July 22, 2008

Russia Considers Closer Venezuela, Cuba Ties

MOSCOW _ Amid talks about a billion-dollar arms purchase from Russia, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Tuesday that he wanted the two nations to become strategic partners to ensure "Venezuela's sovereignty, which is currently being threatened by the United States."

Chavez's remarks, reported by the Russian state news wire RIA Novosti, came a day after a Russian newspaper reported that Russia's military is considering whether its nuclear weapons-capable bombers could land in Cuba.

The rhetoric is the latest notch up in tensions between the United States and Russia, which are embroiled in a dispute over American plans to build a missile-defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland.

Another state news service, Interfax, quoted a defense industry source as saying that Chavez was in Russia on a two-day trip partly to negotiate the purchase of more than $1 billion worth of weapons systems _ adding to earlier contracts worth about $4 billion _ including up to 20 surface-to-air missile systems and three diesel submarines.

Interfax also quoted the source as saying that Venezuela plans to buy six more submarines in the future. Previous purchases by Venezuela from Russia have included two dozen fighter jets and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles.

"A number of arms contracts have already been agreed upon and could be signed during Chavez's visit to Moscow," Interfax quoted the source as saying.

Although the Cuba proposal _ reported in the newspaper Izvestiya _ may be a trial balloon intended mainly to antagonize Washington, Soviet strategic bombers once routinely refueled in Cuba during flights up and down the U.S. East Coast.

Alexander Drobyshevsky of the Defense Ministry's press service told McClatchy on Tuesday that "I cannot tell you if such a decision was taken or might be taken" and added that the refueling could be done just as easily with air tankers.

Drobyshevsky referred McClatchy to the Foreign Ministry on the question of whether such a move is under consideration. The Foreign Ministry had no comment.

At the White House, spokeswoman Dana Perino said the discussion of refueling in Cuba was "just speculation and hypotheticals right now."

The State Department played down the reports from Russia on basing bombers in Cuba, noting that no senior Russian official has echoed them publicly, at least not yet.

"We've seen these quotes in the press. However, we haven't seen them officially confirmed by the Russian government," spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said. "We continue to work with the Russians on this (missile defense) issue. We've consistently made it clear to them that our proposed deployment of a limited missile-defense system in Europe poses no threat to them or to their nuclear deterrent."

On Russian arms sales to Venezuela, Gallegos said "we've repeatedly communicated concerns to Russia about Chavez's arms buildup in the past, and we're going to continue to do so. We continue to question . . . whether such acquisitions are in line with Venezuela's legitimate defense needs."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev didn't match Chavez's anti-American sentiment Tuesday but voiced strong support for the Venezuelan leader.

"We think that it is our common task to achieve a more democratic, just and secure world," Medvedev said, according to Interfax. "We are ready to work on this, together with the Venezuelan president."

In addition to arms deals, Chavez and his aides discussed oil and natural-gas issues with Russian leaders.

State news media quoted an unnamed official of the Russian Energy Ministry as saying that a charter for a group of gas-exporting countries _ a proposed natural-gas OPEC _ could be finalized in Venezuela in October.

Also on Tuesday, Venezuela's energy and oil minister, Rafael Ramirez, signed deals with Russian oil company Lukoil and joint UK-Russia company TNK-BP to explore the Orinoco oil belt in eastern Venezuela, the site of vast reserves of "heavy oil," which is denser and harder to refine than light oil. Such oil reserves are gaining increased attention with recent high oil prices and concerns about worldwide supply.


(c) 2008, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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