Russian warships approach Venezuela under US gaze
AFP - 22 minutes ago
CARACAS, Venezuela (AFP) - - Russian warships approached Venezuela Monday for upcoming joint maneuvers -- Moscow's first military presence in the region since the Cold War -- as Washington closely monitored the situation.
Venezuelan defense officials said the ships, including the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great and destroyer Admiral Chabankenko, would arrive on Tuesday.
The joint exercises were to coincide with a two-day visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Venezuela, the strongest US critic in the region.
Medvedev was due to arrive Wednesday and meet fiercely anti-liberal President Hugo Chavez on Thursday, before heading to communist Cuba.
Analysts see Medvedev as bringing a defiant message to Washington's doorstep, in the wake of Russian outrage at US plans to install a strategic missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, and support for the brief Georgia war in August.
The maneuvers will start on Wednesday in port and take place at sea on December 1, Venezuelan Operations Command chief General Jesus Gonzalez told journalists.
"It's a natural exercise that we've carried out with various countries, and many others carry out," the general added.
A Russian naval spokesman said in Moscow that the exercises would include operation planning, helping ships in distress and supplying ships on the move.
"If the Venezuelans and the Russians want to have, you know, a military exercise, that's fine, but we'll obviously be watching it very closely," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday.
"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," McCormack added.
The US has expressed concern, however, about Russian arms supplies to the oil-rich OPEC country.
The two countries have signed 4.4 billion dollars in bilateral arms deals signed since 2005, including radars, 24 Sukhoi-30 planes, 50 helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikovs.
Medvedev was expected to expand arms deals during his visit, as well as economic and energy ties, including plans for a joint civilian nuclear reactor.
"Russia is a friend which held out a hand to us," Gonzalez told AFP in a recent interview.
"We want to be very strong, but in a highly dissuasive direction. So that any country in the world thinks not once but 10 times before coming here."
In September, two Tu-160 Russian strategic bombers carried out training for several days in Venezuela.
The Russian warships were due to sail into La Guaira, near Caracas, and Puerto Cabello in northern Carabobo state.
The fleet includes five aircraft and several small ships, and Venezuela will provide eight aircraft and 11 ships, Gonzalez said Monday, adding that 1,150 Russian forces and 600 Venezuelans would take part in the exercises.
"Nations frequently exercise with each other. Russia is free to exercise peacefully with anyone that they want to exercise with," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Monday.
"But also people note through these exercises the company that nations keep."
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The flagship of Russia's Nothern Fleet, heavy nuclear missile cruiser "Pyotr Veliky" (Peter the Great) is seen at a mooring in Severomorsk not far from the city of Murmansk in 2007. Russian warships approached Venezuela Monday for upcoming joint maneuvers -- Moscow's first military presence in the region since the Cold War -- as Washington closely monitored the situation.
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