In show of power, Russian warships head to Venezuela
MOSCOW - The voyage of the cruiser Peter the Great, scheduled to arrive in Venezuela this week with a squadron of other Russian warships, was meant to showcase the Kremlin's ability to project naval power abroad and reassert its claim to great power status.
But the arrival of the 24,000-ton, nuclear-powered vessel and its escorts may mark the end of an era of rising ambitions for the Russian Navy, not its beginning.
Russia's plans to conduct exercises in the Caribbean for the first time since the Cold War were made before the global financial crisis mauled the country's energy-based economy. Plunging oil prices, some believe, could end Moscow's aspirations for a stronger presence in the Western Hemisphere.
The Peter the Great, a missile destroyer, and two support vessels from Russia's Northern Fleet set off for Venezuela late September, in what was widely seen as a show of the Kremlin's anger over the US dispatch of warships to deliver aid to Georgia after its August war with Russia. A pair of Russian strategic bombers visited Venezuela for a week in September. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union sent its planes and navy ships to Cuba.
The squadron's arrival is timed to coincide with President Dmitry Medvedev's planned trip to Venezuela and other Latin American nations. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, an unbridled critic of the US policy, said his nation needs a strong friendship with Russia to reduce US influence and keep peace in the region.
Some analysts, though, question the military value of the exercise.
"The Kremlin is continuing its anti-American course in the 19th-century style," said Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst. "But it makes no sense militarily. A couple of ships struggling to make it to South America aren't going to strengthen Russia's posture against the United States."
Medvedev vowed in September that Russia will follow up on the Venezuelan cruise with other maneuvers worldwide. But its naval capability is limited.
"Russia simply lacks ships for the purpose," said Alexander Khramchikhin, a top analyst with the Moscow-based Institute for Political and Military Analysis, an independent think-tank.
He and other analysts say the Peter the Great and its destroyer escort, the Admiral Chabanenko, are among a few vessels in the Russian Navy capable of long ocean cruises.
The construction of the Peter the Great began before the 1991 Soviet collapse, but was completed a decade later. It was designed to destroy aircraft carriers with an array of supersonic cruise missiles. It's the largest ship in the Russian fleet, and the only surface vessel powered by a nuclear reactor, which gives it enormous range and autonomy.
The cruiser had a deadly accident in 1996 when a high-pressure steam line ruptured, killing four seamen.