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Russian general hints at bombers in Cuba, Venezuela

SUNDAY, MARCH 15, 2009

MOSCOW – A Russian air force chief said Saturday that the country could base some strategic bombers in Cuba or on an island offered by Venezuela, the Interfax news agency reported, but a Kremlin official quickly said the military had been speaking only hypothetically.

The U.S. and Russia have been trying to reset their relationship, severely strained over U.S. plans to position missile defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic and by Russia’s invasion of U.S. ally Georgia last year.

Russia has nothing to gain strategically from basing long-range craft within relatively short range of U.S. shores, independent military analyst Alexander Golts said, calling the military statement a retaliatory gesture aimed at hitting back after U.S. ships patrolled Black Sea waters near Georgia.

The chief of staff of Russia’s long-range aviation, Maj. Gen. Anatoly Zhikharev, was quoted by Interfax as saying Saturday that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had offered “a whole island with an airdrome, which we can use as a temporary base for strategic bombers.”

“If there is a corresponding political decision, then the use of the island … by the Russian Air Force is possible,” Zhikharev was quoted as saying.

Interfax reported he said earlier that Cuba has air bases with four or five runways long enough for the huge bombers and they could be used to host the long-range planes.

But Alexei Pavlov, a Kremlin official, told the Associated Press that “the military is speaking about technical possibilities, that’s all. If there will be a development of the situation, then we can comment,” he said.

Mike Hammer, spokesman for President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, said, “We do not comment on hypotheticals.”

Officials at both Venezuela’s presidential administration and Defense Ministry refused immediate comment and Cuban officials could not be reached for comment.

Venezuela and Cuba, traditionally fierce U.S. foes, have close political and energy relations with Russia, which has been working to reassert itself as a military force. Russia resumed long-range bomber patrols in 2007 after a 15-year hiatus.

Venezuela hosted two Russian Tu-160 bombers in September for training flights and later joined Russian warships for exercises in the Caribbean.

Cuba has never permanently hosted Russian or Soviet aircraft, though Soviet short-range bombers often made stopovers there during the Cold War.

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