MOSCOW, Russia (AP) -- A Russian navy squadron set off for Venezuela on Monday, an official said, in a deployment of Russian military power to the Western Hemisphere unprecedented since the Cold War.
The Kremlin has moved to intensify contacts with Venezuela, Cuba and other Latin American nations amid increasingly strained relations with Washington after last month's war between Russia and Georgia.
During the Cold War, Latin America became an ideological battleground between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Russian navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said the nuclear-powered Peter the Great cruiser accompanied by three other ships sailed from the Northern Fleet's base of Severomorsk on Monday. The ships will cover about 15,000 nautical miles to conduct joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan navy, he told The Associated Press.
Dygalo refused to comment on Monday's report in the daily Izvestia claiming that the ships were to make a stopover in the Syrian port of Tartus on their way to Venezuela. Russian officials said the Soviet-era base there was being renovated to serve as a foothold for a permanent Russian navy presence in the Mediterranean.
The deployment follows a weeklong visit to Venezuela by a pair of Russian strategic bombers and comes as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- an unbridled critic of U.S. foreign policy who has close ties with Moscow -- plans to visit Moscow this week. It will be Chavez's second trip to Russia in about two months.
The intensifying contacts with Venezuela appear to be a response to the U.S. dispatch of warships to deliver aid to Georgia, which angered the Kremlin.
· TIME.com: Russia's Venezuela foray: Tit for tat
"It's a show of the Kremlin irritation about the U.S. deployment to Georgia. It's a signal to the United States: You have broken into our zone of influence, and we will show you that we can enter yours," said independent military analyst Alexander Golts.
Golts added that the small Russian squadron could not pose any threat to the United States.
"Without protection from the air, it makes a sitting duck," Golts said. "It's ridiculous to even talk about the Russian ships providing a counterweight to the U.S. Navy."
Chavez said in an interview with Russian television broadcast Sunday that Latin America needs a strong friendship with Russia to help reduce U.S. influence and keep peace in the region.
In separate comments on his Sunday TV and radio program, he joked that he will be making his international tour to Russia and other countries this week aboard the "super-bombers that Medvedev loaned me," a reference to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. "Gentlemen of the CIA, to be clear, I'm joking," Chavez said with a laugh.
He repeatedly has warned that the U.S. Navy poses a threat to Venezuela.
Russia has signed weapons contracts worth more than $4 billion with Venezuela since 2005 to supply fighter jets, helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles. Chavez's government is in talks to buy Russian submarines, air defense systems and armored vehicles and more Sukhoi fighter jets.
Russian and Venezuelan leaders also have talked about boosting cooperation in the energy sphere to create what Chavez has called "a new strategic energy alliance."
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who visited Venezuela last week, announced that five of Russia's biggest oil companies are looking to form a consortium to increase Latin American operations and to build a $6.5 billion refinery to process Venezuela's tarlike heavy crude. Such an investment could help Venezuela, the world's ninth-biggest oil producer, wean itself from the U.S. refineries on which it depends to process much of its crude.
Russia's Gazprom state gas monopoly also said in a statement Monday that its delegation that visited Venezuela last week signed a tentative agreement to tap its offshore gas fields.
Sechin warned the United States that it should not view Latin America as its own backyard. "It would be wrong to talk about one nation having exclusive rights to this zone," he said in an interview broadcast Sunday.