The Venezuelan government announced Sunday that four Russian naval vessels will participate in joint exercises in the Caribbean this year, a move that could heighten already strained relations between Washington and Moscow.
Venezuela's naval intelligence chief, Adm. Salbatore Cammarata Bastidas, said in a statement that a task force including four Russian naval vessels and 1,000 Russian military personnel would take part in mid-November exercises with Venezuelan frigates, patrol boats, submarines and aircraft.
The announcement came shortly after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's deployment of several warships to the Black Sea in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Georgia last month would not go unanswered. It was not immediately clear whether the two events were linked.
The Russian agreement to send ships also could be seen as part of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's campaign to build up his military, an effort that includes arms deals, a proposed hemispheric South American Defense Council and a recent decree that gives his armed forces a greater role in carrying out his social agenda.
Chavez, a strident critic of the United States, has said the actions are to ward off what he has described as U.S. imperialist designs on Venezuela and other Latin American countries. He has accused the U.S. of supporting a 2002 coup attempt against him.
Chavez particularly is unhappy with the re-formation of the U.S. Navy's 4th Fleet, based in Mayport, Fla., which was disbanded in 1953 but is now patrolling the Caribbean.
Officials at the U.S. military's Southern Command in Miami have said the 4th Fleet's re-creation is organizational in purpose and is not a response to tensions with Chavez. It involves no addition to forces already stationed at Mayport, the Southern Command said.
The announcement of the November exercises did not come as a total surprise. Chavez said during a visit to Russia in July that its ships and airplanes were welcome in Venezuela. In Sunday's statement, the Chavez government said an adjutant to Russian Adm. Popov Fedorovichhad been in Venezuela to plan the event.
Cammarata also said Russian vessels may appear in the region before the exercises.
Flush with oil revenue, Venezuela has spent $4 billion since 2004 on military hardware, purchased mainly from Russia, according to the Security and Democracy Foundation of Caracas. Those deals included the purchase of 53 Russian helicopters and 24 Sukhoi fighter jets. Venezuela is also buying rights and technology for a Kalashnikov assault rifle factory near Caracas.
During his visit to Russia, Chavez said that the two nations had formed a strategic partnership and that he was buying a Russian missile defense system to thwart a potential U.S. air attack.
In recent months, Chavez advisors have said Venezuela is considering buying as many as five diesel-powered Russian submarines. The deal would make Venezuela the region's top naval force, said retired Gen. Alberto Muller Rojas, a Chavez confidant.
Venezuelan officials have justified arms purchases from Russia by noting the U.S. ban on all weapons sales by American companies to Venezuela, a mandate that extends to foreign manufacturers' arms that contain U.S. components. Deals with Israeli, Swedish and Spanish manufacturers were scrubbed because the weapons included U.S. parts.
"The U.S. . . . has done everything to motivate Venezuela to seek a strategic military rapprochement with Russia," said a former advisor to Venezuela's Foreign Ministry who requested anonymity.