MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visits to Venezuela and Cuba during a week-long trip to Latin America look set to irk Washington, highlighting a foreign policy challenge facing President-elect Barack Obama.
His trip to Venezuela, a key buyer of Russian arms, coincides with the two countries’ first joint naval exercise in the Caribbean — traditionally viewed by the United States as its backyard.
During his stay in Cuba, the Russian leader is likely to demonstrate Moscow’s commitment to renew a Cold War-era alliance with Havana, abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia has stepped up ties with Venezuela and Cuba as its relations with the West and particularly the United States soured in the past few years amid a series of rows ranging from Kosovo to U.S. missile defense plans in Eastern Europe.
The ties plummeted to a post-Cold War low after the West condemned Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August.
Moscow, annoyed by NATO warships appearing in or near its borders in the Black Sea to deliver aid to Georgia, dispatched its own warships to the Caribbean for the exercises with Venezuela, a buyer of billions of dollars in Russian arms.
Ahead of Medvedev’s visit, the Russian military said they were discussing with Havana air defense cooperation.
Medvedev marked Obama’s election victory on November 4 with the announcement of plans to deploy Russian missiles close to NATO’s European borders in retaliation for Washington’s plans to set up elements of its missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
But later he softened his tone, saying Moscow pinned hopes on the new U.S. administration making steps to improve ties.
Medvedev said on November 14 Russia will not be the first to deploy its missiles and called on Obama to revise the shield plans — seen by Moscow as a security threat.
Medvedev’s November 26-27 visits to Venezuela and Cuba are the expected highlights of a tour formally centered on his participation in the summit of the APEC Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Peru on November 22-24.
Kremlin officials say the visit has no political context and is targeted at expanding Russia’s presence in Latin America and the broader Asia-Pacific region, viewed by Moscow as one way to help cushion against the effects of the economic crisis. “There is no specific message,” one official said. “Latin America is far away and the president naturally used the opportunity of the APEC summit to visit as many countries as possible to promote better bilateral ties.”
Russia, which wants to diversify its current Europe-focused trade, has sought to establish itself as an Asia-Pacific player, using APEC participation as one vehicle to do so.
At last year’s summit in Australia, Moscow won the right to hold the grouping’s summit in 2012.
A presence in Asian and Latin American markets is becoming increasingly important for Russia as Europe and the United States enter a recession. Analysts say emerging markets like China and India have better chances to maintain some growth.
“We need to expand to new markets or, at least, make sure that we maintain our positions in markets where we are already present,” Medvedev told government officials earlier this week.
Russia has been actively negotiating access to Venezuela’s oil sector and is eyeing Brazil’s lucrative metals and agricultural sectors. Medvedev is likely to throw his weight behind Russian companies in the two countries.
His visit to Brazil is also expected to give a boost to ties amongst the BRIC group that also includes India, China and Russia.
Foreign ministers from the fast-growing BRIC nations, which are pressing for equal participation in drafting a new global financial architecture, met in Moscow in May.
Medvedev is due to visit Brazil on November 24 and will stop briefly in Portugal on his way to Latin America on November 21.
Editing by Louise Ireland