Concerns over Russia’s Interest in Latin America

venezuelayrusia112508.jpgInsofar as the official reaction, both military officials and the U.S. State Department appear to be handling Russia’s increased activism and showmanship in Latin America with measured dismissals – no big deal, nothing to worry about.  In fact, during the daily media briefing earlier this week, spokesman Sean McCormack made a joke out of the naval exercises involving Venezuela and Russia’s nuclear frigate Peter the Great, remarkingAre they accompanied by tugboats this time?  (This of course reminds me of the State Department’s reaction to the resumption of Russia’s long-haul bomber flights, when McCormack again made fun of Russia’s outdated military equipment – “If Russia feels as though they want to take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again, that’s their decision.“)

But let’s not take the U.S. reaction out of context.  Following his tugboat joke, McCormack was careful to explain the nice cooperation with Russia at APEC, and that the military is carefully monitoring what the Russians and Venezuelans are up to, but regard these joint military exercises as non-threatening independent decisions of sovereign governments.  Yes, it is provocative, but at this juncture, close observation is the most prudent reaction.

Our sense is that the U.S. is reluctant to concede to Russia’s artificial attempts to create leverage.  They want to resist the Ukraine-ization of Venezuela, and not start needlessly panicking over absurd hypothetical scenarios, or later somehow find themselves in a corner whereby they have to give up a big concession to Russia in return for having them pull out of the Caribbean.  For the Kremlin, there is of course the question of the quickly burning fuse, and how much time is left before these mini-Cold War actions need to be separated from the sincere and the rhetorical. 

While we hope that cool heads will prevail, Russia’s attempt to sow panic and create leverage is certainly working in the media.  Today’s editorial in the Los Angeles Times, excerpted below, is likely exactly the kind of reaction that Moscow is hoping to create.

For the Kremlin, this is about sending a message to Washington: If youtrespass in our backyard, we’ll trespass in yours. Medvedev and hispuppeteer, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, are furious atU.S. intentions to build a missile shield in Eastern Europe, as well asWashington’s support of NATO membership for former Soviet satellites,its objections to Russia’s attacks in Georgia this summer and itsbacking of Kosovo’s independence.

There’s no sign that the Bushadministration is taking the saber-rattling seriously, nor shouldPresident-elect Barack Obama. The Russian navy is less a threat to theU.S. than it is to its own sailors, who have a frightening tendency todie in accidents like the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in2000; the flagship of the forces training in the Caribbean, a cruisercalled Peter the Great, was said in 2004 by Russia’s naval commander tobe in such bad condition that it could explode at any moment.

YetMedvedev’s visit does bring up an issue that should concern Obama.Russia isn’t the only country casting covetous eyes on Latin America’sresources, goods and consumers. Chinese President Hu Jintao also touredthe continent last week to drum up business, which is booming: China’strade with Latin America jumped from $10 billion in 2000 to $103billion in 2007. Obama has rightly signaled that he may ease the embargo with Cuba, yet he has also expressed skepticism at theColombia free-trade pact and even the North American Free TradeAgreement. If the U.S. snubs its trading partners in Latin America, itwould leave a vacuum that countries like Russia and China would be onlytoo happy to fill — to the detriment of both our economy and nationalsecurity.

Photo: Handout picture from the Venezuelan presidential press office showingRussian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin (C, with white shirt) and Venezuela‘sPresident Hugo Chavez (C, with blue shirt) who delivers a speech forthe workers, on November 7, 2008 during the inauguration of theoffshore platform “Watchful Scorpion” near Punto Fijo (offshoreNorthern Venezuela). The oil rig will be jointly exploited by PDVSA and Gazprom, Venezuela‘s and Russia‘s state-owned oil companies respectively.