July 20, 2008
As Latin America's arms race quickens, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is shopping for Russian air defense systems, submarines and other weaponry amid signs that his regional influence may be waning.
Chávez, who plans to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Tuesday in Moscow, has bought more than $4.4 billion of Russian arms since 2003. He says the hardware, including jets and submarines, is needed to counter a military threat from the United States and its main regional ally, Colombia.
Past Venezuelan arms purchases from Russia have strengthened ties with Moscow as its rivalry with the United States intensifies over President Bush's plans for an Eastern Europe missile defense system and other issues.
Venezuela is Russia's third biggest weapons customer, after China and India.
Chávez 'regularly refers to us as an `empire,' opposes our initiatives in the Americas and seeks out our adversaries as friends and allies,'' Assistant U.S. Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon said Thursday in testimony to a congressional committee.
Chávez will order $2 billion worth of weapons, including Project 636 diesel subs, Mi-28 combat helicopters and airplanes made by Ilyushin Co., the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported May 12, without saying how it obtained the information.
The Russian Interfax news service, citing an unnamed defense ministry official, said Monday that Chávez may order $1 billion in weapons, including three Varshavyanka subs and up to 20 Tor-M1 air-defense systems.
''What Chávez likes to do is to shock, and this will create some shock in Washington,'' said Riordan Roett, a professor of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Trade between the two countries surged to $1.13 billion in 2007 from $517 million the previous year, according to a statement published on the Venezuelan Information Ministry's website.
''Russia is trying to be good friends with Chávez because he is an ideal partner in the arms trade,'' said Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow.
Latin American countries have gone on a military spending spree in recent years as their governments collect record income from commodities, including Venezuela's oil windfall. Regional arms spending jumped 55 percent over four years to $38.4 billion in 2007, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The buildup comes amid increased regional rivalries. Chávez was outmaneuvered this month when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe rescued 15 hostages from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans.
Chávez had been trying to negotiate the captives' release from the guerrilla group, while denying accusations by the United States and Colombia that he had supported the FARC rebels with arms and funding. Uribe has been increasing military pressure on the FARC since becoming president in 2002, with the help of $5 billion in military assistance from the United States.
Colombia and Brazil signed an accord Saturday to strengthen military ties, promote the sale of weapons and expand joint training exercises.
Venezuela ordered troops moved toward the Colombian border in March, after Colombia conducted an anti-FARC raid into neighboring Ecuador, a Chávez ally. The three countries later moved to mend relations.