December 22, 2008 / 6:54 PM / 11 years ago

Russia's Latin America aims still unclear: U.S. official

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The recent Russian naval visits to Cuba and Venezuela may be linked to August’s Georgia war, said a U.S. diplomat Monday, though he said Washington was watching for the next Kremlin moves before taking a firm view.

On a first visit to Moscow that he linked to Russia’s growing interest in South and Central America, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said Russia may be considering a security presence there and warned of a regional arms race.

Just weeks after a Russian warship carried out joint exercises with Venezuela and then visited Cuba for the first time since the Cold War, Shannon said Washington would draw its conclusions based on future Russian actions.

“What would be telling however, is not this ship visit, it’s the next one,” said Shannon, responsible for Western Hemisphere relations in the State Dept.

“If the purpose of this ship visit was just to make a point about Russia’s periphery, if its purpose was just to make a point about Georgia, then we probably won’t see them again,”

“But if the Russians really are attempting to build a more longstanding relationship in the region, then they will look for ways to maintain some presence in their security relationship with partners,” Shannon told Reuters in a shared interview.

Immediately after Russia’s August war, U.S. warships traveled to Georgian Black Sea ports, a gesture that angered Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who asked how Washington would like it if Russia sent ships close to U.S. waters.

In September, Moscow dispatched two Tu-160 nuclear capable bombers to Venezuela and a naval flotilla there, led by the nuclear-powered battle cruiser “Peter the Great.”

Because of its overwhelming naval presence, the United States was not threatened by Russia in the region, said Shannon.

“What’s interesting for us about how Russia is engaging in the region is this is not the Soviet Union, they do not bring an ideological purpose to their engagement,” he said.

Shannon said he did not directly discuss the Georgia conflict during a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. But he urged Russia to join patrols in the region if it intended a future presence.

ARMS SALES

Russia’s trade interests include arms sales and, while Venezuela has the right to buy weapons, said Shannon, he was concerned an arms race might develop in the region or that decommissioned arms might be sold off to illegal groups.

“They’re (arms) sold in a context, so when Venezuela buys $4 billion worth of weapons with very high-end aircraft, it has an impact in the region and one consequence of this is the Brazilian decision to modernize its armed forces,” said Shannon.

Russia and Venezuela have signed 12 arms contracts worth $4.4 billion over the past two years, a Kremlin source said in September when Moscow announced it was providing Caracas with $1 billion in credit for more weapons purchases.

Arms sales to Caracas have included 24 Sukhoi fighter jets, dozens of helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles.

But Shannon said that, should Russia intend further naval voyages to the region, it should help block drug trafficking.

“If the Russian navy intends more Caribbean voyages, it shouldn’t just sail around, but do something useful like help patrol the seas.”

Reporting by Conor Sweeney; Editing by Giles Elgood

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