As one of Russia's nuclear-powered warships heads toward the Caribbean for military maneuvers with Venezuela, the suddenly resurgent country is raising fears of a future war with the United States.
The seizure of territories in the republic of Georgia last month seems to be only the first stage in a planned projection of military strength around the globe, say military experts.
The military exercises, which Venezuela President Hugo Chavez announced only two weeks ago, has U.S. officials and others dusting off old Cold War strategies involving threats from Cuba, Mexico and South America that many thought were no longer valid.
“The Georgian war in August was simply the first effort by a resurging Russia to pulse out, expand its security buffer and, ideally, in the Kremlin’s plans, break out of the post-Cold War noose that other powers have tied,” writes Peter Zeihan at Stratfor.com, a defense analysis Web site.
Zeihan goes on to predict that Russia will continue to behave much as the Soviet Union did, forging bonds with hostile Latin American governments like Cuba and Venezuela, while working with drug mafias to destabilize Mexico. That will keep the United States busy in its own backyard while Russia can gain footholds throughout Europe.
The nuclear-powered flagship Peter the Great set off for Venezuela Monday with the submarine destroyer Admiral Chabanenko and two support vessels in the first Russian naval mission in Latin America since the end of the Cold War. In November, they are to be joined by a unit of Russian long-range anti-submarine patrol aircraft that will be temporarily stationed at one of Venezuela's air bases.
A serious threat, or simple political theater? The Peter the Great is armed with 20 nuclear cruise missiles and up to 500 surface-to-air missiles, making it one of the most formidable warships in the world. But it’s a showpiece of a military that is still hindered by poor morale, drug use, desertion, and substandard equipment.
The question for the next U.S. president is how serious a threat is Russia in the Western hemisphere. The Russians — angered by the expansion of NATO, a proposed U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe, and the recognition of independent Kosovo — are projecting force in Latin America to give the United States a taste of its own medicine, both Russian and American experts agree.
Those tensions are only likely to grow as Eastern European countries like Ukraine and Georgia continue to press for NATO membership. That commits the U.S. and other NATO nations to defend them if attacked — a position that didn’t seem to bother both two former secretaries of state in interviews this month.
"Countries have the right to choose whatever alliance they want to be in,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who advises Barack Obama, in an interview on CNN. “And the main thing, while I fully agree that we can't go back to the Cold War and have a really very bad adversarial relationship with Russia, Russia cannot think that independent countries on its border are a threat to them."
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican, agreed: “We cannot say to the Russians, ‘We are not going to allow the Georgians or Ukrainians or anyone else to start down the path toward NATO membership.’ It's not for the Russians to decide that.”
But Russia considers it threatening to have NATO nations less than 100 miles from its key cities, as is the case with Estonia. It also was angered when the Bush administration dispatched two U.S. warships to the Black Sea to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia.
"It may look unfriendly to Americans, but now you can have the same feeling as we had in Russia," Andrei Klimov, a Putin loyalist and deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee for the Duma, Russia's lower chamber of parliament, told The Chicago Tribune.
And Pavel Felgengauer, a leading Russian defense expert, told The Times of London, "It’s to show the flag and the finger to the United States. They are offering a sort of gangland deal: If you get into our territory, then we will get into yours. You leave Georgia and Ukraine to us and we won’t go into the Caribbean, OK?”
Russian officials, though, have described the Caribbean and Atlantic as a crucial global commercial zone and well within their national interests. Russian leaders have twice visited Cuba in recent weeks to strike energy deals after Putin said the nation "should restore our position in Cuba." It also has agreed to sell more than $4 billion worth of armaments to Venezuela since 2005 and revealed recently that it is considering the sale of advanced anti-aircraft systems to the Chavez government.
That may be more bluster, but U.S. defense experts say the Russian threat has to be taken very seriously. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sees the United States as bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan with little ability to fight another major conflict. America’s NATO allies, meanwhile, are unlikely to muster the popular will or forces to defend countries like Ukraine, Georgia or Estonia during a future conflict, so now is the time for Russia to seize the initiative.
Stratfor’s Zeihan described the vulnerabilities of the U.S. underbelly with regard to a Russian threat. Russia is likely to work at destabilizing Mexico, while continuing to probe shipping lanes and ports in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
“The U.S. Gulf Coast is not only the heart of the country’s energy industry, but the body of water that allows the United States to function as a unified polity and economy,” Zeihan writes. “The Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi river basins all drain to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. The economic strength of these basins depends upon access to oceanic shipping.
“A hostile power in Cuba could fairly easily seal both the Straits of Florida and the Yucatan Channel, reducing the Gulf of Mexico to little more than a lake.”
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