Putin sees no need for bases in Cuba, Venezuela

Russia does not need to build permanent naval bases in Cuba or Venezuela, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, speaking amid a Kremlin push to increase Moscow's influence in Latin America.

In an annual televised question-and-answer session with Russians, Putin said Russia has "very warm traditional ties'' with Cuba and Venezuela. They were prominent stops on a Latin America tour that his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, ended late last month by meeting with Soviet-era ally Fidel Castro.

"Today there is no need to build permanent bases'' in Cuba and Venezuela, Putin said in response to a question. He said Russia has an agreement allowing its warships to use Venezuelan ports for refueling and resupply, "and I think the Cuban leadership would not refuse this."

The Russian nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great and destroyer Admiral Chabanenko conducted joint exercises with Venezuelan forces in the Caribbean Sea on Monday, an activity unprecedented since the Cold War.

The warships sailed across the Atlantic at the invitation of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who campaigns against U.S. influence in the hemisphere, adding to his growing military ties with the Kremlin.

On Friday, one of the vessels is to be the first Russian warship since World War II to sail through the Panama Canal -- long a symbol of U.S. regional clout.

As the Kremlin signals hope for improved U.S. ties under the administration of President-elect Barack Obama, the remarks may have been aimed at assuring Washington that Russia's recent flurry of activity in Latin America is not part of a Cold War-style power struggle with the United States.

At the same time, Putin suggested Russia's military and political ties are growing, regionally and globally.

"We have quite a lot of opportunities, and not only with the countries that you mentioned, but also at the ports of other states," he said.

"I want to tell you a 'terrible military secret,"' Putin said. ‘‘When we announced that our military ships would go to Venezuela for joint exercises, we received very many inquiries -- frankly speaking, I didn't expect this -- from many countries with requests that our ships visit their ports."