LA GUAIRA, Venezuela (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev toured a Russian warship visiting Venezuela’s Caribbean on Thursday, a boost for President Hugo Chavez’s mission to weaken U.S. influence in Latin America.
Medvedev boarded Russia’s anti-submarine destroyer, Admiral Chabanenko, along with Chavez, who has hailed a growing friendship with Moscow, that includes nuclear cooperation, as a sign of fading U.S. influence in the region.
“Not so long ago, Russia’s strategic bombers visited Venezuela. Now warships are here,” Medvedev said while showing Chavez the ship’s weaponry. The warships, including Russia’s nuclear-powered battle cruiser, Peter the Great, will carry out joint exercises with Venezuela’s small navy this week.
“Such actions and our coordination are one of the factors of the regional and global stability,” Medvedev said.
Chavez signed a deal while on the ship to buy two Russian Ilyushin II-96 300 jets, a model sometimes used for travel by Russian presidents.
“I’m overwhelmed with emotion,” said the former soldier and vocal critic of the U.S. “empire.” Chavez insists the naval exercises are not meant to provoke the United States. His foreign policy is based on strengthening regional powers.
“Our mission is a mission of peace, you are leading us to the balanced multi-polar world,” he told Medvedev.
Medvedev met with a group of Chavez’s leftist allies on Wednesday, including presidents Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.
The United States dismisses the alliance between Russia and Venezuela as mostly talk. The relationship could be strained if the two oil exporting nations are hurt by collapsing crude prices.
Although Washington says it is unconcerned, it acknowledges it is monitoring Russia’s moves.
“I don’t think there’s any confusion about the balance of power in the Western Hemisphere,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, criticizing what she called Venezuela’s “destabilizing behavior” in the region.
“It is important that that be taken note of, and that anything that is done in this hemisphere does not further exacerbate the effect of Venezuelan policies on our neighbors like Colombia,” she said.
Russia and Venezuela have signed a string of agreements, including Russian plans to help Venezuela develop nuclear energy for civilian purposes. Nuclear energy has been an important part of Medvedev’s tour and Russia’s foreign minister offered its atomic expertise to Ecuador on Thursday.
Long wary of his radical anti-U.S. rhetoric, Moscow has warmed to Chavez in the last few months at a time when Moscow-Washington ties have frayed over U.S. missile defense plans in Eastern Europe.
Russia was also upset with Washington for sending ships to the Black Sea on aid missions after the Georgia war in August.
“If our American partners are ready to share responsibility for international relations in the Black Sea, we have to show we are ready to share responsibility for security in this part of the world,” Mikhail Margelov, head of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said on Wednesday.
“We don’t want to irritate them playing games in their backyard, because Latin America is not their backyard anymore.”
Writing by Frank Jack Daniel, Editing by Sandra Maler