(RFE/RL) -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is due to arrive in Caracas, for the first-ever visit to Venezuela by a Russian leader. He is being hosted by the hard-line leftist president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.
The two-day visit -- the latest stop on Medvedev's Latin American tour -- features talks between Medvedev and Chavez that are expected to concentrate on possible further Russian arms sales, cooperation in the oil and gas sector, plus Venezuela's interest in building a nuclear reactor, and the development of trade.
As Medvedev said in Peru on November 23, Moscow wants to rebuild regional ties left slack at the end of the Cold War.
"We had rather strong, serious relations with many of these [Latin American] countries in the Soviet period," he said. "Now it is time to restore these relations. They are also countries with which we would like to have special, privileged relations."
But the unstated reason he is in Venezuela now is that both he and Chavez want to express defiance to the United States. Medvedev wants to protest the U.S. decision to send warships into the Black Sea, which Russia considers its backyard, following the Russian-Georgian war in August. He also wants to convey Russian anger at the planned U.S. missile shield in Central Europe.
For this reason, Medvedev's visit coincides with the presence in Venezuela of a Russian naval squadron, led by Russia's biggest warship, the nuclear-powered cruiser "Peter the Great." The squadron was received with a 21-gun salute when it arrived on November 25 at the port of La Guaira, near Caracas.
The Russians will hold joint exercises with the Venezuelan Navy from December 1 -- in the United States' backyard, as it were.
For his part, Chavez wants to show Washington that he has a powerful friend, and does not stand alone as a critic of the United States. In September, Chavez characterized a visit by two Russian strategic bombers to Venezuela as a "warning" to the United States. And in recent years, Venezuela and Moscow have inked a number of arms deals.
U.S. officials have derided the most recent Russian show of force, saying it is only posturing.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack has referred to the steep decline in Russian naval capabilities since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, he told reporters, "We'll obviously be watching it very closely."
Observers have questioned the timing of the Russian activity in Venezuela, noting that it comes only a short time before the inauguration on January 20 of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.
Given that Obama has been elected on a platform of change in both domestic and foreign policy, antagonizing the United States at this time would seem fruitless and possibly even counterproductive.