Megan K. Stack
Los Angeles Times
July 23, 2008
Deals on oil drilling and arms shipments mark the Venezuelan president's whirlwind trip to Moscow, as he seeks an ally in his anti-U.S. stance.
MOSCOW -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez blew through Russia on Tuesday, cutting business deals, griping about the United States and pumping up the friendship between two oil-rich nations.
He pressed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to pay him a visit in Venezuela. He subtly ribbed President Dmitry Med- vedev, who has been widely portrayed as Putin's handpicked puppet. And he announced that his country would buy Russian weapons "to guarantee the sovereignty of Venezuela, which is being threatened by the United States."
The tone of the visit was the latest stroke of neo-Cold War posturing in Moscow, which has taken on an increasingly anti-American tone as oil revenue piles up in state coffers.
This week, a Russian newspaper published anonymous threats from a "highly placed source" to use Cuba as a refueling base for nuclear- capable bombers. The report, which caused consternation in Washington, was dismissed by the Russian Defense Ministry as false.
During his visit, Chavez spoke admiringly of Fidel Castro, stirring inevitable memories of bygone Cold War alliances.
"Fidel asked me to greet you," the Venezuelan president told Medvedev.
"Fidel has spoken about the crisis of common sense in the world, especially in some powerful countries," he said, according to the Interfax news agency. "Russia has fortunately retained this common sense."
The visit played out against a backdrop of global tension over high oil prices, inflation and a weakened dollar. But some analysts dismissed the back-slapping and dealing between the rulers as a largely empty display.
"It's an opportunity for a lot of anti-American rhetoric," independent Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgengauer said. "It's a win-win situation."
Still, both countries are riding high on the record-busting oil prices. And Tuesday, the two presidents pledged to form a strategic energy alliance.
"Our relations have reached a totally new level," Medvedev said after he and Chavez watched Russia's oil and gas companies sign a host of deals with their Venezuelan counterparts. The deals clear the way for Russian firms to develop Venezuelan fields, beginning with Russian giant Gazprom drilling in western Venezuela while Lukoil drills in the Orinoco River basin in the east.
Wider exploration as well as joint railroad, infrastructure and banking projects will follow, the presidents said.
"Energy security, in particular, depends on our coordinated actions," Medvedev said. "We will work together in a coordinated and correct manner."
Chavez echoed Russian calls to make the ruble a major reserve currency in opposition to a weakened dollar. "The ruble must become a world currency," he said. "The dollar must not become a world currency."
Since becoming president in May, Medvedev has struggled to emerge from the long shadow of Putin. On Tuesday, Chavez made a point of telling reporters that his first meeting with Medvedev had slipped his mind.
"I can't remember him being present at our first meeting in New York. He reminded me of this," Chavez said, according to Interfax.
He also said that his meeting with Medvedev had run longer than expected.
"But it was not my fault," he added. "He speaks more than I do."