Russian warships sailed into a Venezuelan port Tuesday, greeted by a 21-gun salute and an eager welcome from President Hugo Chavez as Moscow seeks to expand its influence in Latin America.
Russians sailors dressed in black-and-white uniforms lined up along the bow of the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko as it docked in La Guaira, near Caracas. The deployment is the first of its kind in the Caribbean since the Cold War and was timed to coincide with President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Caracas - the first ever by a Russian president.
For the past six months, it seems that Medvedev has been working hard to dismantle his liberal image and, reports CBS News' Alexsei Kuznetsov.
Chavez, basking in the support of a powerful ally and traditional U.S. rival, wants Russian help to build a nuclear reactor, invest in oil and natural gas projects and bolster his leftist opposition to U.S. influence in Latin America.
Chavez also wants weapons - he has bought more than $4 billion in Russian arms, including Sukhoi fighter jets, helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, and more deals for Russian tanks or other weaponry may be discussed after Medvedev arrives Wednesday.
Russia's deployment of the naval squadron - the behemoth flagship Peter the Great, the missile destroyer and two support vessels - is widely seen as a demonstration of Kremlin anger over the U.S. decision to send warships to deliver aid to Georgia after its battles with Russia, and U.S. plans for a European missile-defense system.
But Bush administration officials mocked the show of force.
"Are they accompanied by tugboats this time?" U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack joked to reporters in Washington. He noted that Russia's navy is but a shadow of its Soviet-era fleet, and reasserted U.S. dominance in Latin America.
"I don't think there's any question about ... who the region looks to in terms of political, economic, diplomatic and as well as military power," McCormack said. "If the Venezuelans and the Russians want to have, you know, a military exercise, that's fine. But we'll obviously be watching it very closely."
Venezuelan sailors stood at attention along the pier where the destroyer docked, while two support ships also pulled into port. The Peter the Great, the largest ship in the Russian fleet, anchored offshore in the distance due to its size.
When Russia sent two strategic bombers to Venezuela in September, some drew comparisons to the Soviet Union's deployments to Cuba during the Cold War.
But both countries have also shown signs of trying to engage President-elect Barack Obama.
And Chavez told reporters that it's ludicrous to invoke the Cold War to describe the naval exercises beginning Dec. 1.
"It's not a provocation. It's an exchange between two free countries," Chavez said.
Russia's ambitions to make inroads in Latin America may be checked by global events. Both Venezuela and Russia are feeling the pinch of slumping oil prices, and their ability to be major benefactors for like-minded leaders is in doubt given the pressures of the world's financial crisis.
The maneuvers starting Dec. 1 "should be viewed largely as a propaganda exercise," said Anna Gilmour, an analyst at Jane's Intelligence Review.
"Pragmatic Russian policy suggests that it will content itself with a brief high-profile visit, rather than a longer-term deployment that could cause severe tensions with the U.S., at a time when Russia may be looking to re-engage with the new administration," she said.
Next week, the warships will participate in exercises enabling sailors to practice reconnaissance, anti-drug patrols, anti-terrorism and search and rescue operations. There will also be anti-aircraft exercises involving Venezuela's newly bought Sukhoi fighter jets, though no live ammunition will be used, Rear Adm. Luis Morales Marquez said.
He said two of the Sukhois welcomed the ships with a flyover early Tuesday as they neared the coast.
Medvedev's tour this week to Peru, Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba was planned before the financial crisis, and Russia must now downsize its ambitions in Latin America because its pockets are no longer so deep, said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs Magazine.
"Russia will have to put off big projects like the construction of a gas pipeline across South America," Lukyanov said. The proposed natural gas pipeline is Chavez's brainchild, a controversial and ambitious plan for which he has explored Russian investment.
But Russia still has an economic interest in selling more weapons and boosting business in Latin America, and Venezuela can help "open the doors," noted Venezuelan political scientist Ricardo Sucre Heredia.
"It's a win-win relationship for the two countries," Sucre said. "Russia gains in terms of its international power and its presence, and Venezuela gains in terms of having an ally."