Putin Visits Chavez in Russian Bid to Grow in Obama’s Backyard

April 1 (Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will pay his first visit to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez tomorrow as Russia seeks to regain lost influence in Latin America through energy and arms deals.

The highlight of the one-day trip to Caracas may be the formation of a joint venture to pump oil from Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt. Putin also plans to meet Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who like Chavez opposes U.S. policy in the region.

Chavez, who visited Russia eight times during his decade in power, has wooed Putin by signing more than $4 billion in arms deals and inviting state energy companies OAO Gazprom and OAO Rosneft to explore for oil. Venezuela was a lone supporter of Russia during the five-day Georgian war in 2008 and hosted joint naval war games later that year.

“Chavez has already signed up for more weapons than he can buy, and Russian energy companies aren’t really interested in exploration and production in Venezuela,” said Pavel Baev, a professor at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo. “It’s much more a political project.”

The two countries fed off each other’s anti-Americanism as oil prices hit all-time highs in the final year of the Bush administration. Now, under the conditions of the global financial crisis, Putin’s successor President Dmitry Medvedev is seeking a more “sober” foreign policy, Baev said.

Arms Customer

“Chavez isn’t the same as he was one or two years ago, but he still has money,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine. “Russia is trying to get out of it as much as it can.”

Venezuela turned into Russia’s largest Latin American arms customer after the U.S. suspended weapons sales amid a chill in relations. Chavez has placed orders for Sukhoi jet fighters, Russian-made helicopters and Kalashnikov rifles.

Venezuela also backed Russian encouragement for closer cooperation among producers of natural gas, with Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez calling for exporters of the fuel to follow the same principles as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Igor Sechin, Putin’s deputy for energy, has pushed for the formation of a venture between Petroleos de Venezuela SA and oil producers Rosneft, Gazprom, OAO Lukoil, OAO Surgutneftegaz and TNK-BP. The joint company may spend more than $20 billion pumping oil in the Orinoco Belt, Sechin said after meeting Ramirez in Moscow in February.

“In the present economic situation, Gazprom won’t be ready to invest serious money in Venezuela,” said Lukyanov. “It’s more symbolic, a reminder that Russia is still the biggest player on the hydrocarbon market.”

No Trespassing

Russia shouldn’t be seen as trespassing in America’s backyard because the U.S. itself reduced economic cooperation with Venezuela, said Vladimir Sudarev, deputy director of the Latin America Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“Putin feels he’s repaying a debt by going, since Venezuela opened the gates of Latin America to Russia,” said Sudarev. “Competition with the U.S. is pointless in Latin America, but Russia can look for niches.”

Medvedev is expected to visit Latin America later this month for a summit of the so-called BRIC nations: Brazil, Russia, India and China. He visited Venezuela in 2008 on a Latin American tour that included stops in Peru and Cuba.