Russian President Dmitri Medvedev heads to the US’s own backyard next week, to spearhead Russia’s biggest charm offensive in Latin America since the demise of the USSR.
The list of new political, economic and even military ventures between Russia and countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua has set off alarm bells in Washington and has experts noting that, after almost two decades of diplomatic retreat, Moscow is suddenly — and quite aggressively — back in the game.
“Russia aspires to be a great power once again, and this is part of the explanation for our renewed interest in establishing a presence in Latin America,” says Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice rector of the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, which trains Russian diplomats.
“It’s also part of our response to American hegemonism in our own region,” he adds. “If the US insists on extending NATO up to our borders, planting anti-missile defences next door and encouraging countries like Georgia to launch provocations against us, then we will respond.”
Medvedev will arrive in Venezuela next week just as a flotilla of Russian warships, including the nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Peter the Great, begins the Russian military’s first-ever war games in the Caribbean Sea together with ships from the Venezuelan navy.
The Kremlin leader will sign a raft of commercial agreements with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, but the one that has the US deeply worried is a reported deal to build a Russian nuclear power station in that left-leaning Latin American country.
“We are going to have atomic energy, and soon (the Americans) will start accusing us of building nuclear bombs,” Chavez told reporters last week, adding that his country’s nuclear ambitions were “for peaceful purposes only”.
Moscow has recently signed arms contracts with Venezuela worth $4.4-billion, including 24 Sukhoi Su-30 fighter planes, dozens of military helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Cuban leader Raul Castro is expected to visit Moscow early next year to embrace what experts describe as a sweeping revival of the two countries’s former Cold War relationship, though without the previous ideological dimension.
“Russia no longer has any grand design, and we don’t want to convert other countries into our satellites,” says Bazhanov. “But Moscow is returning as an important power to the world stage and we will extend our presence and build our influence in Latin America, whether everyone in Washington likes it or not.”