Russia will send a naval squadron and long-range patrol planes to Venezuela this year for a joint military exercise in the Caribbean, said Russian officials Monday in an announcement made at a time of steadily deteriorating relations with the United States.
Russia's move follows the U.S. deployment of warships to deliver aid to the former Soviet nation of Georgia, barely a month after Russian armour and aircraft crushed the Georgian military in a five-day war.
Russia's decision to send the squadron and planes to Venezuela was made before the war with Georgia, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said Monday.
"This deployment had been planned in advance, and it's unrelated to the current political situation and the developments in the Caucasus," Nesterenko said at a briefing.
But 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.
The Interfax news agency quoted Vyacheslav Nikonov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, as saying that the Russian cruise to Venezuela was a response to the deployment of U.S. navy ships to Georgia's Black Sea coast.
"That shows that Moscow won't leave such challenges unanswered," Nikonov was quoted by Interfax as saying.
The Peter the Great missile cruiser and three other Russian navy ships would visit Venezuela in November, and would be joined by a unit of long-range anti-submarine patrol aircraft, said Nesterenko.
He did not say how many planes would be sent, but said they would be "temporarily based at one of Venezuela's air bases."
The joint exercise would not be directed against any third country, said Nesterenko.
U.S. ships may deliver weapons to Georgia, says Russia
Past U.S. military assistance for Georgia had encouraged the Caucasus country to launch its offensive in South Ossetia, said Russian officials, arguing 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 powdered 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," Putin said.
"But of course, there will be an answer."
'Go ahead and squeal': Chavez to U.S.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an unbridled critic of American foreign policy, was specific and blunt Sunday night about the possibility the U.S. might be concerned about the exercises.
"Go ahead and squeal, Yankees," Chavez said in a national broadcast in which he announced the exercises.
The Russian vessels would call on Venezuelan ports in late November or December, said Chavez.
The Venezuelan leader, 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 said Chavez poses a threat to democracy, and Chavez has emerged as Latin America's most outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy.