Bearing the torch of resurgent Russia, President Dmitry Medvedev visits Venezuela Nov. 26-27 to observe a joint naval exercise with his country's closest Western hemisphere ally. Meanwhile, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama is appropriately focusing on the American economy.
Nonetheless, he should focus for a moment on Russia's quest to remake world order, in part by rebuilding Russian military power projection capabilities. The case should not be overstated, but neither should it be ignored.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a regular visitor to Moscow, most recently in September when he concluded a dozen arms deals worth $4.4 billion. Chavez' big payoff, however, is to needle Washington by providing Russia another foothold in the Caribbean.
"Go ahead and squeal, Yankees," he said two days before a couple of Tu-160 White Swan (Blackjack) bombers landed at Libertador Air Base. Western analysts believe they were unarmed, but each is equipped to carry 12 Kh-55 Granat (AS-15 Kent) air-launched cruise missiles packing 200-kiloton nuclear warheads.
The bombers arrived in Venezuela just after Russia's August invasion of Georgia, broadcasting Moscow's geopolitical warning worldwide.
"The old world order was shattered in August," Medvedev would later tell his military district commanders, "a new one is emerging, more secure and just."
(In July, Izvestia reported a proposal to station Tu-160s and Tu-95 (Bear) bombers in Cuba.)
The Kremlin also rewarded Nicaragua, the only country that joined in recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, territories that Russia snatched from Georgia. Russia will modernize the Nicaraguan military, possibly replacing its aging 9K32M Strela-2 (SA-7 Grail) man-portable air defense systems.
This week, the Russian Navy plans a bigger splash as a flotilla led by the cruiser Pyotr Veliky conducts maneuvers with Venezuelan counterparts.
In the near term, writes Barry Cooper in the Calgary Herald, "A little training, a few high-end weapons in the hands of the Mexican drug cartels could pay off handsomely for the Russians. From their perspective, what could be better than a failed state or two on the outskirts of America?"
In the medium term, beware of a potential Cuba-Nicaragua-Venezuela military triangle astride the approaches to Florida, the Mississippi, Houston and the Panama Canal, within bomber range of America's eastern seaboard. This would replicate the Soviet Cuba-Nicaragua-Grenada triangle smashed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1983.
That Medvedev's Caribbean gambit is part of a wider plan underscores the caution.
On its way to Venezuela, the Pyotr Veliky called at Tarsus in Syria, which Russia is resurrecting as its major ally on the Mediterranean Sea.
As with Venezuela, arms sales underpin the relationship. Most worrisome are the August delivery of 50 S1E Pantsyr (SA-22 Greyhound) air defense systems, 10 of which are reportedly destined for Iran, and the sale of 1,000 9M133 Kornet (AT-14 Spriggan) anti-tank guided missiles, both threats to Israel.
Moreover, Russia is refurbishing the decrepit Soviet-era Tarsus naval base and dredging the larger Syrian port of Latakia. The two Syrian ports afford the Russians a foothold on the Mediterranean, a warm-water hedge against Ukrainian success in booting them from their Black Sea base at Sevastopol and a strategic position opposite the Turkish port of Ceyhan, terminal for a major oil pipeline vital to European energy diversification. For Syria, the improved ports are just a hop from Lebanon and Israel.
As in the Caribbean, Russian forays into Mare Nostrum are part of a wider plan.
On the southern flank of the Middle East, a Russian Navy spokesman announced on Nov. 1 that vessels of the Russian Pacific and Northern fleets will conduct exercises and port calls in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.
However, the best indicator of Moscow's military machinations is the scope, scale and scenario of the Sept. 22-Oct. 21 Stability 2008 exercise, which involved the entire government, including 50,000 military personnel in a combined arms exercise. The exercise scenario was a local war that escalates into nuclear war with the United States.
"We have seen that an absolutely real war can erupt suddenly; and simmering local conflicts, which are sometimes called 'frozen,' can turn into a real firestorm," deadpanned Medvedev to the military district commanders.
Tu-160s and Tu-95s practiced firing air-launched cruise missiles, something not exercised in post-Soviet times.
Culminating the exercise, on Oct. 11 and 12, Russia test-fired RSM-54 Sineva sub-launched ballistic missiles (SS-N-23 Skiff) and RS-12M Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles (SS-25 Sickle).
"This shows that our deterrent is in order," Medvedev proclaimed to RIA-Novosti.
Of course, all is not in order. Russia's military is beset with problems, not least of which is Russia's doleful economy.
Like Obama, Medvedev might do well to mind money matters, but his military escapades reveal an important difference between Obama and him. To Medvedev, healing the economy and restoring Russia's military might are both about building a polycentric world to supplant the unipolar one he perceives to be dominated by Washington. His efforts are part bravado, part wishful thinking, but also part real.
President Obama should maintain a wary eye on Russia. ■
(David Smith is senior fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Arlington, Va., and director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, Georgia)
Published: 24 November 2008
Russia Rattles Saber in Caribbean