Moscow Courts Bolivia

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Bolivia's plan to purchase five Russian civil defense helicopters is a "first step" in deepening ties between the two countries as Russia looks to expand its role across Latin America, Russia's ambassador to Bolivia said.

Ambassador Leonid Golubev said he would like to see Russia's ties to Bolivia one day "approach the level" of its growing partnership with Venezuela, which will host the Russian Navy for military exercises in the Caribbean later this year.

"We want to show the United States that Latin America is not their backyard," Golubev said Tuesday. "We also have interests in various spheres, including military ones."

The ambassador expressed "great satisfaction" at the recent rise of Bolivian President Evo Morales and other "socialist-oriented" governments across Latin America.

"This creates a favorable opportunity for us to return to Latin America, to help and to cooperate," he said.

With the exception of its long ties to Cuba, Russia has been largely absent from Latin America since the end of the Cold War.

But in recent years it has deepened ties with Venezuela, whose leftist president, Hugo Chavez, has signed deals for more than $4.4 billion worth of Russian arms since 2005. Chavez visited Moscow last week to secure another $1 billion in credit for the purchase of weaponry.

A price has not yet been set for Bolivia's purchase of the five helicopters, Golubev said. Morales has sought the aircraft to improve Bolivia's emergency response to frequent floods across the country's lowland east.

The purchase would be a "first step: Buy the five helicopters and see how things go," Golubev said. "You can't do everything at once."

He said Bolivia also inquired about purchasing another two helicopters for its anti-narcotics efforts.

The relationship between Bolivia and Russia has been all but dormant in recent decades. It was reinvigorated earlier this month by a natural gas exploration deal signed between state energy giant Gazprom, Paris-based Total SA and Bolivian state energy company YPFB.