military salute on Tuesday at the start of a week of joint manoeuvres as Moscow and Caracas seek to strengthen their political and trade ties.

The ships, including the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great and the destroyer Admiral Chabankenko, arrived at La Guaira, a port near to the capital Caracas, to coincide with a two day visit by Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president.

Vice-admiral Luis Morales Marquez, a Venezuelan operations commander, said the aim of the joint exercise was to "strengthen links of friendship and solidarity with the Russian fleet and the Bolivarian national armed forces".

Kremlin anger

However, the move has been widely interpreted as a demonstration of the Kremlin's anger at the US over both its plans to install a missile-defence shield in eastern Europe and its decision to send aid-laden warships to Georgia this summer.

Russia and Georgia were briefly at war during August over the disputed independence of border states South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Michael Shifter, of the Inter-American Dialogue, told Al Jazeera: "There is a sense of provoking and needling the US ... and there is some risk to it and that is what concerns the US."

However, Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, has denied that the exercises - which are due to take place in dock and at sea on December 1 - amount to a deliberate act of US-baiting.

He argued they were merely an exchange between "two free, sovereign countries that are getting closer" and noted similar manoeuvres had been carried out with Brazil, France and the Netherlands.

The US administration played down any concerns over the joint show of force by two of its sharpest critics.

US 'watching closely'

Sean McCormack, the US state deparment spokesman, said: "I don't think there's any question about ... who the region looks to in terms of political, economic, diplomatic and as well as military power.

"If the Venezuelans and the Russians want to have a military exercise, that's fine. But we'll obviously be watching it very closely," he said.

Anna Gilmour, an analyst at Jane's Intelligence Review, said the manoeuvres should be largely viewed as a "propaganda exercise".

"Pragmatic Russian policy suggests that it will content itself with a brief high-profile visit, rather than a longer-term deployment that could cause severe tensions with the US, at a time when Russia may be looking to re-engage with the new administration," she said.

Dimitri Trenin, the deputy-director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, told Al Jazeera that Russia is looking to increase arms sales and trade with Latin America, rather than expand militarily.

Oil and gas

"Venezuela has been one of the new customers that Russia has won. It is also about oil and gas in Venezuela, Bolivia and a couple of other places in the region," he said.

Both leaders have said they will seek to build better relations with Barak Obama, the US president-elect.

Venezuela - Latin America's most outspoken critic of the US - has been keen to forge closer links with Russia, a traditional rival to American political and military dominance.

Chavez is looking for Russian help to build a nuclear reactor, invest in oil and natural gas projects and to acquire weapons, while Moscow is seeking to expand its influence across the region.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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