Chavez Welcomes Ships From Russian Squadron

LA GUAIRA, Venezuela -- Russian warships arrived in Venezuela on Tuesday in a show of strength aimed at the United States, as Moscow seeks to expand its influence in Latin America.

Venezuelan sailors fired off cannons in a 21-gun salute as the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko docked in La Guaira, near Caracas. Russian sailors dressed in black-and-white uniforms lined up along the bow.

The deployment of the squadron -- the flagship Peter the Great, a missile destroyer and two support vessels -- is the first of its kind in the Caribbean since the Cold War and was timed to coincide with President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Caracas -- the first by a Russian president. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has welcomed the ships, basking in the support of a powerful ally and traditional U.S. rival.

Chavez wants Russia's help to build a nuclear reactor, invest in oil and natural gas projects and bolster his leftist movement's effort to limit U.S. influence in Latin America.

Chavez also wants weapons -- he has bought more than $4 billion in Russian arms, including Sukhoi fighter jets, helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, and more deals for Russian tanks or other weaponry may be discussed after Medvedev arrives Wednesday.

Venezuelan sailors stood at attention along the pier where the destroyer docked, while two support ships also pulled into port. The Peter the Great, the largest ship in the Russian fleet, anchored offshore in the distance because of its size.

Chavez told reporters that it is ludicrous to invoke the Cold War to describe the naval exercises, which are to begin Dec. 1.

"It's not a provocation. It's an exchange between two free countries," Chavez said.

The warships will participate in exercises enabling sailors to practice reconnaissance, anti-drug patrols, anti-terrorism and search and rescue operations. There will also be anti-aircraft exercises involving Venezuela's newly bought Sukhoi fighter jets, though no live ammunition will be used, Rear Admiral Luis Morales Marquez said.