Russia to send warships, planes to Venezuela

September 9th, 2008 - 4:34 am ICT by IANS  

Moscow, Sep 9 (DPA) Russia said Monday it would send warships and planes to participate in joint exercises with Venezuela in the Caribbean this year, a move that could exacerbate an already tense security balance with the US.Russian foreign ministry official Andrei Nesterenko said the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great, one of the world’s largest warships, and a unit of long-range anti-submarine aircraft would enter Venezuelan waters “before the end of the year”.

The Russian statement came after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced the planned arrival of Russian ships on national television Sunday, saying they would dock in the South American country by late November.

Chavez, who has spearheaded an alliance of non-aligned states against the US, has sought closer ties with Russia, including by making several large weapons purchases in recent years.

Nesterenko told journalists the exercises were “not connected to the present crisis in the Caucasus”, over which Moscow and Washington have traded accusations.

He said the joint exercise would not be directed against a third country.

“The decision to conduct Russian-Venezuelan naval exercises was adopted at the meeting between the presidents in July this year,” navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said.

While the deployment appeared to have been agreed earlier, the heightened tension between the ex-Cold War foes cast Russia’s announcement as a tit-for-tat response to the presence of US warships in the Black Sea to deliver aid to Georgia.

In Washington, the Bush administration and Pentagon did not appear overly concerned.

“We conduct exercises around the world all the time with other countries, other nations, other naval forces,” a Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, told DPA.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said if the plans were true, it meant that Russia had “found a few ships that can make it that far”.

“Look, I’m sure we’ll be watching if such exercise take place,” he told reporters.

It will be the first time Russia has held manoeuvres in waters patrolled by the US Navy since the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

McCormack dismissed the suggestion that Russia would be intruding on the US sphere of geographical influence.

“I’m not aware of any legal violations,” he said.

Premier Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials charge Washington with encouraging Georgia’s military actions, and said US aid shipments were an excuse for an arms build-up in the region.

Russia maintains a military presence just inside the former Soviet state of Georgia’s Black Sea port of Poti, where the USS Mount Whitney warship docked last week.

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