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Russian Strategic Bombers in Washington's Backyard

Politics / New Cold War Sep 10, 2008 - 04:56 PM GMT

By: STRATFOR

Politics Summary
Two Russian Tu-160 “Blackjack” strategic bombers reportedly landed in Venezuela on Sept. 10. If this is a Russian military foray into the Caribbean, it will be the first since the Cold War. The move also give Venezuela an opportunity to annoy the United States by letting Washington's old Cold War rival operate from its territory, in the United States' backyard.


Analysis

Two Russian Tu-160 “Blackjack” strategic bombers reportedly landed in Venezuela on Sept. 10, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. Just two days before, the Russian navy confirmed claims by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that the two countries would conduct joint naval exercises in Venezuelan waters in November. That, in conjunction with rumors about similar flights to Cuba , is sufficient to spark concern over a potential renewed interest on the Kremlin's part in tinkering in the Caribbean.

Though largely a legacy platform from the Cold War, the Tu-160 is Russia's newest and longest-range strategic bomber. With a maximum unrefuelled range of more than 6,600 nautical miles, it has the legs to reach Venezuela — with plenty of distance to spare. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bomber has been upgraded, and several new airframes are reportedly under production. They are employed primarily as long-range cruise missile carriers, and are not generally used in maritime interdiction. The Tu-160 is the quintessential reminder of the unique military position Moscow retains through its inheritance of late-Soviet technology and weapons.

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While Russia has long maintained this military capability, this could be its first military foray into the Caribbean since the Cold War. And that is a line the Kremlin does not cross lightly or unconsciously.

It appears that, for most of the flight, the Blackjacks were escorted by NATO and U.S. warplanes — a reminder that they were quickly detected and intercepted and that they likely would have been destroyed quickly in a shooting war. But Washington is not in a shooting war with Russia; it will have little option but to tail the jets as they conduct exercises over international waters over the next few days before they are scheduled to return to Moscow.

For Venezuela, this is an opportunity to needle the United States by lending its territorial proximity to Russia. Caracas seeks to put a great deal of distance between itself and Washington, with which Chavez has long attempted to compete for regional leadership and influence. Venezuela also seeks to make Russia into its very own great power ally; but without a return to Cold War rivalries, Venezuela would have nothing to offer Moscow.

For Russia's part, the precedent has now been set, and it only remains to be seen how regular a presence the Kremlin will attempt to sustain in this regard. But the larger significance is that Russia is reminding the United States of a time when Cuba was a Soviet ally, when Nicaragua was in play and when Grenada was on the verge of becoming a major Soviet air base, forcing the United States to invade. Washington generally enjoys a great deal of geopolitical insulation from the troubles of the world on the far side of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. This is the heart of the Monroe Doctrine and affords the United States an enviable geopolitical position. But it also makes the Americans extremely sensitive to this very sort of jab by the Russians.

After suffering NATO in its own backyard for years, Russia is now on the verge of playing hardball with the United States in its front yard. Events thus far may be more of a signal to Washington to back off of Russia's periphery — in exchange, Moscow may leave the United States' sphere of interest alone. But given Washington's distraction in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia may never have a better chance to attempt to consolidate a foothold in the Caribbean. It may not necessarily be possible, and it may not necessarily succeed in the long run. But neither precludes Moscow from making the attempt — and in so doing, potentially significantly altering the global geopolitical landscape.

By George Friedman

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