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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin to Fly to U.S. Right After Chavez Talks

APPresident Hugo Chavez holding a Russian-made rifle as he speaks during a military ceremony in Caracas on Sunday.
President Vladimir Putin's last meeting before he flies off to the United States for weekend talks with President George W. Bush will be with the person who has styled himself as Bush's arch-enemy: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Chavez arrives in Moscow on Wednesday and will meet with Putin on Friday, just two days before Putin holds informal talks at the Bush family home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

The U.S. talks, made at Bush's initiative, are aimed at easing tensions over a host of issues, including U.S. missile defense plans in Central Europe, Kosovo's independence, and the state of Russian democracy. But the timing of Putin's visit with Chavez could throw a wrench into the get-together.

"This will surely bode ill for the meeting in Maine," said Vladimir Milov, head of the Institute of Energy Policy.

The Kremlin insisted Monday that the Chavez visit would not overshadow the Maine talks. Chavez will hold talks in the State Duma on Thursday and then fly to Rostov-on-Don to meet with Putin for what is being billed as a working visit on Friday. No news conferences are scheduled for after their talks. Putin will be in the southern city for a meeting of the Federation Council.

The outspoken Chavez would certainly enjoy creating a stir, if his track record is any indication. On Sunday, he expressed hope that his trip to Russia, followed by stops in Belarus and Iran, would generate deals for new weapons to "assure peace."

"We are strengthening Venezuela's military power precisely to avoid imperial [U.S.] aggressions and assure peace, not to attack anybody," he said, in remarks carried by The Associated Press.

Chavez -- who has pumped $4.3 billion into weapons, largely from Russia, since 2005 -- is looking to buy submarines from Russia and a Russian-built missile-equipped air defense system from Belarus.

Russia is negotiating the sale of as many as nine diesel-powered submarines worth about $2 billion to Venezuela, Kommersant reported June 14.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the submarine sale. A spokeswoman for state arms exporter Rosoboronexport said the agency would not comment either.

Chavez confirmed in an interview broadcast late Sunday on Channel One television that he would discuss the deal with Putin. The vessels were needed to protect Venezuela's territorial waters from the United States, he said.

The United States has banned arms sales to Venezuela and refused to approve commercial licenses that would allow other countries to sell U.S.-manufactured military technology to the nation.

Chavez's visit comes as officials in Moscow and Washington criticize each other publicly but insist that their sharp rhetoric is not a throwback to Cold War days. Bush invited Putin to Maine earlier this month as tensions soared over Washington's plan to place elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Putin proposed sharing a radar base that Russia rents from Azerbaijan as a compromise.

One aim of Chavez's three-nation trip is to maintain an anti-U.S. coalition, political analysts said. Belarus and Iran, two countries isolated by the United States and the European Union, agreed to forge closer ties last month, when Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko received Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Minsk.

"Chavez is clearly trying to go anywhere on the planet where he can get an audience against the U.S.," said Paul Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center, a think tank in Washington.

But he said the timing of the visit was probably less a reflection of Putin's priorities than of Chavez's. Usually, he noted, such visits are planned long in advance, while Bush's invitation to Putin came on relatively short notice.

He suggested that Putin abstain from strong anti-U.S. rhetoric on Friday. "I would hope that at this meeting with Chavez, the Russian president will be a little more circumspect than at other occasions in the recent past," he said.

Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst, said he believed Putin was fully aware of the delicacy of the Chavez and Bush meetings. "He will avoid any confrontation with the U.S.." Markov said.

Apart from arms, Chavez is expected to talk about oil and gas in Russia. Venezuela, an OPEC member, has lead the way in renationalizing its energy sector by forcing foreign companies to convert their private contracts into joint ventures with the government.

Russia has been eager to limit foreign investment in its oil and gas market, highlighted by the struggle over BP's stake in the Kovykta gas field which ended last week when TNK-BP sold out to state-controlled gas giant Gazprom.

Critics like former Kremlin adviser Andrei Illarionov have been warning of the "Venezuelization" of Russia, in which the state grabs control of strategic industries and then treats them as cash cows.

Illarionov's warning rings true because state monopolies are prone to inefficiency and stagnation, said Milov, of the Institute of Energy Policy. "Private companies perform better overall," he said.

Other analysts pointed out that like Russia, Venezuela was using much of its oil and gas revenues for social spending, which in turn has boosted the leadership's popularity at home, despite growing criticism of their authoritarian style of governing.

"There are quite a few parallel interests with Russia," said Jonas Wolff, an analyst with Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, a think tank.

Wolff said that both countries defended national autonomy against perceived interference from abroad on issues like democracy and human rights. "What we see is a growing aversion to cooperation with the west," he said.

Another similarity is Putin and Chavez's shared tendency to systematically weaken democratic institutions and increase the state's role in the economy, said Claudia Zilla, an analyst with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

She added that the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela clearly had a political role in enabling Chavez to control his country's energy sector.

Russia and Venezuela have struck a few deals on energy cooperation, and LUKoil is exploring reserves in the Orinoco oil belt in eastern Venezuela. But Petroleos de Venezuela actually has very little activity outside the country.

While Venezuela has been described one of the most aggressive OPEC members, Russia has been toeing a middle line between the organization, of which it is not a member, and oil consumers represented by the Group of Eight, which includes Russia.

Also, Russia has made it clear that foreign investors can remain involved in its energy sector if their stakes do not exceed 49 percent, while OPEC members like Venezuela have been aiming at complete nationalization.