Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday embarked on a four-nation Latin American tour seen as sending a defiant message to the United States at the close of the George W. Bush presidency.
The tour, including talks with the outgoing US leader, naval exercises off Venezuela and a visit to arch US foe Cuba, has raised fears of renewed Cold War-style rivalry in Latin America, while also attracting scepticism.
"The current level of cooperation could be broader than in the Soviet era. Latin America has already ceased to be the United States' backyard," a Russian diplomat told the Russian daily Kommersant ahead of Medvedev's arrival from Portugal.
"Now the region is following its own line, which gives Russia an opportunity to strengthen our position," said the official.
Medvedev arrives in Peru early Saturday, meeting Bush at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, where Russia's anti-US stance and absence from the World Trade Organization contrasts with most APEC states.
Officials said Bush and Medvedev would discuss the global financial crisis, the August war in Georgia and the touchstone issue of US missile defense plans in eastern Europe.
On Sunday, Medvedev was also to hold talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, whose own Latin American tour this week underlined growing outside interest in the region.
Russia analysts say Moscow's quest for influence in Latin America is intended to counter US influence in the former Soviet satellites of eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
On Monday, the Russian leader heads to Brazil, a key trading partner.
On Wednesday, he goes to Venezuela for talks with President Hugo Chavez, a vocal critic of Washington, as Russian warships prepare for joint exercises in the Caribbean Sea.
Russian media say officials will pursue arms and energy deals with Venezuela, whose Russian weapons purchases have prompted concern that arms stockpiles could fall into the hands of leftist rebels in neighboring Colombia.
Lima-based analyst Alejandro Deustua, of the country's Diplomatic Academy, criticized Russia's role in South America, saying it was time for Russia to "explain plainly to each South American country what their intentions are with these military exercises."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted Russian weapons sold in Latin America were defensive rather than offensive and that Russian moves were not aimed at "third countries" -- a clear reference to the United States, RIA Novosti reported.
Medvedev rounds off his tour in Cuba, the flagship ally of the Soviet Union in the Cold War and the United States' communist foe in the western hemisphere since the late 1950s.
Russian energy firms have been seeking projects in Latin America such as possible involvement in a planned South American gas pipeline.
A proposed Russian purchase of Spanish energy company Repsol -- a major player in the region -- could advance such goals.
But Medvedev's tour drew sniping from the influential daily Kommersant, which said Russia's plans were falling apart as oil prices fell and Moscow's economic fortunes plunged.
The newspaper wryly noted that China's leader had beaten Medvedev to the region and observed: "The Russian delegation headed by Medvedev may not be offered the most profitable contracts in Cuba but only those that don't appetize Chinese businessmen."
Latin America analyst Johanna Forman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, described as "ham-fisted" a trip crafted well before the November 4 election victory of a more conciliatory US president, Barack Obama.
"It's more an in-your-face approach that may not resonate when you have a new administration ... The Russians are still fighting a war with Bush," she said.
Underlining tensions, US-Russian talks on replacing a Cold War-era arms treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, broke up in Geneva without agreement on Friday, the US side said.