Russia to Send Naval Ships, Planes to Venezuela for Joint Exercise

Russia said Monday it will send a naval squadron and anti-submarine patrol planes to Venezuela this year for a joint military exercise in the Caribbean, a deployment that comes amid increasingly tense relations with the United States.

Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said the exercise was planned before Russia's war last month with Georgia "and it's unrelated to the current political situation and the developments in the Caucasus."

"If this exercise takes place, it won't be directed against interests of any third party," Nesterenko said at a briefing.

The announcement was made just a week after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned that Russia would mount an unspecified response to recent U.S. aid shipments to Georgia.

Nesterenko said the Peter the Great missile cruiser and three other Russian navy ships would visit Venezuela before the year's end, and would be joined by a unit of long-range anti-submarine patrol aircraft.

He did not say how many planes would be sent, but said they would be "temporarily based at one of Venezuela's air bases."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had announced the maneuvers in his Sunday television and radio program, saying the Russian vessels would call on Venezuelan ports in late November or December.

Chavez, who has cultivated close ties with Moscow and placed big orders for Russian jets, helicopters and other weapons, has repeatedly warned that the U.S. Navy poses a threat to Venezuela.

Diplomatic relations between Caracas and Washington have been tense for years. U.S. officials have warned that Chavez poses a threat to democracy, while Chavez has emerged as Latin America's most outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy.

The socialist leader ridiculed any U.S. concerns over the joint exercise with the Russian forces, saying, "Go ahead and squeal, Yankees."

Nesterenko said the joint exercise would not be directed against any third country.

Russia has been angered, however, over the recent deployment of U.S. Navy ships to the Black Sea to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia, which was ravaged by a five-day war with Russia last month.

Russian officials said past U.S. military assistance for Georgia had encouraged the Caucasus country to launch its offensive in South Ossetia, and argued that the new shipments could be a cover for weapons deliveries.

U.S. officials have dismissed those accusations, saying the ships are carrying only humanitarian supplies such as blankets and powered milk.

Putin last week warned that Russia would respond to the U.S. aid shipments to Georgia, but he did not say how.

"We don't understand what American ships are doing on the Georgian shores, but this is a question of taste, it's a decision by our American colleagues," Putin said. "The second question is why the humanitarian aid is being delivered on naval vessels armed with the newest rocket systems."

Russia's reaction to the U.S. deployment to the Black Sea "will be calm, without any sort of hysteria. But of course, there will be an answer," Putin said.