How will the new US President deal with the increasingly hawkish Russia

OPINION – As insults to national pride go, it was a classic — the American response to Russian plans to send a nuclear battle cruiser and other ships to the Caribbean for exercises with the navy of U.S. enemy Hugo Chavez.

"We’ll see if they actually make it there," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told a news conference questioner.

"Somebody told me they had a tugboat accompanying them in case they break down along the way … It was very interesting that they found some ships that could actually make it that far down to Venezuela."

Public diplomacy at its finest? It was in line with the Bush administration’s generally dismissive attitude towards Russia and conjured up images of ageing rust buckets, not the flagship of Russia’s Northern Fleet, the Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great), which entered service 10 years ago.

It would be the first time since the Cold War that Russian vessels enter the Caribbean, traditionally part of the U.S backyard. They are scheduled to arrive in November, a week after Americans elect a new president.

Their presence might help the president-elect focus on how to deal with Russia more effectively than President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, his tutor on Russian affairs, first as national security adviser and later as secretary of state.

Rice has a doctorate in Soviet studies and speaks fluent Russian but judging from the way U.S.-Russian relations have deteriorated over the past 7-1/2 years, that gave her no more insight into the Kremlin than Bush. He famously said, after his first meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2001, that he had looked him in the eye and "was able to get a sense of his soul."

His soul, perhaps, but not a ruthless mind set on restoring Russia, a country with a 1,000-year history, to the status of a Great Power, an ambition Washington did not take particularly seriously. "The United States has viewed Russia through the prism of the 1990s, when the Russian military was in shambles and the government paralyzed," according to George Friedman, head of the private intelligence service Stratfor.

Or, as President Dmitry Medvedev put it to a meeting of political scientists this month: "In the 1990s … we were weak and sickly."

Russia recovered, its economy boosted by oil, its military slowly rebuilt. The new Russia made its debut on the world stage on August 8, with a massive counter-attack in response to an attempt by Georgia, Washington’s closest ally in the Caucasus, to seize control of the pro-Russian breakaway province of South Ossetia.

The Russian thrust extended well into Georgia and in the Washington version of events, this was an unprovoked attack by big bad Russia on poor little Georgia.

A RUSSIAN MONROE DOCTRINE

Since then, Medvedev has spelt out what amounts to a Russian version of the Monroe Doctrine, the 19th century U.S. assertion that European powers must not interfere in the Americas. Russia, Medvedev said, "has regions where it has privileged interests." In other words: you stay out of our region, we stay out of yours. If you stage naval maneuvers in the Baltic, we can do so in the Caribbean.

The United States has moved steadily into Russia’s sphere of influence since the Soviet Union collapsed, breaking a promise by two American presidents, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, not to expand NATO into the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Today, St. Petersburg is 60 miles from NATO member Estonia. Under the Soviets, the nearest NATO member was more than 1,000 miles away. The word "paranoia" regularly crops up in inside-the-beltway conversations about Russia but it is not difficult to see why the Russians feel encircled. Six former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe and three former Soviet republics are now members of NATO.

Enter Venezuela, and the opportunity for Russia to poke Uncle Sam in the eye. Chavez has courted the Kremlin assiduously, paying six visits to Moscow (without a single corresponding return visit), buying $4 billion worth of Russian arms, trying to enlist Moscow’s support for his "Bolivarian revolution" of 21st century socialism. The response has been lukewarm.

Chavez terms Russia a "strategic ally" but the Caracas-Moscow relationship is a far cry from the Havana-Moscow axis that brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of nuclear war in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. For one, the ideological confrontation between communism and capitalism that then pitted the Soviet empire against the West is gone.

Perhaps more importantly, the Russians appear to be wary of the unpredictable Chavez and see him as a useful tool rather than a Western Hemispheric cornerstone of Russian foreign policy. The Latin leader’s unconventional behavior during some of his Moscow visits has widened what one diplomat delicately described as a "considerable culture gap."

Among Chavez visit anecdotes: an occasion when the Russian air force scrambled fighter jets because the visitor had failed to communicate that he and his entourage were arriving in three planes, not the two previously agreed; a solemn wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb of the unknown soldier when the Venezuelans forgot the wreath; and the time Chavez issued a Kung Fu cry and jumped at a stony-faced Putin.

But while Chavez and the Kremlin have little in common, they share the belief that America’s days as the world’s dominant power are coming to an end. That is an idea many Americans find difficult to embrace.