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Russian President Sure to Give U.S. Heartburn

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Embark on a Highly Revealing Latin American Journey Sure to Give Washington Heartburn

  • After attending the APEC Summit in Peru, Russian leader to visit Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba
  • Could a new order for Russian military equipment be placed in Caracas?
  • Russia continues to secure a position as a growing ally of rising-star Brazil
  • First visit of a Russian leader to Cuba in 8 years; $355 million loan to be extended to Havana
  • Medvedev will not visit Cold War-era ally Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and snubs Buenos Aires
  • Russia leader’s visit should communicate a message to President-elect Barack Obama: do not forget Latin America, because Russia has not
  • Will the Obama administration back up Bush’s decision to re-constitute Fourth Fleet?

After attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Lima on November 21-22, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev will embark on a short regional tour, where he will meet the leaders of Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba, for which Moscow is intensely motivated for different reasons.

The selection of the countries that the Russian leader will visit is not as surprising as those not included in his itinerary. Nevertheless, each country – even host nation Peru – is to some degree an ally of Russia, and a visit by Medvedev will keep the Russian flag flying high in the region. All countries that will be visited by the Russian leader, with the exception of Peru, are currently experiencing somewhat strained relations with Washington, and are advocates of a less dominant American role in the integration of the Western Hemisphere.

Even if no particular agreement is reached with the countries Medvedev is to visit the tour should serve as a reminder to the Bush White House, as well as incoming President Barack Obama, that Russia has not forgotten Latin America, and is now beginning to consider it Moscow’s backyard, just as Washington has regarded the Caucasus as its own fiefdom. The meeting could also result in a new Venezuelan weapons purchase as Medvedev is scheduled to extend the $355 million credit to Havana. Both the U.S. and Russia know that Washington is a wounded regional player and could be surpassed by the Kremlin, unless the former is proposed to constructively engage in a respectful and well-meaning policy to the rest of the hemisphere.

APEC: What Can Be Expected?
The APEC summit follows upon last week’s G-20 meeting, where the major point of discussion was the ongoing world financial crisis. In a telegram sent to Peruvian President Alan Garcia to confirm his attendance, Medvedev wrote that he hoped that the APEC participants “will have a constructive dialogue on the wide range of measures aimed at sustained development of the Asia-Pacific region.” The Russian leader went on to say that “one of the key aspects in this respect is the search for best solutions for such urgent problems as the prices for food and energy resources, the climate change.”

Apart from his APEC meeting commitments, Medvedev will look forward to personal meetings with fellow leaders in attendance. For example, Kyodo reported that a bilateral meeting will take place between Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and Medvedev during the summit. RIA Novosti has mentioned that Medvedev will also meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The Kremlin leader may also decide to indicate that Moscow is soliciting Russian membership in the World Trade Organization as well as push for greater Russian integration into the APEC economic region. This could be interpreted as part of a continuing initiative in which Moscow will invite the economies of Latin America and the Pacific toward closer ties with Russia as a possible major trading partner. According to a report by RIA Novosti, trade between Russia and Latin America has exhibited an annual growth rate of 25-30% over the past few years, and is expected to hit a record of $15 billion in 2008.

Brazil: A Rising Star
After the APEC meeting, Medvedev will go on to visit Brazil, which is in itself hardly startling. During the Vladimir Putin years, Russia courted Brazil and attempted to strengthen ties with the South American giant by dispatching Russian cabinet ministers to visit the country. For example, Russian Security Council secretary, Nikolai Patruchev, has been quoted by the Russian news agency Pravda as observing that “Brazil is the leader of Latin America and because of that we are interested in creating a strategic relationship.”

Agreements between both countries range from commerce to education, military, and space cooperation. Nevertheless, Russia is seeking greater influence in Brazil along with a number of other countries such as France, China, South Africa, as well as India.

Venezuela: Petrodollars-r-Us
Meetings between high level Russian officials and representatives in Venezuela are nothing new. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez has visited Russia over half a dozen times since taking power. Meetings by the leaders of both countries often result in a purchase of Russian military equipment in exchange for Venezuelan petro-dollars.

The Russian visit comes on the heels of the visit of two Russian Tu-16 medium-range bombers to Venezuela this past summer. The Russians have also dispatched elements of its fleet led by the guided-missile cruiser Peter the Great to do a port visit as well as carry out war games with their Venezuelan counterparts in the Caribbean. This has raised some Cold War-era alarms in Washington, as it is the first time since the end of the Cold War that the Russian military enters the Western Hemisphere. In mid-October, the Russian news agency Kommersant mentioned that Russian and Venezuelan officials were discussing the Venezuelan purchase of Russian BMP-3 armored vehicles; Medvedev and Chavez are expected to sign the contract during the Russian leader’s upcoming visit. In addition Russia is building a Kalishnikov-assault rifle factory on Venezuelan soil, as well a complimentary one nearby to manufacture the rifles’ ammunition. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has declared that “the weaponry we supply [to Latin America] is not offensive […] these are purely defensive means in their technical specifications.”

Lavrov is scheduled to meet today with conservative Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and foreign minister Jaime Bermudez to discuss possible Russian investment in Colombia. In an attempt to offset Venezuela’s ties to Russia, Colombia has increased its high-level contacts with Moscow this past year. Colombian vice president Francisco Santos traveled to Russia in June to attend the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, and defense minister Juan Manuel Santos attended an Interpol summit held in Moscow in October. Though Colombia is not an APEC member, Uribe’s government has displayed an increasing interest in generating closer economic links with Russia, fearing that it is courting political isolation by having the outgoing Bush administration being one of its few close friends.

