HUGO CHAVEZ MAKES RUSSIA A BASE OFFER

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Russian bombers in Venezuela: too close for comfort to the USA

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has proposed using the island of La Orchila as a base for Russian strategic aircraft. There has been no reaction from Moscow to this initiative from Caracas – but acceptance would lead to serious complications in Russia’s relations with the United States.


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has proposed using the island of La Orchila as a base for Russian strategic aircraft. There has been no reaction from Moscow to this initiative from Caracas – but acceptance would lead to serious complications in Russia’s relations with the United States. Moreover, experts say that from the military standpoint, Russia would gain little by accepting Chavez’s offer.

Maj. Gen. Anatoly Zhikharev, chief of staff for Long-Range Aviation in the Russian Air Force, said on March 14 that President Chavez had offered the use of La Orchila as a base for Russian strategic bombers. Zhikharev told the Interfax news agency: “Such an offer has been received, and if a political decision is made, it is possible.” According to Zhikharev, he was among a group of Russian officers who visited the Venezuelan Navy base on the Caribbean island of La Orchila last year. The Russian officers were convinced that after renovations, the island’s airfield would allow Russian planes to take off with a maximal fuel load (essential for the flight over the Atlantic back to Russia).

Chavez’s offer seems logical, given the intensity of Russian-Venezuelan military technology cooperation. The two countries held joint naval exercises in the Caribbean last november, and two Russian T-160 strategic bombers (the Alexander Molodchii and the Vasilii Senko) landed at Caracas Airport in September (before going on to perform air patrol tasks over the Caribbean). At the time, Chavez said: “Russian bombers on our soil – this is a warning to the US empire!”

Since Venezuela’s constitution forbids it to host foreign military bases, this would be a matter of Russian aircraft being temporarily based there. Russian bombers would mostly be performing air patrols, similar to the flights by two bombers last year.

But if Russian strategic bombers started making regular flights in direct proximity to the US coast, this could lead to serious complications in Moscow-Washington relations. The Pentagon tried to downplay last year’s flights, saying this was a show of strength by Russia, not an actual military threat. But in speaking of a Russian air base close to the American coast, US Air Force spokesman Norton Schwartz warned that the USA would regard this as crossing the line.

The defense experts we approached for comments say that Chavez’s offer doesn’t carry any important strategic signficance for Moscow. Anatoly Kornukov, former Russian Air Force commander, said: “In the event of hostilities, such a base would be destroyed by the potential enemy within seconds, using cruise missiles. Venezuela’s air force and air defense forces wouldn’t cover it.”

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