Chavez support

Andrei Nesterenko, a Russian foreign ministry spokesman, said on Monday that the naval mission would include the nuclear-powered battle cruiser "Peter the Great", one of the world's largest combat warships.

Moscow's most modern destroyer, the "Admiral Chabanenko", is also among several ships involved in November's exercise, which will be backed up by an anti-submarine aircraft, based at a Venezuelan airfield.

Russia has been angered by the deployment of US ships to Georgia [AFP]
Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's president and an outspoken critic of the US, said during a visit to Moscow in July that Russian warships or warplanes were welcome to visit.

Chavez, a major arms client of Moscow, said he needed Russian weaponry to dissuade "the North American empire" from invading his country.

US officials played down any concerns over the deployment. 

Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said: "We've seen the reports and we'll see how the exercise goes." 

"We exercise ... all around the globe and have joint exercises with countries all over the world and so do many other nations," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.

'Immensely powerful'

Russia denied that the move amounted to retaliation against the United States over its action in Georgia and said the exercise had 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," Nesterenko said.

The exercises "will in no way be directed against the interests of a third country".

Igor Dygalo, a Russian navy spokesman, said the ships would participate in "joint manoeuvres and practice search-and-rescue and communications drills."

Jon Rosamund, editor of Jane's Navy International, a specialist maritime publication, said the 'Peter the Great' is large and heavily armed with both surface-to-surface and around 500 surface-to-air missiles.

"On paper it's an immensely powerful ship. We are not really sure if this is a show of force or if it poses a viable operational capability at this stage. 

"These ships have far more capability, on paper, than the US destroyers that went to the Black Sea, but it's difficult to compare capacity."

Admiral Eduard Baltin, the former commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, said: "The Russian navy is keen to be seen on the world stage."

The admiral said the Caribbean manoeuvres meant "Russia is returning to the stage in its power and international relations which, regrettably, it lost at the end of last century. No one loves the weak."