WASHINGTON – Russian warships have been plying the waters off Venezuela and Panama in recent weeks and are now heading for Cuba, but U.S. officials are not so much wringing their hands as yawning.
Asked about a Russian warship transiting the Panama Canal earlier this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — who saw the ship while crossing the canal last week — told The Associated Press: "I guess they're on R&R. It's fine."
The Pentagon, while puzzled by the Russians' actions, also is taking a ho-hum attitude. The U.S. military commander for the region, Adm. James Stavridis, head of the U.S. Southern Command, said that from his vantage point, there is no reason to be concerned about the Russian naval activity.
"They pose no military threat to the U.S.," Stavridis said in an e-mail to the AP on Tuesday.
It was the first such passage by a Russian or Soviet warship since World War II.
There is no suggestion of a military confrontation, but the Russian moves are notable in part because they appear to reflect an effort by Moscow to flex some muscle in America's backyard in response to Washington's support for the former Soviet republic of Georgia and elsewhere on the Russian periphery. That includes U.S. missile defense bases to be erected in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The Russians were unhappy with a U.S. decision to send a state-of-the-art warship into the Black Sea as part of an American humanitarian aid mission for Georgia in the aftermath of last August's war with Russia. The Russians also are angry about the Bush administration's push to add Georgia and the former Soviet republic of Ukraine as members of the NATO military alliance.
Under the gaze of the U.S. Southern Command, Russian ships this fall held joint exercises with the navy of Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, is a fierce U.S. critic.
Navy Rear Adm. Tom Meek, the deputy director for security and intelligence at Southern Command, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he sees little chance of Russia teaming up with Venezuela in a militarily meaningful way.
"I don't think that Russia and Venezuela are really serious about putting together a military coalition that would give them any kind of aggregate military capability to oppose anybody," Meek said. "Frankly, the maneuvers they conducted down here were so basic and rudimentary that they did not amount to anything, in my opinion."
And it's not just the Russian navy that is showing up in the West.
In September, two Tu-160 long-range bombers, known in the West as Blackjacks, landed in Venezuela — the first landing in the Western Hemisphere by Russian military aircraft since the Cold War ended.
Rice shrugs it off.
"A few aging Blackjacks flying unarmed along the coast of Venezuela is — I don't know why one would do it, but I'm not particularly going to lose sleep over that," she said in the AP interview Monday.
She said Russia is welcome to have relations with countries in the West.
"I don't think anybody's confused about the preponderance of power in the Western Hemisphere," Rice said.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made no effort to hide his irritation at what he considers American arrogance.
"God forbid from engaging in any kind of controversy in the American continent," he said, referring to his Blackjack bombers flying to Venezuela for a training exercise. "This is considered the 'holiest of the holy,"' he said during a meeting with Western political scholars at his Black Sea residence in Sochi. "And they drive ships with weapons to a place just 10 kilometers from where we're at? Is this normal? Is this an equitable move?"
On Monday, the Russian navy announced that a destroyer and two support vessels will visit Cuba for the first time since the Soviet era. The ships are from a squadron that has been on a lengthy visit to Latin America; they are scheduled to put in at Havana on Friday for a five-day stay, navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo said.
Moscow's support for Cuba fell sharply after the 1991 Soviet collapse, but the Russians have bolstered ties recently.
The joint naval exercises with Venezuela were Russia's way of "demonstrating to the U.S. that it has a foothold in a region traditionally dominated by the U.S.," said analyst Anna Gilmour at Jane's Intelligence Review.
Still, she and many Russian analysts say Moscow's deployments of warships are largely for show.
Russia's navy is a shadow of its Soviet-era force, having suffered from a serious lack of investment since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Many ships and submarines have rusted away at their berths, and deadly accidents occur regularly.