MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Monday it would send a heavily-armed nuclear-powered cruiser to the Caribbean for a joint naval exercise with Venezuela, its first major maneuvers on the United States’ doorstep since the Cold War.
Russian officials denied the mission was linked to a naval standoff with U.S warships in the Black Sea, but it will take place at a time of high tension between Washington and Moscow over the conflict in Georgia.
Washington has played down the significance of the exercise.
Russia has criticized the United States for sending a command ship and two other naval vessels to Georgia, on its southern border, to deliver aid and show support for President Mikheil Saakashvili after Moscow sent troops into Georgia.
Kremlin leader Dmitry Medvedev asked on Saturday how Washington would feel “if we now dispatched humanitarian assistance to the Caribbean ... using our navy”.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said on Monday that the naval mission to Venezuela would include the nuclear-powered battle cruiser “Peter the Great”, one of the world’s largest combat warships.
Moscow’s most modern destroyer, the “Admiral Chabanenko”, will also steam to the Caribbean, along with other ships, including a fuel tanker, he added.
The naval exercise, to take place in November, will be backed up by an anti-submarine aircraft, based at a Venezuelan airfield, he said.
Russia denied that the move amounted to retaliation against the United States over its action in Georgia.
“We are talking about a planned event not linked with current political circumstances and not in any way connected to events in Georgia,” he told a news briefing. The exercises “will in no way be directed against the interests of a third country”.
The ships will participate in “joint maneuvers, practice search and rescue and communications drills,” Russian Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said in a statement. He added the exercise had been planned for a year.
The ‘Peter the Great’ is large and heavily armed with both surface-to-surface and around 500 surface-to-air missiles, said Jon Rosamund, editor of Jane’s Navy International, a specialist publication.
“On paper it’s an immensely powerful ship,” he said. “We are not really sure if this is a show of force or if it poses a viable operational capability at this stage,” Rosamund said.
“These ships have far more capability, on paper, than the U.S. destroyers that went to the Black Sea, but it’s difficult to compare capacity,” Rosamund said. “The Russian navy is keen to be seen on the world stage.”
Admiral Eduard Baltin, former commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, said the Caribbean maneuvers meant “Russia is returning to the stage in its power and international relations which it, regrettably, lost at the end of last century”.
“No one loves the weak,” Baltin was quoted as saying by Russia’s Interfax news agency.
But U.S. officials tried play down any concerns.
“We’ve seen the reports and we’ll see how the exercise goes,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
The Pentagon said it was not concerned by the exercise.
“We exercise... all around the globe and have joint exercises with countries all over the world and so do many other nations,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an outspoken critic of the United States, said during a visit to Moscow in July that Russian warships or warplanes were welcome to visit.
Chavez is a major arms client of Moscow, saying he needs Russian weaponry to dissuade “the North American empire” from invading his country.
Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow and Jeremy Pelofsky and Andrew Gray in Washington; writing by Michael Stott and Conor Sweeney; editing by Sami Aboudi