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Feeling Expansive, Moscow Looks To U.S. 'Backyard': Latin America

Meetings between officials of Russia and Venezuela have become so frequent as to barely merit a headline.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to acknowledge as much this week, when he turned routine talks with his counterpart from Caracas into an opportunity to remind the world that a squadron of Russian warships is making steady progress in its historic journey toward the Caribbean for November military exercises with Venezuela.

The maneuvers come at a time when both countries' ties with the United States are reaching new lows. But Lavrov sought to assure the gesture was anything but aggressive.

"Russia and Venezuela have no plans of attacking anybody," the foreign minister said in an interview published on October 7 in the state-run daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta." "They cooperate on the basis of international law."

Moscow's first naval mission to Latin America since the end of the Cold War, and the war games planned just outside U.S. territorial waters, may be legal, but they are also provocative.

So, too, is its rapid succession of bilateral talks with a string of Latin American countries -- including traditional U.S. allies like Colombia and Mexico, which have both sent ministers to Moscow this week.

With its global clout on the rise, Russia is eager to gain the upper hand in its dealings with the United States. Aleksandr Golts, a Moscow-based defense expert, says the upcoming war games are just one aspect of an emerging Russian strategy to forge lucrative arms and energy deals as U.S. influence on the southern continent fades.

"Russia views Venezuela as a card in a big game with the United States," he says. "In actuality, a broad regional strategy doesn't exist -- just a wish to take advantage of the wave of anti-Americanism you see in Latin America."

New Opportunities

Since the turn of the century, Russia has steadily pursued a strategy of closer ties with the countries in what is typically seen as America's backyard. Latin America is already Russia's third-largest arms market, and countries of every ideological stripe have shown little compunction about partnering with Moscow on defense and energy deals.

Igor Sechin, the Kremlin insider who has been tapped as Moscow's Latin American front man, says, "it would be wrong to talk about one nation having exclusive rights" to the continent.

In some ways, Russia -- like China and other ambitious global players -- is simply exploiting opportunity in a region where the once-dominant United States has pulled back because of overcommitments in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

With the exception of Cuba, the current U.S. presidential campaign has paid scant attention to Latin American issues, and analysts like Robert Munks of Jane's Information Group say countries like Russia are more than ready to fill the void.

"The U.S., since several years ago, has suffered from a declining influence within Latin America," Munks says. "And what you're seeing now is that, as this regional hegemony starts to decrease, there's a process of gap-filling taking place by other countries who are seeking to exploit these opportunities which have been left by the U.S. withdrawal from the region. This is not driven by a new Cold War or new strategic relationships."

Still, Moscow's tactics are driven by political opportunity. It is Venezuela, after all, that has proved a fertile starting point as Moscow looks to expand its role in Latin America.

Its left-wing president, Hugo Chavez, is a fiery critic of the United States, eager to build a new "axis" of like-minded world powers to counteract what he sees as U.S. unilateralism.

Speaking ahead of talks with Chavez in Moscow last month, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Latin America "is becoming a noticeable link in the chain of the multipolar world that is forming."

Lasting Ties

Emil Dabagyan, a senior analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Latin America Institute, says Chavez has attempted to prove himself an unwavering admirer of Russia since his first meeting with then-President Vladimir Putin in 2000.

"These ties began under Vladimir Putin. And gradually, they've gotten broader and deeper," Dabagyan says. "At the beginning it was just politics. Chavez always spoke in a respectful way to Russia, saying that Russia extends into the realms of Eurasia, of Asia and Europe, in order to pursue the formation of a multipolar world. And this is the line he's pursued consistently as the relationship has developed."

Perhaps even more important than multipolarism is money. And Chavez, as leader of the world's ninth-biggest oil producer, has plenty. Since 2005, he has spent more than $4 billion on Russian armaments, including 50 military helicopters, 24 Su-30 jet fighters, and 100,000 Kalashnikovs.

On his September trip to Russia, Chavez secured a $1 billion Kremlin loan, ensuring a fresh round of spending on air-defense systems, submarines, armored vehicles, and reconnaissance aircraft. He also hosted a pair of Russian long-range strategic bombers for joint training exercises in September.
The nuclear-powered cruiser "Peter the Great" is on its way to Venezuela

Michael Shifter of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy center, says Moscow's motives in pursuing a partnership with Venezuela are clear.

Aside from the lure of profit, there is also the lure of payback -- and Shifter says the November war games are just one way Moscow is demonstrating its displeasure with the deployment of NATO warships in the Black Sea following the Russian-Georgian war in August.

"Russia is, in some sense, retaliating for the forays of the United States in their backyard as the result of the Georgia crisis," he says. "They're being increasingly assertive globally, and certainly in Latin America they have found some friends and allies. It suits Russian interests to try to project some strength in the backyard of the United States and to find governments, like Venezuela, that also are trying to create different poles of power in the world."

Nuclear Component?

Venezuela is not alone in seeking to reequip its armed forces.

Bolivia, whose President Evo Morales is a close Chavez ally, recently concluded a deal to buy military helicopters from Moscow. Brazil, which in the coming weeks is due to announce a major overhaul of its armed forces, is in talks with Russia about potential defense purchases that will run into the tens of billions. Venezuela, Ecuador, Chile, and Uruguay are also clients.

Russia is also pursuing a range of energy projects in Latin America, including a deal with Chavez on forming an oil consortium linking Venezuela's state energy company with Gazprom and several major Russian oil companies.

Moscow has even signaled an interest in sharing its nuclear technology with the continent. Latin America's oil production is expected to peak within the next decade, and public surveys throughout the region show a growing interest in alternative energy sources.

Nuclear power plants in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina currently provide just a tiny fraction of the continent's electricity-supply needs. But Chavez has announced Venezuela will begin work on its own nuclear energy program. And Putin has pledged Russia's help in a project both officials have termed as strictly "peaceful."

The international community has spent years mired in disputes over Iran's nuclear program, and the notion of another deeply anti-American country jointing the ranks of nuclearized nations with Russia's help is certain to anger the United States.

Munks, however, says Washington should not be overly alarmed by the prospect of Russia's Latin American invasion turning into a nuclear provocation. (France, for the record, has also offered Venezuela help with its nuclear technology.)

The latest deal between Caracas and Moscow, he says, "doesn't change the game much."

"Firstly, this is just an announcement that's been made; it hasn't actually been followed up with any specific detail on the level or type of support that would be supplied by Russian to Venezuela," Munks says. "And Russia would not want to encourage the Venezuelans into any form of Iran-style scenario, possibly setting up a military program based on their nuclear technology."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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