Venezuela's Chavez Presses 'Alliance' with Russia

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was due in Moscow on Thursday, his second visit within months as Russia increases its ties with the U.S. foe after fighting a war against American-allied Georgia.

The visit takes place as a Russian naval squadron sails to Venezuela, across the Caribbean Sea from the United States, in a pointed response to what the Kremlin portrays as threatening U.S. encroachment near its own borders.

Hugo Chavez
Howard Yanes
Hugo Chavez

Chavez is to open the two-day visit by meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whom he called a "brother" last year, when Putin was president. Both leaders have used criticism of the U.S. to boost their popularity at home and advance foreign policy objectives.

Russia is the latest leg in a tour taking Chavez to a number of nations whose governments are eager to counter U.S. global clout. He stopped briefly in Cuba on his way to China, where he touted agreements to increase oil exports and purchase military jets.

Signaling similar interests in Russia, Chavez said he and President Dmitry Medvedev will observe military exercises when they meet Friday in the southern Orenburg region. The region near Kazakhstan's border is home to oil industry facilities.

In an interview broadcast on Russian television before the visit, Chavez said that Venezuela and Latin America as a whole need "friends like Russia" to help them shed U.S. "domination" and ensure peace.

Putin cultivated close ties with Venezuela in his eight years as president. Russia has signed weapons contracts worth more than US $4.4 billion with Venezuela since 2005 to supply fighter jets, helicopters, and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles.

It has ramped up cooperation with Caracas further since last month's war with Georgia, which has badly damaged Moscow's already strained ties with the West and particularly the United States.

Hours before the scheduled meeting, A Kremlin official who spoke on customary condition of anonymity said that Russia would grant Venezuela some US $1 billion in credit for the purchase of Russian weaponry in an effort to help Venezuela revamp its military forces.

Russia's deployment of warships to Venezuela for naval maneuvers came after the United States used naval ships to ferry aid to Georgia after the war. Russian authorities sharply criticized their presence and sent a ship to shadow them across the Black Sea.

The naval deployment follows a weeklong visit to Venezuela by a pair of Russian strategic bombers. On his Sunday TV and radio program, Chavez joked that he would be making his international tour aboard the "super-bombers that Medvedev loaned me."

In addition to the existing arms contracts with Russia, Chavez's government is in talks to buy Russian submarines, air defense systems and armored vehicles and more Sukhoi fighter jets.

Chavez has also talked about creating "a new strategic energy alliance" with between the oil-rich nations.

After visiting Venezuela this month, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin said five major Russian oil companies are looking to form a consortium to increase Latin American operations and to build a US $6.5 billion refinery to process Venezuelan crude.

Sechin warned the United States that it should not view Latin America as its own backyard.