By Mail Foreign Service
Russia is planning to deploy an armed nuclear-powered warship on America's doorstep for the first time since the Cold War.
In a move that evokes memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Moscow is dispatching a number of ships to the Caribbean for joint naval manoeuvres with Venezuela.
Russian officials denied the mission was linked to a stand-off in the Black Sea, where the U.S. has sent warships to deliver aid to the former Soviet nation of Georgia.
Russia is sending an armed nuclear-powered warship to the Caribbean for a naval exercise with Venezuela in its first major manoeuvres on America's doorstep since the Cold War
Russia has criticised the U.S for the deployment of a command ship and two other naval vessels to Georgia's southern border in a show of support for President Mikheil Saakashvili over the conflict with Russia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev asked on Saturday how Washington would feel 'if we now dispatched humanitarian assistance to the Caribbean... using our navy'.
But the Kremlin says the Caribbean exercise has been planned for a year.
'We are talking about a planned event not linked with current political circumstances and not in any way connected to events in Georgia,' Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told a news briefing yesterday.
The exercises 'will in no way be directed against the interests of a third country', he added.
However, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an outspoken critic of U.S foreign policy, was blunt about the possibility of U.S. concern.
'Go ahead and squeal, Yankees,' Chavez said in a national broadcast in which he announced the exercises.
The Venezuelan leader, a major arms client of Moscow, has repeatedly warned that the U.S. Navy poses a threat to Venezuela. He says he needs Russian weaponry to dissuade 'the North American empire' from invading his country.
Admiral Eduard Baltin, former commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, said the Caribbean exercise meant 'Russia is returning to the stage in its power and international relations which it, regrettably, lost at the end of last century'.
In response, a U.S. State Department spokesman poked fun at Russia's navy. He said that if Russia intended to send ships to the Caribbean he was glad 'they found a few ships that can make it that far'.
The Russian mission will include the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Peter the Great, one of the world's largest combat warships, equipped with 20 cruise missiles that can be fitted with nuclear warheads.
'On paper it's an immensely powerful ship,' he said.
'We are not really sure if this is a show of force or if it poses a viable operational capability at this stage,' Jon Rosamund, the editor of Jane's Navy International, said. 'The Russian navy is keen to be seen on the world stage.'
The cruiser and three other Russian navy ships will visit Venezuela before the year's end, and be joined by a unit of longrange anti-submarine patrol aircraft.
November's exercise will be backed up by an anti-submarine aircraft, based at a Venezuelan airfield.
Russia finally agreed yesterday to remove its forces from Georgian land - excluding Abkhazia and South Ossetia - by the second week of October.
President Medvedev said the pull-out would happen 10 days after 200 EU monitors were deployed to South Ossetia.
He said the withdrawal was dependent on guarantees that Georgia would not use force again. But he made no mention of withdrawing troops from South Ossetia or Abkhazia.