|A GROWING FRIENDSHIP Under President Hugo Chávez, Venezuela has cultivated close ties with Moscow and placed big orders for Russian weapons.|
Chávez: Latin America needs Russia
Reportedly plans 2d Moscow trip in about 2 months
MOSCOW - President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela said in an interview broadcast yesterday that Latin America needs strong friendship with Russia to help reduce US influence and keep peace in the region. The interview aired as a Russian Navy squadron prepared to sail to Venezuela.
Venezuela recently hosted a pair of Russian strategic bombers and is preparing to conduct a joint naval exercise with Russia. Russian media say Chávez plans to visit Moscow Friday, his second trip in just over two months.
"Not only Venezuela, but Latin America as a whole, needs friends like Russia now as we are shedding this [US] domination," Chávez told Russia's Vesti 24 television. "We need Russia for economic and social development, for all-around support, for the life of the peoples of our continent, for peace."
During the Cold War, Latin America became an ideological battleground between the Soviet Union and the United States.
The Kremlin has moved to intensify contacts with Venezuela, Cuba, and other Latin American nations amid increasingly strained relations with Washington after last month's war between Russia and Georgia.
The weeklong deployment of a pair of Tu-160 strategic bombers to Venezuela - and the plan to send a navy squadron there - mark a projection of Russian military power to the Western Hemisphere unprecedented since the Cold War.
The nuclear-powered Peter the Great missile cruiser, accompanied by three other ships of Russia's Northern Fleet, was preparing to sail from its base on a cruise that will include a joint exercise with the Venezuelan Navy, Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said on Vesti 24 television. The RIA Novosti news agency quoted the Northern Fleet command as saying the ships will probably leave early today.
Russian officials had said earlier that the squadron was to head to Venezuela in November. They would not explain the change.
Russia's intensifying military contact with Venezuela appears to be a response to the US dispatch to Georgia of warships carrying aid after its war with Russia. Russian officials harshly criticized the US deployment to Georgia's Black Sea coast.
President Dmitry Medvedev warned this month that Russia could follow its dispatch of bombers to Venezuela by deploying forces to other friendly nations.
Under Chávez, Venezuela has cultivated close ties with Moscow and placed big orders for Russian jets, helicopters and other weapons. Chávez has repeatedly warned that the US poses a threat to Venezuela.
Russia has signed weapons contracts worth more than $4 billion with Venezuela since 2005 to supply Sukhoi fighter jets, Mi-17 helicopters, and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles. Chávez's government is in talks to buy Russian submarines, air defense systems and armored vehicles and more Sukhoi jets.
Russian and Venezuelan leaders have also talked about boosting cooperation in the energy sphere to create what Chávez has called "a new strategic energy alliance."
Russian companies Gazprom and Lukoil have signed agreements with Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA to jointly explore several Orinoco fields.
Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who visited Venezuela last week, announced that five of Russia's biggest oil companies are looking to form a consortium to increase Latin American operations. State-controlled Rosneft, Lukoil, Gazprom Neft, Surgutneftegaz and TNK-
Such an investment could help Venezuela, the world's ninth-biggest oil producer, wean itself from the US refineries on which it depends to process much of its crude. Already, Chávez has moved to reduce the involvement of private companies, including
"The level of our development allows us to conduct strategic projects in Latin America," Sechin said in remarks broadcast yesterday on Vesti 24 television.