Chávez seeks to link Putin with anti-US alliance

Aides to Venezuela’s mercurial leader Hugo Chávez will have made sure his presidential fountain pen was fully loaded before he left Caracas, given the number of arms deals he is set to sign in Moscow this week.

Contracts for 30 Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets, 30 military helicopters, 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, a licence to build a Kalashnikov factory in Venezuela, and perhaps two or three submarines are all on the agenda during Mr Chávez’s fourth visit to Russia.

Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s defence minister and a possible successor to President Vladimir Putin, said last week the fighter and helicopter deal alone was worth more than $1bn.

The US has urged Russia to reconsider the sale of fighter jets and helicopters to Venezuela. “We have expressed our concern to the Russian government about this,” Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, said on Tuesday.

He said the arms purchases exceeded Venezuela’s defensive needs and “are not helpful in terms of regional stability.”

But there is more to Mr Chávez’s three-day Russian trip than buying weapons.

His visit to a president he fondly refers to as Mi amigo Putin, is part of a world tour taking in several states with questionable commitments to democracy and strained relations with the US – including Belarus and Iran.

Analysts suggest he is courting countries eyed suspiciously by the Bush administration to create a common ideological front against the US. Ivan Safranchuk, of the World Security Institute think-tank, says the warm reception Mr Chávez can expect in Russia – whose own relations with the US have cooled – demonstrates Moscow’s willingness if not to lead, then at least to have links with that anti-US group.

“Moscow looks at Mr Chávez as a person with whom we should be careful,” he says. “But still he is a big oil exporter, and that is why he should be our partner; he can buy weapons; and he is anti-American, which makes him an even better partner.”

Mr Safranchuk suggests Russia sees its aircraft deal with Venezuela as a tit-for-tat for Washington’s $3.8bn deal to sell 48 F-16 fighters to Poland in June.

Mr Chávez, whose government, like Russia’s, is surfing a tidal wave of oil revenues, hopes the arms deals with Mr Putin will allow his self-described “socialist revolution” to become a military force to be reckoned with in Latin America.

The Venezuelan president is expected to meet Mr Putin on Thursday. Mr Chávez likes to portray himself as the arch-nemesis of President George W. Bush – whom he not-so-fondly refers to as “Mr Danger” – and Washington’s allegedly covert plans to invade Venezuela for its huge oil reserves.

He is also expected to solicit Mr Putin’s support for Venezuela’s campaign to win a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council which will become available later this year.

Mr Chávez looks set to get the support of Belarus, where he received a hero’s welcome on Monday and he discovered a “new friendship” with Alexander Lukashenko, the hardline president.

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