Chavez Claims Alliance With Russia Will Protect Venezuela

Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez is on a shopping spree for military hardware from Moscow, and already has a few energy deals in hand.

On Tuesday, Chavez called for a strategic alliance with Russia to protect his country from the United States, having repeatedly accused Washington of plotting an invasion to destabilize his government.

The Venezuala-Russia alliance would mean "we can guarantee Venezuela's sovereignty, which is now threatened by the United States," Chavez told reporters shortly after his arrival in Moscow.

Chavez is in Russia to broker a number of deals involving weapons purchases, oil exploration and possibly the creation of a joint financial institution.

Venezuela's state-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA signed separate deals with three Russian energy companies — Gazprom, Lukoil and TNK-BP — during the first day of Chavez's visit.

In addition, Russian media have reported that Chavez is expected to reach a number of agreements for purchasing Russian military hardware while in Moscow, with one paper reporting the deals could be worth up to $2 billion.

The newspaper Kommersant, generally regarded as reliable, reported Tuesday that Chavez is looking to order Ilyushin jets, diesel-powered submarines, Tor-M1 air defense systems and possibly tanks. It did not specify its sources.

"We want peace, but we are forced to strengthen our defense," Chavez said when asked about the potential deals upon his arrival.

Rosoboronexport, Russia's state-owned arms trader, declined to comment on potential deals.

The United States denies a plan to undermine Venezuela, and a State Department official downplayed the suggestion of a deeper Venezuela-Russia partnership.

"We've repeatedly communicated concerns with Russia about Chavez's arms build-up in the past, and we're going to continue to do so," State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said during a press conference, adding the U.S. also questions "whether such acquisitions are in line with Venezuela's defense needs."

Asked of worries about Russia making alliances with Venezuela, as well as reports of new dealings with Cuba, Gallegos said, "They are a sovereign nation, and they will make alliances as they see fit."

Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., a regular critic of the Chavez administration, issued a statement to saying the deal should cause "great alarm."

“With Hugo Chavez’s past track record of purchasing weapons from Russia that far exceeded Venezuela’s legitimate defensive needs, coupled with his aggressive support of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) terrorist organization, along with the alliances that both Russia and Chavez have with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this weapons deal that is currently being negotiated ought to cause great alarm throughout the Western Hemisphere," Mack said.

Mack said that Chavez is proving to be like Cuba's Fidel Castro was during the Cold War, but unlike Castro, is a "partner who has vast resources and a zealous determination to destabilize the Western Hemisphere."

Welcoming Chavez at Meiendorf Castle, his residence outside Moscow was President Dmitry Medvedev, who said Russian-Venezuelan relations "are one of the key factors of security in the (South American) region."

It is the presidents' first meeting since Medvedev took office in May.

Venezuela, which spent $4 billion on international arms purchases between 2005 and 2007, mostly from Russia and China, has a defense budget of $2.6 billion, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The U.S. stopped supplying arms to Venezuela in 2006.

The three energy agreements involve exploring new oil fields in Venezuela. Chavez said they signified the "creation of a new strategic energy alliance" between Russia and Venezuela.

The deal with TNK-BP was particularly striking given the company's ongoing dispute between its Russian and British shareholders.

"For TNK-BP it is a positive sign that the shareholders' conflict has had no effect on the business," said Valery Nesterov, an analyst at Troika Dialog, an investment bank.

On Tuesday BP announced it would recall 60 technical specialists from Russia.

Chavez also wants to discuss the possibility of creating a joint bank, according to Alexis Navarro, Venezuela's ambassador to Moscow.

The Venezuelan president also met Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and was to meet Russian military and business leaders.

Commercial trade between Venezuela and Russia reached $1.1 billion last year, almost double the $517 million in trade during 2006, according to statistics cited by Venezuela's state-run news agency.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.