There is a great risk of focusing on these issues instead of the real one, which is that direct military confrontation is not how Russia will approach undermining US leadership, and US policies, in global security. The Russian navy doesn’t have to be good enough to confront the US Navy, or perform the US Navy’s job. It only has to be good enough to get to Venezuela – or Cuba, or Syria, or perhaps Libya; or, in the near future (I predict), Iran.The USSR’s global MO was not direct military confrontation with the US in the Cold War, but patronage of proxy states that opposed our policies at a regional and local level. Soviet patronage both emboldened and strengthened Moscow’s clients, and blunted our own objectives and approaches, since we considered opposing Moscow’s clients to be the same thing as opposing Moscow. We weren’t terribly worried about Moscow’s surface navy. But the USSR was nuclear armed.
It is superficial to take comfort from the undeniable fact that Russia’s navy is much less well-equipped, well-maintained, and competent than ours. What we should worry about is Moscow is sending that navy to Venezuela – AND proposing to “cooperate” with Venezuela on a nuclear capability for Caracas; nominally, of course, a matter only of building reactors for energy.
Naturally Russia considered it necessary to make a port call in Libya on the way to Venezuela. Russia was able to use ports in Algeria, Libya, and Egypt during the Cold War, as well as station ships in Syria and the former Yugoslavia. Moscow doesn’t want to see these venues on the Mediterranean denied to her by improved relations among these nations with the US. Russian businessmen are today improving the naval port of Tivat, now in Montenegro (former Yugoslavia), and Russian ships, including the Russians’ sole aircraft carrier, have made port calls in Syria the last couple of years, reviving maritime ties that languished after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
But Russia knows there are limits to her projection of power in maritime venues. We should not be suckered by our own understanding of that into thinking that Russia needs to operate on our model to achieve objectives. Rather, we should be focused on Russia’s patronage of NATIONS in areas vital to our national interests, and the harbinger that naval visits constitute of Russian power projection, through supporting those nations in their opposition to US policies and influence. We have no need to care much about a small Russian naval task force visiting Venezuela, or Russian reconnaissance aircraft stationed there. But we need to care very much about Russian backing for Hugo Chavez’s visions of armament – including nuclear – and his already-documented tendency to support and foment unrest in Central America. The same can be said of Iran, the 800-pound gorilla of the Persian Gulf region; of Libya, with her long, strategically significant frontage on the chokepoint-infested Mediterranean; of Syria, with her own Mediterranean frontage and proximity to the Suez Canal and the Greek-Turkish maritime antagonisms; and of Cuba, still 90 miles from our shores, and well-placed to base a menace to shipping in the Gulf of Mexico, and US natural resources.