* As leader of the country that will host the 2018 World Cup, Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Rio de Janeiro last Sunday for the official hand-off from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. And while in the hemispheric neighborhood, Putin tended to some other business.
He signed deals with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on nuclear energy and engaged in talks on possible construction of hydroelectric plants and bases for Russia’s satellite system. He also inked a nuclear agreement with Brazil and had dinner with Fernandez as well as the presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia and Uruguay.
Hardly coincidental: the countries on Putin’s itinerary have been uncritical or downright sympathetic of Russia’s position on Ukraine. Fernandez, for example, was able to analogize Ukraine with the Falkland Islands that are still claimed by Buenos Aires.
And one other Putin stop: Cuba.
Officially, it was about economic and commercial links as well as investment in projects ranging from transportation and civil aviation to energy. Russia has cooperated with Cuba in recent years on offshore oil exploration. And, oh yeah, Putin formally waived 90 percent of Cuba’s Soviet-era debt–or money that Russia was never going to see anyhow.
But amid the bilateral agreements with countries in the Americas, you just knew there was another agenda item at play for Putin, who at his core remains a KGB punk. Such as underscoring how much he despises Western, let alone North American, involvement in matters along Russian borders. In other words, “Call it what you will–including Cold War flashbacks–but now you know what it feels like to have outsiders poking around your geographical periphery and sphere of influence. Deal with it.”
* An ongoing irony of America’s Cold War relationship with Cuba is our normalized relations with Vietnam, a country we actually went to hot war with during that period. A war that cost us nearly 60,000 dead, drove a president out of office and divisively traumatized the country. We currently trade and invest with Hanoi, while still maintaining a trade embargo and travel restrictions with Havana.
Now a last vestige of the Vietnam era may finally fall into the dustbin of history: the prohibition of the sale of American weapons. The Obama Administration has been indicating it wants to lift the ban. One sign: the newly nominated U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, spoke positively about such a change in recent Senate testimony–and giving Vietnam weapons options beyond Russia, Israel and India.
* Humor is where you find it, including the unlikely venue of certain Arab countries. One regional definition of “Sushi”: Sunnis and Shiites who intermarry.