Sergei Chemezov, the head of Russia's industrial defense monopoly Rostekhnologii, is accompanying Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin on a trip to Venezuela, RIA Novosti reported Sept. 17. Chemezov arrived in Caracas from Havana on the second leg of his trip through Latin America; the two are slated to return to Russia on Oct. 3. The report emerged as a pair of Russian Tu-160 "Blackjack" strategic bombers prepared to return to Russia from Venezuela. Sechin and Chemezov's visit might signal that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez intends to remain one of the Russian defense industry's best customers. This possibility was reinforced by Chavez's recent announcement that he will visit Moscow in the coming weeks after trips to China and Portugal. Chavez inked $4.4 billion in arms deals with Russia between 2003 and 2006, with more arms deals pending since his recent trip to Moscow. Chavez's arms acquisitions have a dual purpose: to help him heighten domestic anxieties about external threats to shore up his increasingly precarious domestic political position, and to advance his bid for greater regional influence. Russian military hardware will facilitate both goals. In interviews, Chemezov has said Caracas is interested in Su-35 "Flanker" fighter jets, an improved variant of the Su-30MKV, the newest addition to Venezuela's air force. (The Su-35s will not enter serial production until at least 2010, however.) There is reportedly also talk of selling further air defense hardware to the South American nation. Sechin's presence on the trip symbolizes something more. One of the most trusted and influential men in Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's inner circle, Sechin is considered Chemezov's covert counterpart. While Chemezov is the overt head of Russia's official defense exports, Sechin can be considered the unofficial point man in the murky world of under-the-table arms sales. He has a close relationship with the Castros of Cuba from the Cold War days, and this is his second of three trips to the region in a matter of months. While it is not clear what Chavez and the Russians have discussed, the simple fact that Chemezov and Sechin are jointly meeting with key Caribbean and South American leaders is exceptionally noteworthy at a time when Moscow is exploring its overt and covert options for tinkering in Washington's backyard. We find it curious that Sechin, Moscow's point man on unofficial dealings, is taking center stage on these trips while the head of Russia's official arms sales remains in the wings. Indeed, Chemezov's presence apparently only became widely known after his arrival in Caracas. Ultimately, the trip represents another piece of the geopolitical puzzle falling into place, as Russia begins to show its hand in influencing Latin American governments in a bid to pressure the United States in its own backyard. The very presence of Sechin and Chemezov suggests that Washington's backyard will increasingly be stocked with Russian weapons — from advanced fighter jets to Kalashnikovs.