MOSCOW -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday warned Russia against selling arms to Venezuela, and Moscow immediately rebuffed her criticism, saying a $120 million deal it has signed with Caracas violates no laws or treaties.
On the second day of her first visit to Russia since taking office, Miss Rice also called Washington's main Cold War foe a "strategic partner" in the war on terror and other issues, while continuing to speak out against setbacks to democratic reforms and other political and economic policies.
The sharpest public exchange came in a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at which Miss Rice said: "We have made it very clear to the Russian government our concerns about certain arms sales in Latin America and [particularly] Venezuela."
Mr. Lavrov replied that the arms sales were legal and appropriate. "Our military cooperation with Venezuela and other countries doesn't violate any of our international obligations," he said.
The United States fears that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a longtime ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, will use his newly purchased weapons to prop up left-wing governments and to aid left-wing rebellions in the region.
The United States formally protested the Russian sale of 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles to Venezuela late last year, a protest first reported in The Washington Times.
The $120 million arms package criticized by Miss Rice yesterday includes attack, assault and transport aircraft.
It is the South American country's largest purchase since Mr. Chavez came to power in 1999.
Miss Rice said U.S. concern went beyond whether the Russian arms sales were legal or not.
"It's about stability in Venezuela and the region," she said.
Venezuela says its arms purchases are for self-defense, including an effort to beef up security along the Venezuelan-Colombian border to prevent kidnappings and armed incursions by Colombia's Marxist rebels.
Russian press reports said Venezuela also is contemplating buying advanced Russian MIG-29 military aircraft.
On overall U.S.-Russian relations, Miss Rice said in a live interview with the independent Radio Ekho Moskvy:
"Russia is not a strategic enemy. We are not against Russia. We see Russia as a strategic partner in the war on terror ... in stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction [and] in solving regional issues like the Balkans and the Middle East."
On other issues, Miss Rice said it was time the rule of Belorussian President Aleksander Lukashenko, "the last true dictatorship in the center of Europe," came to an end.
Last year, Mr. Lukashenko won a disputed referendum that in effect made him president for life.
Miss Rice, who also met yesterday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, later flew to Vilnius, Lithuania, to attend an informal NATO ministerial meeting.