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Medvedev to Visit Venezuela

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev travels to Venezuela later this month. The trip coincides with joint Russian-Venezuelan naval exercises in the Caribbean Sea and underscores not only growing ties between Russia and Venezuela but Moscow's broader policy to expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere. More from VOA's Bill Rodgers.

Naval Exercises planned in the Caribbean Sea
A Russian flotilla, including the nuclear-powered warship Peter the Great, is on its way to naval exercises in the Caribbean with Venezuela.

The Russian naval presence revives memories of the Cold War standoff between the US and Russia during the Cuba missile crisis.

Michael Shifter is a Latin America expert with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. He says Russia's move is a geopolitical response to US support for Georgia during Moscow's August incursion.

"I think it has a lot to do with retaliating for what the US reaction was to the Georgia crisis and the naval forays in the Black Sea," Shifter said. "And I think Russia is showing it's also a player in this hemisphere."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been courting Russia, visiting Moscow over the years to sign various agreements, including weapons purchases.

Russian fighter jets have been sold to Venezuela, and Caracas has bought 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles for its military.

Mr. Chavez is scornful of U.S. concerns over the arms sales and the upcoming joint maneuvers. "Already the speculation has started," Mr. Chavez said. "It's the voices of the Yankees, saying that secret bases will be set up where the Russians will put atomic bombs."

But if the exercises and the publicity surrounding them worry the U.S. State Department, Assistant Secretary Thomas Shannon showed little concern in speaking to Reuters Television.

"This is Russia, not the Soviet Union," Shannon said. "In other words, they don't have an ideological agenda. This is driven by short-term politics and economics, especially the sale of weapons. It's something we're watching closely, but not something we're watching with great worry at this point."

Russia-Venezuela Ties
Russia's growing ties with Venezuela and the planned naval maneuvers should be of no concern to anyone, says Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

"It looks like everyone has been accustomed for a long time to our warships being in naval bases and our warplanes in hangars, and thinking it will be like that forever," Ryabkov stated.

Besides courting Venezuela, Russian officials are expanding ties with Bolivia and other Latin American countries.

The focus is mainly economic, like an agreement to invest in Bolivia's natural gas fields, for example.

But Russia's expanding influence in Latin America might pose a problem for Washington, says Latin America expert Michael Shifter. "It may help Latin America, it expands Latin America's economic opportunities, diversifies its relationships," Shifter said. "I think that's healthy. The problem becomes when there's a deterioration of US-Russian relations and then there are maneuvers closer to the United States and then it becomes a greater concern that the United States has to deal with."

The exercises will coincide with a visit by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to Caracas, where he will meet with President Chavez. The visit is expected later this month.