Putin Makes Energy and Arms Deals with Potential Latin American Allies: Part One

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 92

There can be no doubting Moscow’s intention to play a larger role in Latin America. President, Dmitry Medvedev, has confirmed this and Russian diplomacy in the past three months has featured trips by Latin American leaders to Moscow as well as by Medvedev and Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, to Latin America (ITAR-TASS, March 22). While Medvedev’s visit to Argentina and Brazil received more publicity in the West, in fact Putin’s earlier trip to Venezuela might prove to be the most significant trip, given the deal he made and the partners with whom he dealt –Bolivia and Venezuela.

Even though Putin only traveled to Venezuela, his trip was noteworthy not only due to the deals he signed with the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, but also because he made direct contact with Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, in Caracas. Morales is a fervent admirer of Chavez’s methods and policies and has long supported Moscow, clearly seeking heightened Russian involvement in Latin American as well as greater support for his government. Indeed, Morales is so pro-Russia that Abkhazia’s government has publicly stated that it expects to be recognized by Bolivia and Ecuador (another similarly inclined government) in order that Bolivia receives Russian aid. Clearly, such recognition appears to be Moscow’s condition for assistance to friendly foreign regimes (Interfax, April 22).

Moreover, as if on cue, Morales announced that the accords that he signed with Putin on energy and arms sales, trade, and investment, also point to the “consensus” that Russia should turn to Latin America and reach similar agreements with its governments (Agencia Boliviana de Informacion, April 3). Morales also asked Moscow to make a “strong” return to Latin America, which was clearly what Putin wished to hear. Morales duly called for Russia to relaunch its bilateral relationship with Bolivia in these areas where agreements are to be signed: trade, investment, cooperation (arms sales) and deepening diplomatic contact (EFE Madrid, April 4). Consequently, additional talks were held in Moscow on April 25-28 between ministers from both governments. At that time Bolivian ministers negotiated a loan for $100 million that the Morales government requested to equip and modernize Bolivia’s armed forces with Russian weapons. Moscow has also offered to build an international airport in central Bolivia and a maintenance carrier for Russian made aircraft that fly to South America (EFE, April 4, 28).

As part of this process, Gazprom is contemplating possible participation in Bolivian gas and oil projects. Allegedly, these are attractive projects even if unstable prices and country risks are taken into account, and the political factor of Putin’s interest will also incline Gazprom to make a positive decision (ITAR-TASS, March 29). Gazprom’s Deputy CEO, Alexander Medvedev, indicated that Gazprom is interested in a pipeline project to link Bolivia with Argentina, probably a subject that President Medvedev discussed on his subsequent visit to Argentina (ITAR-TASS, March 29). Alexander Medvedev also stated that Gazprom was interested in Venezuelan gas, oil, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects but while Venezuela’s offer would not let Gazprom receive an acceptable rate of return he was confident that a deal could be agreed. In addition, plans for a gas pipeline linking Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina had stalled, making LNG supplies among them a more viable alternative (ITAR-TASS, March 29, April 2). Morales also sought to further the negotiations conducted with Moscow since 2008 over arms sales, an international airport, and a Russian made presidential plane (La Prenza.com, La Pas, April 2).

All these actions relating to Bolivia show both the extent of Russian ambitions to play a role in fostering cooperation among its allies in Latin America, and in establishing for itself an impregnable beachhead from which it can then expand its influence over Latin American polices away from the US. Indeed, that has long been its stated intention. Putin’s Deputy, Igor Sechin, even tried in 2008 to establish a military alliance with Cuba and Venezuela and Morales’ invitations coupled with President Medvedev’s and Putin’s visits demonstrate how receptive Moscow is to such calls. There can be no doubting the seriousness and scope of Russian efforts to penetrate Latin America using its favorite means of expanding its influence abroad, supporting anti-American regimes with energy deals and arms sales, even if they are not necessarily economically justified. Clearly, Moscow’s Latin American policy shows just how deep rooted Moscow’s anti-Americanism remains in the guise of the pursuit of a multipolar world, and how that policy enjoys an elite consensus even if not everyone seeks a military alliance with Latin America, as did Sechin.