High over the Bering Sea where the black Arctic sky bends toward Alaska, Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers moved in for the kill last week. In rapid succession, cruise missiles dropped from beneath them like deadly spawn, fanning out toward their targets. Eleven thousand kilometers away in the warm waters south of Florida, a Russian naval squadron approached, carrying more megatons of nuclear weapons than the Cubans ever dreamed of during the missile crisis that brought the world to the edge of annihilation in October 1962. The Russians' goal: to link up with the military forces of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who has cast himself as the successor to Fidel Castro in leading hemispheric hostility to the United States of America.
Geopolitical thriller writer Tom Clancy could set this scene. Flashbacks would provide the context: Moscow's punitive invasion of little Georgia last summer; its tanks and missiles parading in Red Square last May; its coffers filled with hundreds of billions of dollars paid by Western Europeans addicted to Russian gas and oil; and the vows of former KGB operative, former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to use this war chest for an ever more powerful military machine. Clancy could make it all sound like, well, the eve of World War III. But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack last month made the latest Russian operations above the Arctic and in the Caribbean, dubbed "Stability 2008," sound more like a joke. Sneering at the weakness of Russia's fleet en route to Venezuela, McCormack said, "We'll see if they actually make it there. Somebody told me they had a tugboat accompanying them in case they break down along the way."