The Defense Ministry in Moscow announced this week that warships and long-range bombers would be deployed to the Caribbean for joint military exercises with Venezuela in November. Russia’s most powerful warship, the nuclear cruiser Pyotr Velikii, will lead the flotilla, accompanied by a frigate Admiral Chabanenko, a tanker, and a sea tug. At the same time, Russian long-range bombers will be temporarily based in Venezuela. Moscow announced that the planned deployment of Russian naval and air forces in the Caribbean was planned a year in advance and that the joint exercises were agreed upon with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during his visit to Moscow last July. Foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko announced that the exercises were “not in any way connected to the current situation in the Caucasus” and were “not aimed at any third country.” Kremlin insiders and retired admirals, however, have told journalists that in fact the exercises in the Caribbean are indeed in retaliation for the United States sending warships to deliver aid to Georgia following its conflict with Russia (Interfax, September 8).
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently blasted the United States for sending humanitarian aid to Georgia on board armed naval ships and promised a “response” (www.government.ru, September 2). President Dmitry Medvedev announced last Saturday that “Russia is a nation to be reckoned with” and added, “It [would be] interesting how those, who are rearming Georgia under the flag of humanitarian aid… would feel if we were now to send humanitarian aid using our navy to the countries of the Caribbean Sea, which recently suffered from a destructive hurricane” (RIA-Novosti, September 6).
Russian leaders want to send a clear and immediate response to what is seen in Moscow as a Western challenge in the Black Sea, but it will take time for the ships to take to sea and reach Venezuela in November. In an apparent attempt to speed up the “response” Putin had promised, two supersonic Tu-160 strategic bombers, known in the West as Blackjacks, arrived in Venezuela on Wednesday for “training flights” after a 13-hour flight from the Engels airbase in Saratov Oblast on the Volga River. The planes arrived at the El Libertador airbase in the northern town of Aragua. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the bombers will stay in Venezuela “several days” and return home (ITAR-TASS, September 10). Chavez has announced that he hopes to pilot one of the Tu-160s while they are visiting (AFP, September 10).
The Tu-160 has a crew of four; and in the past Putin, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, has gone aboard the Blackjack in the copilot’s seat. It is to be hoped that Chavez does not push the wrong button while in flight, as Russia has only 16 Tu-160s, its biggest and most modern bomber, which can carry 12 KH-55 long-range, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
If the current tension between the West and Russia develops into a full-blown military standoff, the deployment of Russian strategic bombers in Venezuela, even on a temporary basis, could make some military sense. The Tu-160’s KH-55 cruise missiles are designed to carry a 200-kiloton warhead and have a range of up to 1,900 miles. From Venezuela, the Tu-160s could threaten the southern United States with a surprise nuclear attack by low-flying, long-range cruise missiles. Today, of course, under the 1991-1992 mutual U.S.-Russian unilateral nuclear disarmament initiatives, strategic bombers have been taken off combat duty and are not permitted to carry nuclear weapons (see EDM, September 12, 2007). The commander of Russia’s strategic bomber force General Pavel Androsov announced last year that on long-distance patrols Russian planes did not have any nuclear or conventional weapons on board, “only training weapons” (Interfax, August 27); but the 1991-1992 agreement in not a treaty, and there are no verification procedures to know if it is indeed being fully observed.
There is no land infrastructure to maintain Russia’s strategic bombers or their weapons in Venezuela, so they will indeed surely soon return to Engels. In a real military standoff the big bombers would require defense cover to prevent them from being destroyed by U.S. forces before they could release their weapons. The Pyotr Velikii, when it arrives, could provide such cover, since it is armed with long-range, anti-ship supersonic Granit cruise missiles and 12 long-range, anti-aircraft S-300F missile launchers with a stockpile of 96 missiles. The Pyotr Velikii has the capability of defending strategic bombers, while they release their cruise missiles over the Caribbean.
Compared with Russia’s present force of land and submarine based intercontinental ballistic missiles, which can carry some 3,500 nuclear warheads, the possible additional threat to the United States from one lonely nuclear cruiser and a couple of bombers in the Caribbean is not that serious; but their deployment signals another step in the confrontation with the West that by November may be getting fully out of control.