- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2008

MOSCOW

Russia’s efforts to extend its influence into the United States’ backyard brought the State Department’s point man for Latin America to Moscow on Monday for talks on how the two former Cold War rivals can cooperate in the region.

“The two countries are too important not to be talking to each other and not to be finding ways to work together on important issues in the region,” said Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon Jr. in an interview.

Russia’s naval ships have been sailing through the Caribbean in recent weeks and President Dmitry Medvedev has recently visited several countries in the region, including Brazil, Cuba, Peru and Venezuela.

But while Russia has been aggressively expanding its political and military presence in the region, Mr. Shannon said Moscow’s main interests in Latin America appear to be commercial.



“What’s interesting for us about how Russia is engaging in the region is that this is not the Soviet Union,” he said. “They do not bring an ideological purpose to their engagement. This is really an engagement based on interests and a big part of those interests are commercial.”

Russia has been seeking a range of commercial deals in the region, but its closest trade ties are with Venezuela, which has bought more than $4 billion worth of arms, including 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, and helicopters and Sukhoi fighter jets.

Russia’s warships conducted joint exercises with Venezuela early this month and then visited Panama, Nicaragua and Cuba. Their presence off U.S. shores was seen as a show of Kremlin anger over the U.S. decision to send its warships into the Black Sea to deliver aid to Georgia, after that country’s war with Russia in August.

“If the purpose of this ship visit was just to make a point about Russia’s periphery, if its purpose was just to make a point about Georgia, then we probably won’t see them again,” Mr. Shannon said. “But if the Russians really are attempting to build a more long-standing relationship in the region, then they will look for ways to maintain some presence.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry released only a brief statement on Mr. Shannon’s meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, saying Russia reaffirmed its interest in expanding relations and bolstering trade in Latin America.

Mr. Shannon said the Russian warships in the Caribbean were not a threat to the U.S., which has a preponderance of military power in the region.

The U.S. Navy and other naval forces are busy interdicting drug trafficking, keeping shipping lanes open and protecting fisheries in the Caribbean, and if the Russians continue to send their ships to the region they should join these efforts, Mr. Shannon said.

“If they’re going to be in the area, they might as well do something useful,” he said.

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