Russia makes new (old) friends

Chávez with Sechin: just out to make a buck, or leftist collusion?

Russia makes new (old) friendsEvoking the good old days of the red menace, Russia and Cuba are once again growing close. The two countries, who were formerly thick-as-thieves allies until the breakup of the Soviet Union, recently signed a deal giving Russia oil exploration rights off the coast of Cuba. Estimates place as much as 20 billion barrels of oil within Cuba’s territory in the Gulf of Mexico, a lucrative investment for Russia’s Zarubezhneft oil concern. Cuba, meanwhile, gets a $150-million loan in exchange.

The deal, signed by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, appears to be part of a Russian push for closer relations with leftist, anti-U.S. Latin American nations. Before heading to Cuba, Sechin visited Nicaragua, where he signed a visa-free travel agreement meant to foster trade. In Venezuela, meanwhile, he met with President Hugo Chávez and signed a military co-operation agreement that will see billions of dollars worth of Russian arms shipped to the country—effectively doubling Chávez’s stockpile of military hardware. The deputy PM made it obvious that Russia wants to stay close to Latin America. “I would like to express our deep satisfaction with the positive dynamics in the development in our diplomatic relations,” he said.

But the new relationships don’t necessarily carry any glint of the old hammer and sickle. Western countries have been pressuring Russia to invest more in the global economy. “I don’t see this as a sort of collusion that’s aimed at exerting power or somehow strategizing against the West. I think that both Russia and Cuba are interested in making a buck,” says Michael Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia. “If this turns out to be some sort of cartel of former Communist allies then that is cause for concern. But it’s far too early to tell.”