Cuba: The Forgotten Ally
Russian-Cuban relations will always be compared to their standing during the height of the Cold War, when the Caribbean island was the Soviet Union’s strongest ally in the Western Hemisphere. The relationship decayed after the dissolution of the USSR. Even after Putin met with Fidel Castro in Cuba in 2000, the resulting rapport did not come close to what it once was.

The meeting will bring together Medvedev and Fidel’s brother, Raul Castro. It is unclear what the delegations will discuss, though they will probably focus on ways to promote greater cooperation. Early in November, Moscow approved a state loan to Cuba for $355 million. The loan’s provisions required that it had to be used to purchase Russian goods and services.

In an interview with COHA, Wayne Smith, former head of the U.S. interests section in Havana and the director of the Cuba Program at the Center for International Policy, explained “I don’t foresee anything major coming out of this meeting, Russia’s interest seems to be centered around Venezuela these days.” Smith went on to mention that “a Russian military delegation visited Havana some months ago, and there was speculation about growing military cooperation between both countries but nothing came out of it.”

The former U.S. diplomat thinks it would be “very interesting” if Cuban forces are invited to participate in the upcoming military exercises between Russia and Venezuela, though there are no reports that this may occur. Indeed, such a scenario may add more fuel to the fire of Bush administration officials who promoted the restoration of the Fourth Fleet which had been dismantled in 1950, for the purpose of patrolling Latin American waters when it came to providing medical and humanitarian services, as well as project U.S. power in the Western Hemisphere.

The Other Side of the Coin
The countries Medvedev chose to visit provide some indication of Russian foreign policy priorities when it comes to the Western Hemisphere. For example, Argentina, which at one point was considered an important regional power and to this day has strong commercial ties with Russia, has been largely ignored. In 2006, there were reports that Russia was attempting to sell military equipment to Argentina; however, nothing materialized. Such rumors have resurfaced again in early November 2008, when a report in the ITAR-TASS Russian state news agency quoted the director of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, Mikhail Dmitriyev, as saying that there is a growing trend of military technical cooperation between Russia and Argentina. The article mentions concrete plans for cooperation, including radar stations and a “helicopter programme, including supplies and setting up of centres for servicing helicopter hardware, possibly, not only in Argentina but also at a regional scale.” However, even this possibility for greater cooperation with Argentina is not enough to compel the Russian leader stop over even briefly in the Argentine capital.

Likewise Nicaragua, under the leadership of Daniel Ortega, Moscow’s ally during the Cold War, is being overlooked. Ortega could use some international support, particularly after the controversial results of recent municipal elections, in which the ruling Sandinista party was judged the winner in a close vote. The elections were held almost without international observers and there have been widespread accusations of electoral fraud. The civic group Ethics and Transparency said it had recorded irregularities in 32 percent of the polling places it monitored. An AP report quotes State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood as saying “unfortunately, the [Nicaraguan] Supreme Electoral Council’s decision to not accredit credible domestic and international election observers has made it difficult to [...] properly assess the outcome of the elections.” Furthermore, Washington is not amused as Nicaragua has been, so far, the only country (besides Russia) to recognize the independence of Georgia’s breakaway republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This past summer, Russia made a military incursion into Georgia and subsequently, to Washington’s anger, recognized both breakaway regions as independent states.

Nevertheless, a RIA Novosti article briefly mentions that the leaders of both of the aforementioned countries, Argentina’s Cristina de Kirchner and Nicaragua’s Ortega, as well as Uruguay’s Tabare Vazquez, are expected to visit Moscow in the coming months.

One should note that Peru itself would not have been on Medvedev’s agenda if it had not been the organizer of the APEC 2008 summit. Lima and Moscow maintained good defense relations during the Soviet era, including major purchases of Soviet warplanes and tanks during that period. In mid-October, Mercopress published a report that Chile is continuing with its aggressive acquisition policy by purchasing F-16 warplanes from Holland, as well as from the U.S. The report explains that “when all [plans] are delivered Chile’s Air Force will have 44 F16, probably the strongest and most modern in the continent [with the probable exception of Venezuela].”

When one contemplates Chilean modernization initiatives, its historically antagonistic relations with Peru come to mind. Peru’s largely hardware is mostly Russian or Soviet-made, including Sukhoi and MiG warplanes, as well as Mi-type helicopters. President Garcia may attempt to arrange a personal meeting with Medvedev to discuss bilateral defense issues and the possible agreements for upgrades of Russian military equipment. Interviewed by COHA, a senior Peruvian army official explained that “Russia may not see Peru as a critical ally, but the Peruvian military certainly regards Russian military equipment as critical to its national defense [...] the Garcia administration must safeguard this strategic relationship.”

Conclusions
Medvedev’s abbreviated Latin America tour provides an idea of the key countries that Russian strategic policy sees as being key to its national interests. Since a number of Latin American governments in power are determined to withdraw from any form of dependence on Washington, the Russian leader is likely to seize the opportunity and further develop alliances with nations in the region, other than Brazil and Venezuela.

The incoming Obama administration soon will have to begin assessing its ties to various Latin American nations and the nature of its ties with the region. Policy decisions such as the ongoing and largely ineffective Cuban embargo, and a confrontational stance toward Venezuela (illustrated by the re-establishment of the Fourth Fleet) are likely to be revisited by the new administration and could be rejected. Medvedev’s present round of calls, as well as a growing presence by extra-hemispheric actors like the European Union, China, India and Iran, demonstrate that the region is open to new relationships outside of the hemisphere and is getting noticed.

ENDS

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