Russia sees North Africa, Algeria and Libya especially, as a market for arms and a place into which Gazprom can potentially “expand” its influence over the European gas market. The Russians have been speaking openly about their desire to expand their reach into North American energy markets. Simultaneously, tensions with the United States over the Czech missile shield plans, to which the Russians have responded with threats of military force, more recently threatening to move strategic bombers into Cuba (for the Russians really don’t want to lose first strike capability).
Chavez’s visit to Moscow this week seems to reflect Russia’s affection for the multi-polar ideal (in which Chávez enthusiastically shares). They are attempting to build hub and spoke like relationships with major energy producers whose leadership are less than content with the US-dominated order. This, they hope, will make multi-polarity more viable and increase Russia’s standing as a leader. For the Russians, Venezuela seems to represent in the Americas what Algeria and Libya represent pace Europe — a dumping ground for weapons and a staging ground for economic stomach cramps via energy pinching.
I think it unlikely that Chávez will play along with Russian plans, mainly because Russia is less potent a player than it would like to admit, and I think most actors (Chávez included) recognize this. He seems to be more well disposed towards the Chinese, who are less interested in the kind of destabilizing games the Russians like to play. He might support it rhetorically, but he is not going to stop selling oil to the United States or facilitating aerial assaults. Venezuela is too poor and its military prowess too unclear for Chávez to seriously contemplate initiating a truly skirmish-worthy relationship with the US. Russia’s tough talk is posturing, and it surely realizes that the likelihood of it being able to penetrate meaningfully into the Americas is low, no matter how multi-polar the world is becoming. They know the geo-strategic value of Venezuela is small when compared to other regional actors (Brazil), whom they would not like to estrange by associating with obnoxious leaders excessively. It is unclear how eager post-Castro Cuba is to being turned into a lilly pad of Russo-American confrontation again (though that the Russians could speak with such authority on the matter suggest a degree of complicity). The Venezuelans probably want to get more prestige weapons and to raise regional tensions so as to push the price of oil higher. They are probably looking to instigate little more than grousing from the Americans, and they will probably get what they want, whilst continuing to sell. As the Russians perceive the US to be encroaching on their traditional stomping grounds in Eurasia, they hope to push back in the American back-yard.
The Russians are also likely to see the Venezuelans as potential energy suppliers to Europe, and want to build an “infrastructure” that would allow them to maintain a level of agency in controlling that possible resource pool.