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Chavez courts Russian influence

By Will Grant
BBC News, Caracas

Russian warship
Russia's naval presence in Venezuela marks a step forward in relations

Russian warships, led by the nuclear cruiser Peter the Great, are in the Caribbean Sea for the first time since the end of the Cold War to begin manoeuvres with the Venezuelan navy.

The exercises coincide with a visit to Caracas by the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, who is due in Venezuela on Wednesday, and are illustration of how close military ties between the two countries have grown in recent years.

Between 2005 and 2007, Venezuela spent around $4bn (£2.6bn) on military equipment - most of it from Russia.

But the Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Riabkov, said suggestions in the media that the naval exercises signal a return to Cold War politics in Latin America were misguided.

"There is no geo-political connotation whatsoever," he told the BBC.

"I would just stress that after a long period of our navy and air forces almost staying idle, keeping still, we restarted normal training processes and part of that is definitely training in some distant waters and distant airspace."

'Strategic partnership'

While the Russian government has been playing down any political dimension to the training, the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, has been doing just the opposite.

In recent speeches, he has referred to Venezuela's "strategic partnership" with Russia and said the military ties were part of building a more "multi-polar world".

Chavez can profit...by saying to the US we are doing these manoeuvres because we are a sovereign country
Teodoro Petkoff
Journalist

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Mr Chavez repeated this view, insisting that the operations were not aimed at angering the US, which is the main market for Venezuela's oil exports.

"It's not a provocation. It's an exchange between two free countries," said Mr Chavez.

"Of course these are not times of Cuba and missiles in Cuba" says Teodoro Petkoff, a journalist and long-time critic of Mr Chavez, referring to the Cuba missile crisis in 1962. "These are only games of war".

Nevertheless, he believes that by conducting naval exercises with Venezuela, Russia is sending a clear signal to the US that relations between Moscow and Washington remain far from cordial.

Ties between the two superpowers have become strained because of Washington's plan for a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic - something Moscow is firmly opposed to.

Indeed President Medvedev, has said he will deploy missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, between Poland and Lithuania, if the US initiative goes ahead in its present form.

"Chavez accepts these are not his games. These are the games of (the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir) Putin. But of course, Chavez can profit from that by saying to the United States, we are doing these manoeuvres with Russia because we are a sovereign country and so on," said Mr Petkoff.

Pragmatic relationship

The military sphere is just one area where the two countries are working together more closely.

Mr Chavez recently took a delegation of Russian top brass to inaugurate a gas platform in the Gulf of Venezuela, co-owned by their respective state-run energy companies - PDVSA and Gazprom.

It's a very important relationship for us...it's all about business
Sergei Riabkov
Russian deputy foreign minister

In a televised speech from the platform, Mr Chavez pointed to the horizon across the Caribbean sea and spoke of a new world being formed by the two energy giants.

"We are here as equal partners" he said. "Never again will Venezuelan waters be part of another country's colony."

During the trip, the Russian government also signed joint agreements on issues as diverse as gold and bauxite mining, ceramics and fishing.

It is a combination Russian technology and know-how coupled with Venezuela's resources and manpower.

A bilateral agreement could be signed during Mr Medvedev's visit under which Russia would help Venezuela build a civilian nuclear power plant.

"It's absolutely a very important relationship for us, but it's also a very pragmatic relationship" said Mr Riabkov.

"You could hardly detect any slight resemblance of global politics, real politics, geopolitics - it's all about business, it's all about investments, it's all about using opportunities...It's mutual interest in a pure and raw sense of the word."

Strictly a business arrangement, then. But with Russia and the US hardly on the best of terms, can Russia really put the politics to one side in its burgeoning relationship with Venezuela and President Chavez ?

"Yes, absolutely we can," said Mr Riabkov.

"We shouldn't look at it through a very distorted prism of a return to Cold War times because this is not the case," he added.

"It is clearly a new and reinforced Russia trying to find ways to be more potent in a military sense. And that means more training - that's quite normal for each and every military force."



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