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Russia seeks sales, not strife, in U.S. backyard

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian naval missions and strategic bomber sorties to Venezuela are a showcase for arms exports, not an attempt to nurture Latin American allies for a new Cold War with Washington, diplomats and analysts say.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (L) meets his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez in Orenburg, September 26, 2008. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Dmitry Astakhov

Finding new markets for its weapons has become even more important for Russia because the global markets crisis has sent the price of its other big export -- oil -- tumbling to about half the peak reached earlier this year.

Russia has been actively courting Washington’s foes in Latin America in the past few months, with high-level delegations visiting Cuba and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez coming to Russia twice this year.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will travel to Caracas next month, around the time that a flotilla of Russian naval vessels arrives in the Caribbean for the biggest such maneuvers in the area since the Cold War.

For a factbox on Russia’s renewed interest in Latin America, click on.

Kremlin interest in the region intensified after Russia’s war with Georgia in August soured relations with the United States.

Some see this as Kremlin muscle-flexing, a sign Russia is retaliating for perceived U.S. interference over Georgia by establishing a presence in the Caribbean that -- intentionally or not -- revives memories of the Cuban missile crisis.

But analysts and diplomats say Russia’s motivation is more prosaic. “Relations are not politically driven, no question,” said Nikolai Zlobin of the World Security Institute in Washington. “Whoever buys arms is Russia’s friend.”

“The naval and air visits are to showcase Russian arms to Venezuela and the rest of the world. Basically, it’s a promotion,” said Zlobin.

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His views were echoed by a senior Western diplomat in Moscow with close ties to South America, who has discussed the arms issue with colleagues from across the region.

“Latin American countries may import and do big business with Russian military equipment suppliers, so Moscow sees it as an attractive market,” he said.

BIG BUSINESS

At a government meeting this week, Medvedev said Russia’s order book for arms exports to all customers was worth over $30 billion. “This is especially important when a major financial crisis is unfolding,” Medvedev said.

Russia sees Latin America -- especially those countries like Venezuela which are pulling out of Washington’s orbit -- as a growth market.

A Kremlin source said that 12 arms contracts worth $4.4 billion had been signed between Russia and Venezuela in the past two years and Moscow was providing $1 billion in credit for more purchases.

Arms sales to Caracas have included 24 Sukhoi fighter jets, dozens of helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles.

Russia is trying to branch out into other Latin American markets too. Medvedev’s visit to the region will include stops in Brazil and Peru.

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Analyst Zlobin said Cuba was a special case: Russia’s interest there was in tweaking the United States, not making money. “Cuba can’t afford big arms purchases,” Zlobin said.

“NO POLITICAL SUBTEXTS”

Stratfor, a consultancy based in the U.S. state of Texas, wrote in a commentary that high-level visits to Latin American states were part of Russia’s pursuit of “Cold War aspirations for creating trouble in the United States’ backyard.”

It noted that Russian visitors to Latin America have included Nikolai Patrushev and Igor Sechin, widely seen as leading Kremlin hawks.

In an interview with Reuters, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow’s interest in Venezuela was not in politics but in developing commercial ties, though he did not mention arms sales.

“We find some areas where cooperation between the two countries is very promising. I’m referring to eventual cooperation in the area of oil and gas, some mining projects, possible cooperation in the area of communications, transport, the financial area as well,” Ryabkov said.

“I would not start searching for geopolitical reasons or subtexts, they simply do not exist.”

Editing by Tim Pearce

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