Why would the Russian navy — a shadow of the former Soviet fleet — go to the effort to sail to Venezuela? Three reasons.
The first one is found in the announcement made by President Medvedev in a November 5 speech –“Russia is returning to superpower status” — and describing the Venezuelan visit as a “counterweight to U.S. influence.” Whether it is a superpower or not, Russia wants to give the appearance of being one.
The second reason is the Russian objective of becoming a global energy superpower, which required them to court potential Latin American allies that are rich in energy such as Venezuela and Brazil. The third and, perhaps, most important reason is the obsessive desire by Chavez to irritate the U.S.
In 1697, William Congreve said: “Hell has no fury like a woman scorned.” He should have added “or a politician neglected”. The indifference shown by the U.S to Chavez’s frequent insults and threats has thrown him into the hands of Vladimir Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But even response, and attention, would probably not have deterred him from joining with America’s enemies, because Chavez — like every dictator before him — is insecure in his power. Not only has he bought or placed orders for almost $10 billion in Russian weapons, but he is also handing the Russians important oil and gold mining concessions.
The Russian naval force visiting Venezuela included the missile-bearing, nuclear destroyer “Peter the Great,” the anti-submarine ship “Admiral Chabanenko,” and two support vessels, with a combined crew of 1600. The Venezuelan navy would have been represented by up to 12 ships with about 1000 sailors.
Tal Cual, a Venezuelan daily newspaper, described the exercises as a “clash of civilizations” due to the strange and even hilarious events that occurred. To start with, the Cuban officers brought along by the Venezuelan navy as interpreters were not allowed by the Russians, who could not understand why the Venezuelan navy had to rely on Cuban personnel. When Venezuelan strongman Chavez tried to visit the ship “Admiral Chabanenko,” his bodyguards were not allowed to go aboard. A fistfight broke between the Russian sailors and the bodyguards — one Russian sailor suffering a broken nose.
The Venezuelan participation in the exercises was finally reduced to two frigates, F21 and F24, and the transport ship T81, since the other units were not seaworthy. The access of Chavez to the flagship Russian “Peter the Great” was not allowed. In retaliation, Chavez refused to receive Russian President Medvedev at his arrival, sending his colorless vice president Ramon Carrizales instead. Medvedev was reportedly not amused, but his visit had objectives to fulfill that were more important than his irritation at Chavez’s faulty protocol.
Twenty-three agreements were signed, including the creation of a joint Russian-Venezuelan bank with $4 billion initial capital, direct flights Caracas-Moscow, a new aluminum smelter, Russian participation in the Venezuelan oil and gas sectors and the possible development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Medvedev also visited Brazil, Peru and Cuba before returning to Russia.
The strange events taking place during the naval exercises suggest that the Russian-Venezuelan exercise started on the wrong foot, in spite of the coquettish attitude of Chavez. If this is any indication of things to come, the Russians are probably in for another rocky relationship with Latin America, as complicated and unsatisfactory as the one they had with Cuba and Nicaragua decades ago.