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.
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.
Still, some are concerned about the budding friendship with Russia, which Chávez has visited three times this year alone, as well as other nations, such as Iran or Syria. "There is no justification, no concrete threat, for that amount of arms purchases," says retired Vice Admiral Mario Ivan Carratu Molina, a critic of Chávez. "We could be turning Venezuela into a strategic point for all those against the West."
Medvedev's tour also includes a stop in Brazil and a visit to Cuba, where the first presidential visit to its former cold-war ally in eight years is seen as an attempt to restore trade and military ties that have been strained since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia, according to its state media, announced this month a loan of $335 million for Cuba to purchase Russian goods and services. That compares with $300 million in trade for all of 2007.
Moscow contends that interest in Latin America is mostly business, not unlike China's interest in the region's abundant raw materials. In fact, the impetus for Medvedev's tour was the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Peru over the weekend. But Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice rector of the official Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, says the political benefits cannot be denied in the wake of Russian outrage at US plans to install a strategic missile shield in Poland, encouragement for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, and support for the brief Georgia war in August. "This is our measured response to American hegemonism in our region," says Mr. Bazhanov. "If the US insists on doing these things, it must expect that we will respond."
Fertile ground for Russia's embrace
Russia finds fertile ground in Latin America, which has traditionally resented its dominant northerly neighbor.
"Latin America has long felt the effects of overbearing American influence and, as a result, most countries of the region share Russia's nonsupport for the idea of the unipolar world idea," says Vadim Teperman, an expert with the official Institute of Latin America in Moscow. "As Russia's relations with the US and the European Union worsen, Russia is on the lookout for new partners."
Ms. Forman says she believes that leaders might scale down their plans – or at least their fiery rhetoric – with Mr. Obama, whose worldwide popularity so far has soared.
Still, the US will have to find a way to address Russia and China's increased ties to Latin America, she says. Since 9/11, Latin America has fallen to new lows on Washington's agenda.
The US has played down concerns about the fortified friendship between Russia and Venezuela. But a byproduct is more arms in circulation, and many observers say that cannot be good news. "If Venezuela buys arms, then Brazil does. If Brazil does, then Peru does," says Mr. Carratu Molina. "It is a dangerous circle."