Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Upcoming Russian – Venezuelan Naval Exercises.

The Upcoming Russian – Venezuelan Naval Exercises.
By Benjamin Miller*
Russia has dispatched part of its Northern Fleet to the Caribbean for the country’s first ever naval exercises with Venezuela. The exercises, scheduled to take place November 10th-14th, will include a number of Russian and Venezuelan warships. Namely, the nuclear-powered heavy missile cruiser, Peter the Great, as well as the Admiral Chabanenko (an Anti-Submarine Warship) will be directly involved in the exercises. Intentionally ambiguous statements issued by the Russian government allow only for speculation regarding their motives behind the scheduled incursion into the Southern Hemisphere. The departure time of the Russian naval group, however, is peculiarly close to recently voiced Russian grievances about U.S. ships deployed on aid and relief missions in the Black Sea. Indeed, Putin’s prompt warning regarding the U.S. presence, “Our response will be calm, not hysterical, but there will definitely be a response,”[1] supports the notion that there is a significant political message being conveyed to the United States government.
[1] NOVOSTI: Russian News and Information Agency
Political messaging aside, the purposeful nature of Russia’s relationship with Venezuela over the past six years indicates that these naval exercises represent the newest phase of their plan to develop a strategic alliance with the anti-U.S. government of Hugo Chavez. As indicated in last week’s article of the Americas Report, Russian weapons exports to Venezuela have increased substantially over the past 5 years. According to a Jane’s Defense Business Article, the impact of Russian exports on the region is significant:

“Latin America accounted for just 7.7 per cent of Russia's total foreign defense sales during 2006 (according to Moscow's Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies), but Venezuela alone accounted for 16 per cent of all military exports in 2007. Defense and aerospace contracts valued at USD3 billion were signed by the two countries in June 2006 to coincide with a visit to Moscow by Chávez.”[1]

While sources indicate that these specific movements will be oriented towards rescue and communication operations, it is possible that artillery and counter-terrorist training operations could take place as well. Moreover, Venezuelan Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel has said that military cooperation with Russia would prepare Venezuela to face possible U.S. “threats,” citing the reactivation of the U.S. 4th Fleet for Latin America and the Caribbean.[2] This appears to be a logical conclusion given the vast capabilities of the Russian fleet on its way.

Jon Rosamund, editor of Jane's Navy International, makes a good point about the main ship of the Russian fleet heading this way, “On paper it's [Peter the Great] an immensely powerful ship…We are not really sure if this is a show of force or if it poses a viable operational capability at this stage.”
Frank Mora, a Latin America expert at the National Defense University in Washington, also notes that Venezuela has little to contribute to the upcoming exercises. "They have a couple of destroyers, a couple of old submarines, and frigates that can launch surface-to-air missiles -- not anything sophisticated or robust. This would not be a robust exercise. It would be more about indicating strategic cooperation.”[3]
[1] Jane’s, “Russia extends $1bn loan to Venezuela for defense purchases” by Guy Anderson. 9/30/08
[2] Defense News, “Russian Warships Depart for Venezuela Maneuvers”. 9/22/08
[3] CNN: “Russian Ships to Visit Venezuela; Naval Exercises Possible”. 9/9/08
Why is it that Venezuela’s current inability to pose a direct threat to the United States remains a core issue in the discussion pertaining to these naval exercises? For that matter, why has the notion of a Russian nuclear missile cruiser basking in the Caribbean remained unaddressed? Whether or not Venezuela currently has the world-class hardware capable of posing a direct threat to the United States is both irrelevant and distracting. The recent contracts for 5-Kilo-class attack submarines, the other advanced weapons purchases, the talks of shared nuclear energy and oil technology…these are the core issues which should be of concern. The prospect of Russia sponsoring the creation of a nuclear Venezuela in the near future has real-time policy implications and, as indicated in a recent article by The Associated Press, is clearly on the agenda of both governments.

“Russia is ready to support Venezuela in the development of nuclear energy with peaceful purposes and we already have a commission working on it," Chavez said. "We are interested in developing nuclear energy.” [1] If nothing else, November 10th-14th will serve as one more piece of incontrovertible evidence that there is a focused effort by both countries to try to make Venezuela the dominant military power in the region.

In addition to its stop in the Caribbean, it has been speculated that the Russian fleet could stop in Syria as part of a broader show of force in the Mediterranean. Undisclosed sources have indicated that Russian engineers are expanding the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia to serve a more significant strategic purpose, “The possibility of basing aircraft carriers and missile cruisers there is foreseen,” the source told Russian newspaper, Izvestia. It is worth mentioning that the ports in Syria hosted a Soviet naval supply base and served as allies to Moscow during the Cold War. The likelihood of an impromptu port call in Syria has increased considering the recent controversy over the cross-border raids by the U.S. military into Syrian territory.

It is important to point out that the flagrant Russian support for those who would seek to intimidate and harm the U.S. is in no way comparable to our relief efforts underway in the Caucuses. The policy goal of the United States is to promote democracy and freedom among the sovereign peoples of every region, not just those within the former Soviet Union. This is a far cry from Moscow’s policy of supporting non-transparent dictatorships, similar to their own, in its efforts to sabotage true democracy for the purposes of re-establishing its withered sphere of influence. Russia’s provocative responses raise a number of important questions: How deep is the United States willing to allow the Russians to cement themselves in Latin America? How many more naval exercises and weapons shipments will it take for Putin to tip the balance of power in Latin America in his favor? Are the Russians initiating a military buildup similar to the one seen with Cuba in 1962? These are questions which should be carefully analyzed. Hopefully, the United States is not so distracted elsewhere in the world that it ignores this situation and the threat it poses to hemispheric security.

Relevant Russian Naval Specs:
Peter the Great”: Kirov Class (Type 1144.2) Nuclear-Powered Heavy Missile Cruiser.[2]
· 20 Granit anti-ship missiles (500kt nuclear warhead or 750kg HE warhead) [3]
· S-300F Air Defense Missile Complex (96 missiles in 12 vertical launchers),
· Osa-MA autonomous antiaircraft missile system
· Kashtan missile/gun air defense system
· Anti-sub counter measures (20 missiles and 40 rockets)
· 30mm and 130mm artillery batteries.
· Carries two KA-27 helicopters

Admiral Chabanenko”: ASW ship (Anti-Submarine Warfare) [4]
· 2 x 4 Moscit (SS-N-22 anti-air missile)
· 8 x 8 Kinzhal VLS (SA-N-9)
· 2 SA Kortik (SA-N-11)
· Upgraded sonar and defense measures.
· Anti-sub, anti-aircraft, and anti-ship capabilities via various torpedo and missile platforms.
[1] The Associated Press, “Venezuela to build nuclear technology with Russia”. By Christopher Toothaker. 9/28/08
[3] FAS
[4] Federation of American Scientists
*Benjamin Miller is an intern at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of California San Diego and has a BA in Political Science, with a focus on Latin American and Middle Eastern Affairs.

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