Monday, October 06, 2008

Russia's Warships Head for Venezuela

Russia displayed its military strength in the Mediterranean yesterday after warships heading to Venezuela passed through the Strait of Gibraltar in the second deployment of Russian naval vessels in the waterway since the Cold War.

The nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great, accompanied by the Admiral Chabanenko, an anti-submarine destroyer, as well as a reconnaissance vessel and a support ship, are destined for a maritime exercise with the Venezuelan navy.

En route, however, the aim appears to be to demonstrate to the West and Nato that Russia is once again back in business as a blue-water power.

“It's all about strutting your stuff and cocking a snook at the West, in the same way that the Bears [Russian strategic bombers] have been doing since they began patrolling again,” said Andrew Brookes, of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Jason Alderwick, naval analyst at the institute, said that the Russian warships, which set off from their base at Severomorsk, near Murmansk on the Arctic coast, were Cold War “legacy ships”, not the modern vessels deployed by Western navies with advanced communications and surveillance systems.

“This is a case of naval diplomacy rather than a demonstration of capability,” he said.

Mr Alderwick said that the only other occasion since the Cold War when Russian warships had passed through the Strait — coming within a few miles of the strategically important British naval base — was last year, when Russia's sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, and five other ships were deployed from Severomorsk.

The dispatching of the Peter the Great was a significant event, he said, particularly because Moscow had clearly decided to make its presence felt in the Mediterranean before engaging with the Venezuelan navy during the exercise.

The Russian naval force is due to call at the Libyan port of Tripoli and the Syrian port of Tartus, which played host to Soviet ships during the Cold War.

Reports suggested that the warships may have made a stop-off in Tartus, but this was not confirmed by Moscow.

The flotilla may also visit the Syrian port of Latakia, where the Russians are helping to build a new facility. The arrival of the four Russian warships in the Mediterranean comes after Moscow's military operation in Georgia.

After the defeat of Georgia in August, Moscow made it clear that it intended to deploy its military on regular manoeuvres around the world.

It has also moved to intensify contacts with Venezuela, Cuba and other Latin American countries. Russia has signed weapons contracts worth more than $4 billion with Venezuela since 2005 to supply fighter jets, helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov AK47 assault rifles.

Despite the new muscular approach, there was evidence yesterday of Russian withdrawals from Georgia. Russian troops began dismantling checkpoints in the “security zones” they have occupied in Georgia since the brief war in the former Soviet republic.

Russia is supposed to be pulling back its troops under the terms of a deal brokered by President Sarkozy of France on behalf of the European Union. Moscow has said that it still plans to keep thousands of troops inside the two breakaway regions of Georgia — South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia has formally recognised the independence of both regions.

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