Russian warships arrived in Venezuela Tuesday, for the first time in regional waters since the Cold War, ahead of a two-day visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
It was a major symbolic show of military and diplomatic force as Russia moves to underscore its international heft amid intense frustration with Washington over a European-based missile shield and over the war in Georgia. Oil-rich Venezuela is among the staunchest US critics worldwide.
The Venezuelan navy welcomed the warships, including the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great and destroyer Admiral Chabankenko, at the northern port of La Guaira, near Caracas, for a week of joint maneuvers.
Medvedev was due to arrive Wednesday for a two-day visit, before heading to communist Cuba, to promote ties and oversee the start of the exercises, as Moscow seeks to rebuild influence in the Americas that eroded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and even expand it.
The exercises, dubbed VenRus 2008, would take first take place in dock and then at sea on December 1, vice admiral Luis Morales Marquez, a Venezuelan operations commander, told journalists here.
The aim was to "strengthen links of friendship and solidarity with the Russian fleet and the Bolivarian national armed forces," Marquez said.
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez said the maneuvers were not a provocation, but an exchange between "two free, sovereign countries that are getting closer," at a news conference late Monday.
"We carried out maneuvers with Brazil recently, with France, with the Netherlands and now with Russia," Chavez said.
But analysts see the Russian leader as boldly bringing a defiant message to Washington's doorstep, in the wake of Russian outrage at US plans to install a strategic missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, and support for the brief Georgia war in August.
"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," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday in Washington.
"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 added.
The US has expressed concern, however, about Russian arms supplies to the oil-rich OPEC country.
The two countries have signed 4.4 billion dollars in bilateral arms deals since 2005, including radars, 24 Sukhoi-30 planes, 50 helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikovs.
Medvedev was expected to expand arms deals during his visit, as well as economic and energy ties, including plans for a joint civilian nuclear reactor.
Some 1,600 Russian forces traveling on four Russian ships joined 700 Venezuelans for the exercises.
Venezuela was due to mobilize three frigates, an amphibious warfare ship and eight patrol boats, as well as Sukhoi planes recently purchased from Russia.
Marquez suggested more exercises could take place in Russian waters at a later date.
A Russian naval spokesman said in Moscow that the exercises would include operation planning, helping ships in distress and supplying ships on the move.
"Until a few years ago, we did a lot of maneuvers with the United States. Now we don't do maneuvers with the United States, of course. We got out of that defense system and we're creating our own system of defense," Chavez said.
In September, two Tu-160 Russian strategic bombers carried out training for several days in Venezuela.
"Nations frequently exercise with each other. Russia is free to exercise peacefully with anyone that they want to exercise with," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Monday.
"But also people note through these exercises the company that nations keep."
Medvedev's four-nation Latin America tour began in Peru where he signed a series of economic and political accords before traveling to regional economic powerhouse Brazil.