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Russia's new presence in Latin America

President Medvedev visits Venezuela this week as a Russian nuclear warship leads joint maneuvers.

By Sara Miller Llana – Staff writer, Fred Weir – Correspondent / November 25, 2008



Caracas, Venezuela; and Moscow

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit this week with Venezuela's leftist leader Hugo Chávez is the first ever for a Kremlin leader to this oil-rich nation. And the meeting – part of a Latin America tour that includes stops in Brazil and Cuba – is kindling concerns that a resurgent Russia is aiming to revive its cold-war era presence in America's backyard.

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The meeting is expected to coincide with joint naval exercises off Venezuela's coast, led by the Russian nuclear-powered warship, Peter the Great, and comes as the two powers announce that Russia will help Venezuela build a nuclear reactor.

Both nations insist their focus is economic, but geopolitics are also at play.

Mr. Medvedev's tour is both a rebuke for US actions in Eastern Europe and a chance for leaders critical of the US, such as Mr. Chávez, to tilt global politics against Washington. The falling price of oil may force both to scale back their plans. But as Chávez offers a gateway for Russia into Latin America, particularly for arms deals, the ties pose a challenge to the US and to President-elect Barack Obama.

"It's a statement of changing geopolitics globally," says Johanna Mendelson Forman, a Latin America specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's not a serious military threat, but there are political implications."

Venezuela is already Russia's biggest new arms client, with contracts worth $4.4 billion since 2005. Purchased items include 54 helicopters, 24 Sukhoi fighter jets, and 5,000 Dragunov sniper rifles, says Rocio San Miguel, a defense analyst in Caracas.

Russia to help build nuclear plant

At the meeting this week, the two leaders are expected to firm up plans for even more sophisticated hardware,. That could include details for deals on submarines and the nuclear reactor in Zulia State, which Chávez reiterates is for peaceful purposes. "Brazil has several nuclear reactors, as does Argentina. We will also have our own reactor," he said.

Chávez has long claimed a need to protect himself from a possible US invasion, following a coup in 2002 that briefly removed him from power and that he alleges was backed by the US. Ms. San Miguel says that some of the purchases are justified, especially since the US has banned technology and arms sales to the nation. "I support updating arms systems," she says. But equipment such as submarines could spell trouble if neighboring countries balk. "Some things intended to protect Venezuela," she says, "could bring more threats to Venezuela."

It is unclear how the plunge in oil prices will affect both nations' abilities to fulfill their promises and plans. The Venezuelan defense budget, for example, was 5.17 percent of the country's total budget in 2008; in 2009, it has increased only to 5.35 percent, says San Miguel, despite plans to spend billions of dollars on Russian equipment.