Sunday, November 30, 2008

Forget the Russian fleet and Venezuela

On Monday a task force of four Russian warships, including the flagship of their Northern Fleet the Peter the Great, will start joint exercises with the Venezuelan Navy. Of course with a flotilla of Russian warships in this hemisphere for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, terms like “new Cold War” have predictably been thrown around, but this misses the real story of both Russia’s involvement in Latin America and their navy’s role on the world stage.

While his navy was arriving off Caracas, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was busy visiting heads of state around the region to push Russia’s growing influence. Russia has begun aggressively investing in Latin America, their trade with the region has grown by 30% each of he past three years. Granted that several billion dollars worth of that trade has been from weapons sales to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, but Russia has been steadily building ties with the country’s energy sector as well. The two countries have been busily signing accords to grant Russian companies access to Venezuela’s oil-rich Orinoco Belt and to develop a peaceful nuclear energy sector within the country. Venezuela also agreed last week to buy two Russian-built aircraft for their domestic airlines and on a number of cultural exchange programs.

Meanwhile, Russia is also rebuilding relations with their old Soviet-era ally Cuba, relations which largely fell apart during Russia’s economic collapse in the 1990s. Russia has now agreed to help Cuba with the exploration of deep-water oil fields off the Cuban coast now thought to hold billions of barrels of oil, to participate in rebuilding a Soviet-era refinery in the port city of Cienfuegos, and to establish a new satellite-tracking center. Cuba, in turn, has discussed joining GLONAST, Russia’s home-built GPS system. During his visit to Havana this past weekend Medvedev even paid a visit to the newly consecrated Our Lady of Kazan Russian Orthodox cathedral in the Cuban capital, a move that highlights cultural links between the countries.

Elsewhere in the region, the Russian energy giant Gazprom signed deal to develop Bolivia’s rich natural gas fields and Moscow is working at building ties with Nicaragua, where the two countries have discussed oil and gas exploration deals, the development of a new deep-water port on the Caribbean, and perhaps even the construction of the Nicaraguan Canal - an idea first proposed more than a hundred years ago - to compete with the Panama Canal, which is too narrow to accommodate many modern cargo ships.

The impact of these deals will last far longer than a port call by a flotilla of warships and will bind Russia and Latin America closer together than even several billion dollars worth of weapons sales - once a gun is sold, it’s sold but developing an oil field or a nuclear power plant will require constant and ongoing involvment on the part of the Russians.

And speaking of the flotilla – sure, the image of Russian warships sailing through the Caribbean, which the United States has long considered its backyard, is loaded with symbolism. But the really important story with the Russian Navy is taking place a half a world away.

For the past month off the Horn of Africa the humble frigate Neustrashimy (“Fearless” in Russian) has been doing battle with Somali pirates. So far the Neustrashimy has helped to foil two pirate attacks and has escorted six convoys of merchant ships through the Gulf of Aden along the busy Europe-to-Asia via the Suez Canal route. The Neustrashimy has used the city of Aden in Yemen as its homeport during the mission, helping Russia to rebuild ties with another neglected Soviet-era ally.

So why is the action of one frigate more important than a whole task force featuring one of Russia’s most powerful warships? Because the Neustrashimy is actually doing something. The ships in Venezuela are basically engaged in a photo op (a photo op heavy with symbolism yes, but a photo op nonetheless), while the Neustrashimy is engaged in a military operation on an equal footing with ships from the navies of India, South Korea and a host of NATO members. It is an example that the much-maligned Russian Navy (when Russia first announced the Venezuela mission a US State Dept. official quipped that they were surprised Russia found ships that could sail that far) has the ability to participate in an operation with some of the world’s top navies. It sends a far more powerful message of Russia’s global reach than any photo op ever could.
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