- Dmitry Medvedev - Hugo Chavez - Russia - Venezuela
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev opened his visit to Caracas with the signing of a nuclear energy deal Wednesday as he hailed Moscow's growing ties with left-leaning Venezuela, aimed at rebuffing US moves in former Soviet lands.
The highlight of several deals signed by the two governments, the nuclear cooperation accord involves only civilian and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Medvedev, who arrived Wednesday for the first visit by a Russian head of state to Venezuela, received an ornate welcome featuring spear-wielding soldiers singing the two countries' anthems in a palace courtyard decorated with palm trees, fountains and statues of classical gods.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was first to propose nuclear cooperation with Venezuela when Chavez visited Moscow in September.
The nuclear deal coincides with joint Russian-Venezuelan naval exercises about to begin in the Caribbean, which Washington dismissed as insignificant.
"Our collaboration in recent years has strengthened considerably and is flourishing. I think that it has great prospects for the future and we will actively work on it," Medvedev said after the nuclear pact was signed.
Apart from the nuclear deal, other accords included oil exploitation, industrial cooperation, and removing visa requirements for each country's citizens.
"I'm convinced that this visit will give a boost to our collaboration and relations between Russia and Venezuela ... which is one of our most important partners in Latin America," Medvedev said.
The Russian leader said that both countries wished to promote a "multi-polar" world and said that they had "great potential" to find ways to overcome the difficult economic period together.
Medvedev's visit is part of a Latin American tour aimed at revitalizing Cold War-era ties with left-leaning countries of the region and is seen as a bid to rebuff US moves to install a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Medvedev before Venezuela visited Brazil, where he also signed accords to deepen military cooperation with President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.
Chavez was also hosting the presidents of Bolivia, Dominica, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua, for a meeting of an economic group designed to counter US influence.
The arrival of the Russian warships led by a nuclear-powered cruiser has been portrayed by Russian media as mirroring US deployments in the Black Sea in support of Moscow's adversary Georgia.
The Russian ships moored in the port of La Guaira are due to hold patrol and rescue exercises with Venezuelan forces starting on December 1.
Russian officials have denied the exercises are aimed at "third countries" and Venezuela's president rejected talk of provocation on Monday, describing the exercises as an exchange between "free, sovereign countries."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied that the arrival of Russian ships reflected any change in the regional power balance, saying: "I just don't think there's any question about who has the preponderance of power in the Western Hemisphere.
"A few Russian ships is not going to change the balance of power," she said.
On a tour that also includes Peru, Brazil and Cuba, Medvedev has said he wants to restore "privileged relations" with Latin American countries that had close ties to the Soviet Union in the Cold War, when the region was the scene of fierce superpower rivalry.
Russia has been a major arms supplier to Venezuela, providing radars, fighter jets, helicopters and tens of thousands of Kalashnikov rifles and prompting concern from the United States and its ally Colombia about a potential arms race and destabilization.
However the Russian newspaper Kommersant, which has consistently sniped at Medvedev's tour, said there was little chance of new arms contracts being signed this week.
Some analysts have detected an element of bluff in the Russian moves, saying that the economic crisis buffeting Russia is likely to hinder plans such as possible involvement in a South American gas pipeline.
Others have criticized the timing of Russia's show of defiance given a wave of international goodwill towards the United States after Barack Obama won the country's presidential election.