Russia "flexed its muscles in America's backyard" this week, sending one of its largest warships to join Venezuelan military exercises in the Caribbean, said Tony Halpin in The Times. It was the first Russian naval mission to Latin America since the end of the Cold War. Some experts believe the exercise may be a retort to Washington's actions after the war in Georgia, when US warships were sent into the Black Sea to deliver aid.
Events in Georgia and the proposed US missile shield in Eastern Europe certainly seem to have resulted in a closening of links between the Kremlin and Venezuela and Cuba, said Ellen Barry in The New York Times. Russia's Gazprom and Venezuela's state-run oil company have struck a deal to create an "oil and gas consortium" and Russia has just lent $1bn to the country to purchase more Russian arms (since 2005, Venezuela has signed contracts to buy more than $4.4bn worth). There is even talk of a joint bank and Russian-Venezuelan nuclear power facilities. Russia's muscle-flexing doesn't stop there, said Reuters. President Medvedev has announced the "biggest defence initiative" in Russia for at least a decade. He wants a "guaranteed nuclear deterrent system" in place by 2020 and has told military chiefs to draw up plans to reorganise the armed forces by December. The Kremlin has already used some of its large cash pile to beef up its armed forces, but this year's defence and security budget will be bumped up by 27% to nearly $95bn in 2009. This remains a "fraction" of US defence spending, which stood at more than $600bn this year.
Should we worry? US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "ridiculed" the naval exercises as an "outdated attempt by the Kremlin to assert its military power", said Philip Pan in The Washington Post. But the announcement of atomic assistance to Venezuela "is certain to alarm" Washington, said Halpin. "Moscow has already angered the West by delivering enriched uranium to Iran for its Russian-built power station amid fears that Tehran is secretly building a nuclear bomb."
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