With the United States developing a new generation of cruise missiles in response to alleged Russian arms control violations, a response from Moscow was inevitable.
But Russian missiles in Venezuela? That’s what some Russian commentators are calling for in retaliation for the Trump administration withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Pentagon has already tested a new ground-launched cruise missile with a range of 500 kilometers (311 miles), which exceeds INF Treaty limits.
“Russia has legal grounds, in response to the emergence of new weapons from the USA after leaving the INF Treaty, to deploy their submarines and ships with medium and shorter-range missiles in relative proximity to the U.S. borders,” Major General Vladimir Bogatyrev, a reservist and chairman of the National Association of Reserve Officers, told Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta back in 2019.
Bogatyrev suggested that Russian warships equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles could operate from Venezuela. The Kalibr is a family of naval cruise missiles, including the SS-N-30, a subsonic weapon equivalent to the U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile. The SS-N-30, carried by surface ships and submarines has an estimated range of up to 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles). Like the Tomahawk, the Kalibr is typically armed with conventional warheads for missions such as attacking Syrian rebels. But the missile can be armed with a nuclear warhead.
Russia recently signed a naval agreement for port visits with Venezuela, whose embattled and impoverished government relies on Russian support. “Venezuela has excellent seaports, in which ships and submarines of the Russian Navy can regularly enter, replenish supplies, and then perform combat missions off the coast of North America,” Bogatyrev said. There is also a naval agreement between Russia and Nicaragua.
Bogatyrev also pointed to the Zircon, a hypersonic anti-ship missile with an estimated speed of between Mach 6 and Mach 9. “One of the measures to neutralize potential threats from new U.S. weapons, including the recently tested U.S. cruise missile, could be a hypersonic weapon. In particular, it is the Zircon missile, capable of hitting ground and surface targets at ranges of over a thousand kilometers [621 miles].”
Significantly, a member of the Russian parliament’s defense committee also favors deploying missiles in Venezuela—even if it risks another Cuban Missile Crisis. “Maybe there will even be a Caribbean crisis 2, but it was the Caribbean crisis that allowed the Americans to cool off for a long time,” said Alexander Sherin, First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Defense. “If such a system is deployed in Venezuela, the U.S. will behave more accurately.”
That the Soviet Union withdrew its ballistic missiles from Cuba in 1962 is well known. And also well known is that in return, the United States quietly agreed to withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
Oleg Shvedkov, a retired submarine captain who is chairman of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Military Forces Trade Union, argued that Latin American bases would ease deployment of Russian submarines near the United States. “The possible permanent presence of Russian warships off the U.S. coast equipped with medium- and shorter-range missiles will certainly be a headache for them."
If this sounds familiar, it should. Moscow placed nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in Cuba both to deter the United States from invading the island, and to compensate for the American missiles and bombers that ringed the Soviet Union. Russian commentators seem to be suggesting that Venezuela could also serve the same purpose.
But Russia ultimately had to withdraw its missiles in the face of a threat to use overwhelming U.S. force, especially given the inability of the Soviet Navy to confront the U.S. military in Caribbean waters. Nor was Moscow prepared to risk nuclear Armageddon over some distant island.
This naturally raises the question of how the United States would respond to nuclear-armed Russian ships operating from Venezuela. Or rather, what U.S. administration could dare refrain from acting forcefully against such a threat.
This article was first published in 2019.