According to international press reports, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is planning to visit Russia, Belarus, and Iran later next week. In Moscow, he will sign a series of agreements on trade and technology.
The Obama Administration needs to let its Moscow counterparts know that unbridled support of a mercurial Latin American politician, including weapons and dual use technology transfer, may threaten the “reset” policy between U.S. and Russia.
Yet, Moscow has much to gain from its flourishing relationship with Caracas.
First, when the Venezuelan leader last visited Moscow in September 2009, he announced that his country recognized the independence of the former Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia—a big boon for the Kremlin’s policy re-establishing a “zone of privileged interests” in the “near abroad.” The old Soviet ally Nicaragua and a broke island nation of Nauru were the only other nations to also recognize the two breakaway republics’ respective independence.
Second, Moscow and Caracas have a booming military cooperation, including Russian arms sales to Venezuela. So far, Caracas has purchased $4 billion in arms, including fighter jets, Mi-17 helicopters, 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, and a Kalashnikov factory—all in the last five years. And Venezuela is scheduled to buy $5 billion more in Russian weaponry.
Third, the two states and their energy companies cooperate on energy. The key player in these bilateral relations is the Russian energy giant Gazprom, which recently received access to two of Venezuela’s gas fields in the Caribbean. Besides this, a joint venture with Russian companies in the Orinoco belt—Rosneft and LUKOIL—will begin producing 50,000 barrels a day by the end of this year. Through the Venezuelan national oil company PDVSA, which owns CITGO, some of this fuel will reach U.S. markets.
Onward and upward: when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with Chávez in April of this year, the two leaders discussed a satellite launch site, to begin Venezuela’s space program, a joint venture on oil exploration in eastern Venezuela, and the construction of a nuclear power plant.
And Roger Noriega, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere recently disclosed that Chávez is running a secret nuclear program in partnership with Tehran’s ayatollahs, including mining and enriching uranium by Iranian companies on Venezuelan soil. The Venezuelan nuclear and space program may eventually pose a threat to the non-proliferation regimes in Latin America; neighboring Columbia and Brazil have reasons to worry.
Russia-Venezuela cooperation follows the path of the Russia-Iran relationship, boosting an anti-American, authoritarian, and anti-status quo actor, only this time in the Latin America. Chávez also allows Iran to expand its influence in Latin America. To compete, Brazil is reaching out to the Islamic Republic. Both Brazil and Venezuela, together with Turkey, have already expressed their support to Iran by opposing the U.N. Security Council’s anti-Iranian sanctions, which, ironically, Russia supported.
Some observers nastily called the alliance of Venezuela, Iran and Russia “VIRUS.” The question is, whether the VIRUS has already spread, or is likely to spread, to Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, North Korea, and possibly China.
Domestically, the most important question is whether association with authoritarian and violent regimes is helping Russia to modernize, to improve the rule of law, and to attract Western capital.
So far, it looks like Russia-Venezuelan cooperation is at least partially aimed at poking a finger in the America’s eye, rather than economic modernization. In what a move that seems like a blast from the (Soviet) past, Russia obviously wants to prove its strength in America’s backyard. Nevertheless, if Russia cares about modernization and integration in the global economy, it should pursue such goals without being infected with the VIRUS.