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Russia’s Caribbean Farce

The great Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post:

“Nyet! Nyet!” That’s what a Russian bodyguard told a McClatchy news reporter when the latter asked for comment on an incident aboard the Admiral Chabanenko, a Russian destroyer that carried President Dmitry Medvedev to Venezuela last week. Following the pomp, circumstance and 21-gun salute that are mandatory at such meetings, there was, it seems, a bit of a misunderstanding. As Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez boarded the vessel, his beefy bodyguards tried to follow him up the gangplank. They were stopped by their equally beefy Russian counterparts. The Venezuelans, who presumably spoke no Russian, tried to push their way through. The Russians, who presumably spoke no Spanish, fought back.

It was all over quickly. “Everything is fine,” a Russian official said afterward. And indeed it was: The rest of Medvedev’s visit to Latin America proceeded smoothly. During his trip to Venezuela, Medvedev reportedly added a couple of passenger planes to the $4.4 billion worth of military hardware Russia has sold to Venezuela since 2005. In Cuba, Medvedev met the ailing Fidel Castro and went sightseeing with his brother Raúl. Yesterday, Russian ships began exercising in the Caribbean. But more than weapons and armies were at stake in this visit. As Chávez himself said a few months ago, the whole show was designed to send “a message to the empire”: Russia is back, and it can play the imperial game as well as the United States can.

And yet — the lingering image of those thuggish bodyguards, shouting at one another in mutual incomprehension, remains weirdly appropriate.

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