How Russia Is Trying to Regain Influence in Latin America

Planned naval exercises with Venezuela, plus big energy deals, get Washington's notice.

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MOSCOW—Somewhere in the North Atlantic, a squadron of Russian warships is steering toward the Caribbean. Led by the nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great, the ships are on their way to joint naval exercises with Venezuela. U.S. officials say they'll be watching when the vessels finally arrive in a few weeks.

Russia has beefed up its presence in Latin America in recent months, inking military and business deals amid a drive to reassert its status as a major world power. "Russia is adopting the course that any superpower should have," says Boris Martynov, deputy director of Moscow's Institute of Latin America.

Latin America seems an obvious partner. Russia's relations with the West are strained following the Georgia conflict, while some left-leaning governments in the region, such as Venezuela and Bolivia, are looking for allies after clashing with the United States.

But it's up for debate what Russia truly wants in the region and whether it has the capacity to become a major player there.

This is not the first time Russians have sought close links with Latin America. In 1962, the stationing of Soviet missiles in Cuba nearly precipitated nuclear war with the United States. The Soviets also funded regional communist parties and invited students from the region to study in Soviet universities. But after the 1991 Soviet collapse, Russia broke off most of its ties.

The recent developments are one more sign of its oil-fueled resurgence, which has only recently been slowed by the global credit crunch.

The upcoming naval exercises will be the first time since the end of the Cold War that Russia has had a major military presence in the Caribbean. They follow a training visit to Venezuela by two Russian bombers in September. Russia will also provide Venezuela with a $1 billion military loan, and President Hugo Chá vez, who has visited Russia twice since June, has said Russian and Venezuelan oil and gas producers will form a global energy "colossus."

Meanwhile, a top Russian minister close to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Igor Sechin, traveled to Latin America to bolster links with Cuba, where Russia has said it will build a space center, and Nicaragua. Nicaragua is the only country apart from Russia to have recognized the independence from Georgia of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In the energy sphere, state-owned gas firm Gazprom announced in September that it plans to invest $4.5 billion in a Bolivian natural gas project along with French firm Total. It also intends to participate in the Venezuelan and Brazilian sections of a pipeline that will cross the South American continent.

Still, it's not yet clear whether Russia's involvement in Latin America is more about furthering its own global ambitions or about sending a message to the United States, which Russia considers to have interfered in its sphere of interest during the August conflict with Georgia.

Russia is partly motivated by a desire to regain the global influence it lost after the Soviet collapse. In this vein, it has also been fostering ties with Iran, resumed the long-range air patrols over the Pacific and Atlantic oceans that ended with the Soviet Union, and even dispatched a warship to Somalia after a Ukrainian boat carrying 33 tanks was seized by pirates there in September.

Links with Latin America may also help further Russia's aim of becoming a counterweight to the United States on the international stage. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have criticized the United States for causing the financial crisis and fostering global instability, particularly as a result of the Iraq war. Additional sore points are U.S. involvement in the Georgia conflict and the missile defense system it plans for eastern Europe.

And, like the United States and China, Russia hopes to benefit from Latin America's raw materials and energy deposits.

All of this plays into the hands of the left-leaning Latin American nations that are looking to pull out of the United States' orbit. U.S.-Venezuelan tensions have ratcheted up since Chávez came to power, and in September, Bolivia expelled the U.S. ambassador after accusing the United States of fomenting unrest in the country.