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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

AXIS OF DOOM!!!!

The burgeoning alliance between Russia and Venezuela has just gone nuclear. On Sunday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced that he had accepted an offer from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to help Venezuela develop nuclear energy – “for peaceful ends of course.” The Russian nuclear power construction company Atomstroyexport, which is currently building Iran’s new plant, will coordinate the project.

Nuclear cooperation is only the most recent – and, arguably, the most alarming – testament to the ties between Venezuela and its Russian patron. For example, later this year Russia and Venezuela are planning to hold joint military exercises, a deployment that represents the largest Russian naval maneuver in the Caribbean since the Cold War. On top of that, Chavez has purchased Russian anti-aircraft systems worth over $4.5 billion, and has been promised a $1 billion dollar “loan” from Russia as part of a “military cooperation program.”

In the economic realm, too, the Kremlin and Caracas are closer than ever. In July, Russian energy giants LUKoil and Gazprom announced plans to invest up to $30 billion in Venezuela’s oil-rich Orinoco basin, a deal that Chavez hailed as “a colossus being born.” Moreover, trade between Russia and Venezuela more than doubled between 2006 and 2007.

The two countries have made no secret of their strategic partnership. Chavez boasts that he has developed a "profound friendship" with Putin. Returning the compliment, Putin declared that Russia and Venezuela are developing “our ties in all spheres,” with “new possibilities in energy, high-tech, machine construction and chemicals” and “cooperation in [the] military and technical spheres.”

Fueling this cooperation is a shared antagonism toward the United States. Both Chavez and Putin have described the relationship as “multi-polar” – a term that describes their opposition to “U.S. global domination.” For instance, Putin declared that, “Latin America has become an important chain-link in creating a multipolar world, and we will pay more attention to this vector.” More recently, Chavez was one of the few world leaders to echo the Kremlin propaganda line that the United States was to blame for Russia’s recent invasion of South Ossetia – a clear sign that Venezuela had come under Russia’s sphere of influence.

For Russia, the advantages of having a prominent anti-American ally are obvious. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was forced to prop up teetering fellow communist governments. In contrast, modern Russia, no longer constrained by communist ideology, is “free to shift [its] focus to creating wholesale chaos in Latin America,” according to a Stratfor analysis. “Where once massive state subsidies were necessary for creating a threat on the U.S. periphery, now Russia (which, for the moment, has the cash to spare) need only send a few extra shipments of light arms to spark a little extra destabilization in a region already rife with strife. For the Russians, a billion dollars to empower a country already working to undermine U.S. influence is money well spent. And if the influx of arms destabilizes Venezuela itself? Well, Venezuela is a major oil supplier to the United States. Either way it goes, Russia wins.”

More broadly, Russia’s alliances in the Caribbean help it “get payback for U.S. policies in Europe,” says Ray Walser, a Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America for the Heritage Foundation. Walser points out that Putin is especially angered by American support for Georgia, and its new missile defense deal with Poland.

At the same time, Walser notes that courting Venezuela carries its own risks. “The nuclear side of the relationship remains very uncertain.” Walser observes that oil rich Venezuela is an unlikely location for a nuclear power plant, which has “the potential to become a white elephant.” If the Russians and Venezuelans are actually planning to develop nuclear weapons, that would violate the 1969 Treaty of Tlateloco. Otherwise known as the “Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean,” it has been ratified by all 33 nations in the region. A violation of the treaty, Walser says, “would really get the U.S. angry.” In that case, Walser says, the political consequences for Russia would be serious. Russia risks further isolation from the U.S. and the rest of the world, while “for Chavez, invoking the Russians may not sit will with either the Venezuelan people or Venezuela’s neighbors, who have enjoyed relatively low defense costs.”

Perhaps mindful of such perils, Russia isn’t placing all its eggs into a Venezuelan basket. Nicaragua’s military has been promised Russian replacement helicopters and missiles, while Cuba gets “a new space-based communication station and new aerial espionage capacities.” Together, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba form a strategic Caribbean triangle of anti-American nations and vital sea-lanes that Russia is eager to control. According to Investors Business Daily, “America imports 60% of its energy from overseas, and 64% of that must cross the Caribbean to reach Gulf refineries, ports and pipelines. Another portion must cross the Panama Canal. Russian communications operations, submarines and naval ships hanging around with little to do are a problem, even if a shot is never fired.”

With its military commitments in the Middle East, America will be hard-pressed to patrol the Caribbean at the same time. Instead, says Ray Walser, Washington should “work to expose Venezuelan misdeeds such as narcotics trafficking and support of FARC” terrorists. America’s political leadership, meanwhile, must keep a close watch on Russia’s campaign to reignite the Cold War, one Latin American country at a time. Russia is already helping Iran build "its first nuclear power plant in the southern port of Bushehr" -- and now appears to be betting that a many-headed nuclear hydra will be simply too much for the West to handle.

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