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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin and Chavez, Eternal Friends for Now

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President Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have built up a close relationship, especially in the period since Chavez visited Moscow for the third time in November 2004. Each sees the other as an ally against American "unipolarity," and there are good reasons for friends and antagonists of both countries to follow events closely as this alliance develops -- or falls apart.

Chavez's anti-Americanism combined with his country's great oil wealth makes him a valuable partner to Putin. The Russian arms industry has been delighted to sell weapons to Venezuela, which mainly purchased arms from the United States before Chavez came to power in 1999. Moscow hopes not only to make additional sales to Caracas, but also that selling arms to Venezuela will somehow help it in selling them to other Latin American countries. In addition, Chavez's animosity toward the United States has undoubtedly given Russian petroleum companies and other firms more opportunity to invest in Venezuela than they would have had if American-Venezuelan relations had remained friendly.

On the Venezuelan side, Chavez's anti-Americanism has provided him an incentive to cooperate with an increasingly anti-American Russia, while his country's energy wealth has given him the means to begin buying Russian arms as well as attracting Russian investment.

How long, though, can this honeymoon last? Like all other bilateral relationships, Russian-Venezuelan relations exist within a larger international political context, where certain changes could affect them dramatically.

A significant improvement in either Russian-U.S. or Venezuelan-U.S. relations would definitely change things. Neither eventuality seems at all likely, however, so long as Putin and Chavez remain in power. It is not clear who will succeed Putin, but it does not seem likely to be anyone more pro-American. Chavez could, of course, be ousted and replaced by a pro-American leader. At present, though, he seems well entrenched.

A more likely source of problems in Russian-Venezuelan ties is a significant drop in the price of oil. Lower oil prices would mean that Venezuela would have less money for buying Russian arms, and Russian petroleum companies would have less money -- and less incentive -- to invest in Venezuela. In addition, tensions between Moscow and OPEC countries -- including Venezuela -- would undoubtedly re-emerge if Russian oil output expanded and undercut OPEC's attempts to bolster prices by limiting supply, as occurred in 2001. It is noteworthy that while Chavez's first two visits to Moscow in 2001, when oil prices were relatively low, did not result in much, but the relationship blossomed in late 2004, when oil prices were much higher and since then has continued to flourish in an environment of high oil prices.

Lower oil prices will not necessarily disrupt Russian-Venezuelan cooperation, but they are likely to test the relationship. There is no guarantee, however, that oil prices will fall or, more importantly, remain low long enough to hamper Venezuela's ability to buy Russian weaponry, discourage Russian firms from investing in Venezuela or cause friction between the two countries over whether Russia cooperates with OPEC on oil production targets.

Another scenario that could put strain on the Russian-Venezuelan relationship is the prospect that Chavez's actions and ambitions irritate (or further irritate) other major Latin American states -- such as Brazil, with which Moscow has also sought improved relations. Latin American states fearful of a Russian-backed Venezuela may turn to the United States for support -- something that Putin does not want to see happen. Nor would Putin have much leverage to restrain a more ambitious and aggressive Chavez. Cutting off or restricting Russian arms sales to Venezuela is not something he would do willingly since Moscow does not want to lose a paying customer who can go elsewhere. Deteriorating relations between Venezuela and other Latin American nations, then, could result in less Russian influence throughout the region. This scenario, however, does not seem likely so long as public opinion in other Latin American countries focuses more on applauding Chavez's anti-Americanism than on worrying about his intentions toward their countries.

Differences over dealing with the United States could also negatively affect Russian-Venezuelan relations. While both Moscow and Caracas pursue anti-American foreign policies, there is still a degree of cooperation in Russian-American relations that Putin wishes to see continued. Moscow may also be less willing than Caracas to challenge or provoke Washington. One current theory circulating in Moscow has it that, while Russia is likely to sell MiG-29 fighter aircraft to Venezuela, selling it the longer-range Su-30 is next to impossible due to "U.S. security concerns." It is not certain, of course, whether this represents the view of the Putin administration or how strongly -- if at all -- Chavez seeks to buy Su-30s. But if Chavez's expectations of Russian support for Venezuela vis-?-vis the United States are not met, he is likely to be disappointed. Given Chavez's propensity for confrontation with the U.S., this scenario seems credible indeed.

Finally, disagreements between Moscow and Caracas over how Russian firms operate in Venezuela are highly likely to arise. Chavez, as is well known, strongly objects to neoliberalism and globalization -- both of which he sees as American plots -- and to U.S.-based multinational corporations. Part of the reason he has invited Russian firms to invest in Venezuela is that he wants to avoid the "negative" aspects of "profit-hungry" American ones. But while very different from their U.S. counterparts in some ways, large Russian corporations are definitely like them -- and corporations everywhere -- in that their prime directive is to make a profit. Moscow may be verbally supportive of Chavez's ambitious social goals, but these are not what Gazprom, LUKoil and other Russian firms investing in Venezuela are interested in. Disappointment is likely to arise on the Venezuelan side at the discovery that Russian multinationals are as profit-hungry as American ones. More than disappointment is likely on the Russian side if the Venezuelan government treats Russian firms as capriciously as it has treated their Western counterparts.

This course of events is the most likely to take place, in my view, and the friction it causes between Russia and Venezuela will be considerable. Both sides are well-known for their uncooperative behavior. This scenario, then, does not depend on any action by a third party, but could occur simply as a result of both sides' typical and characteristically unimaginative approaches to interaction with another state.

So while Russian-Venezuelan ties have grown strong, there are plenty of potential turns that could sour the relationship. The interests of Putin and Chavez converge at present, but it is doubtful that the two can avoid disagreements, and probably serious ones, in the mid-term and even the near future. Briefly put, there is good reason for countries with an interest in oil, armaments and shifting regional alliances -- which effectively means the rest of the world -- to monitor this relationship closely.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.