Why the Kremlin mourns the death of Hugo Chavez, by Giovanni Cadioli.
Vladimir Putin courted the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez assiduously during his years in power. Resurgent and in need of regional partners to play out its ambitions to be a global power, Russia sought out new allies throughout the 2000s. By coincidence or not, many of these were left-leaning and oil-rich. Venezuela was both. Indeed, the eight years after Chavez’s election in 1999 turned practically the whole South American continent to the left and challenged the US’ traditional influence in the region. Venezuela soon emerged as the leader of the new Latin American radical left, grouping around itself Cuba as well as Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and number of other minor states.
How much of Russia’s engagement with South America was interest based and how much identity politics? On the one hand, the relationship with Chavez was dominated by deals on hydrocarbons, nuclear energy and arms trade. Since 2004, Caracas has invested nearly $5 billion in Russian weaponry – making it the main importer of Russian weaponry in Latin America and among the five top costumers of Russian arms worldwide. The two countries have agreed to develop Venezuela’s mines as well as its immense gas and oil fields. Chavez also signed a contract with Russia for the development of Venezuela’s first nuclear power plant. Although meetings between Chavez and Putin or Medvedev were frequent, Moscow’s man in Latin America was and still is Igor Sechin, alleged Soviet GRU officer and head of Rosneft.
Indeed, Venezuela proved to be one among Russia’s most reliable allies. Not only did Chavez join Putin in his criticism of the US-dominated international order, condemn NATO expansion in Eastern Europe and offer diplomatic backing to Russia’s intervention in South Ossetia in 2008, but the two countries had been building a growing military relationship. Chavez also welcomed in Autumn 2008 Russian strategic TU-160 bombers, restored by Putin in 2007. The same period saw the arrival in the Caribbean Sea of a Russian Navy task force, which docked not only in Venezuela – where another joint drill was performed – but also in Nicaragua and Cuba. In 2009, Chavez offered Medvedev a whole island as an airbase for Russian strategic bombers; a few months after, Venezuela extended diplomatic recognition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is worth remembering that after Russia only Nicaragua and Venezuela have recognised the two breakaway republics.
The variety of Russian investments in the country is testament to the impact of personal relationships in foreign policy. Yet these relationships are helped by shared political views, such as dislike for the US-dominated unipolar order and preoccupation for national sovereignty. The two countries are pragmatically tied by a number of joint projects in the hydrocarbons and hydropower sphere, as well as in the banking system, by the planned project for developing a nuclear plant and by quite considerable loans Venezuela took out. Many of the joint projects have actually proved more complex and less remunerative than planned, but if their economic value decreased, their political one remains significant. A possible defeat of acting-President, Nicholas Maduro, in the upcoming elections would represent for Russia not only an economic blow, but also a political one.
Therefore, Venezuela is a crucial ally for Russia and the latter will be relieved to see few signs of change in the relationship. First, Maduro is not a new entity in Venezuelan politics or in the relationship with Russia. On the contrary, he is an old acquaintance of Sechin and the two met soon after Chavez’s death. Moreover, by now, no threats of factional disintegration in the Chavist elite seem in sight and Maduro appears to be more in hold of the situation than many had anticipated. Finally, Maduro’s immediate accusation that the US plotted Chavez’s assassination suggests that there will be no softening of Venezuela’s position towards America.
Further reading: “The Bear beyond the ocean. Kremlin’s relations with Latin America as a crucial step in Russia’s return to great power status”, Rivista di Studi Politici Internazionali (Review of Political International Studies), University of Rome “La Sapienza”, Vol. 79, No. 1, pp. 49-67, January-March 2012. ISSN: 0035-6611.
 Also the small Pacific state-islands of Nauru and Tuvalu recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while Vanuatu recognized only Abkhazia.