Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

Are the Russians going to establish a bomber presence in Venezuela or Cuba? This past weekend a Russian air force commander spoke of potential basing opportunities in Venezuela while leftist President Hugo Chavez seemed to indicate a readiness to accept Russian aircraft. But then Chavez “walked the cat back” as the press officials like to say.

Or didn’t he?

Both the Pentagon and State Department press folks were quick to downplay the issue, not wishing to make waves when the White House has so much on its plate. One exchange at the State Department’s daily presser on March 16 between acting Department spokesman Robert Wood and the press, however, bordered on the surreal:

QUESTION: Robert, Venezuela – a reaction to Chavez’s comments that Russian bombers would be able to make strategic stops on its territory if they needed to?
MR. WOOD: Yeah, I’ve seen reports with regard to Russian and Venezuelan statements. They appear to be walking back from what was said previously, so I don’t see it as much of a story.
QUESTION: Well, he stopped short of saying that there would be a base there, but he’s still saying that —
MR. WOOD: Well, look, I have to refer you to, you know, the Government of Venezuela on that subject. But the statements I have seen since the original story, since the earlier stories that ran, seem – that they seem to be backing away from —
QUESTION: Well, actually, Robert, the head of the Cuban air force, I think, just said today that there is interest – I’m sorry, the head of the Russian air force today just said that there was interest in having their strategic bombers on Cuban airfields. So I mean, does the idea of having Russian bombers in this hemisphere concern the United States? I mean, this came up a few months ago. I can’t remember exactly when, but I know that the Administration spoke out very forcefully at the time that it would not be taken well.
MR. WOOD: There have been a lot of news reports about what some people have said, and then reports saying that, well, that’s not exactly what they said. I just don’t have a way of saying anything beyond what I’ve given you already.
QUESTION: But – okay, but the Russians and the Cubans, for instance, I mean, regardless of Venezuela, have been talking for some time about putting strategic bombers in Cuba. I mean, would that concern the United States?
MR. WOOD: You’re asking me to speculate. I am not going to speculate on press reports.
QUESTION: It’s not really speculation. These talks have been out there for at least six months.
MR. WOOD: Talks are talks. I’m just not going to speculate on something that hasn’t happened.

Four points of observation are in order: 1) Does it require a talking point signed off by Secretary of State Clinton for Mr. Wood to state that the permanent establishment of Western Hemisphere-based Russian military air base would not be considered a friendly gesture? 2) Is this sort of Venezuelan saber rattling a good thing less than one month away from the Summit of the Americas at a time when the Obama Administration wishes to make amends with straying Latins? 3) As Russia is rushing to establish offensive military presence in the Americas and President Dmitry Medvedev is announcing a massive rearmament package, doesn’t all the talk about pushing the reset button sounds hollow? 4) Finally, would Mr.Wood’s Russian counterpart be so sanguine with regards to reports of U.S. strategic aircraft landing in Georgia or the Ukraine?