Concern Over Venezuela’s Russian Arms Purchases Could Be Misplaced

Venezuela's strengthening military and diplomatic ties with Russia have led to alarmist headlines announcing the return of a Cold War standoff, and raising questions about the impact of Hugo Chávez's arms shopping spree on the regional balance of power.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Venezuela's strengthening military and
diplomatic ties with Russia have led to alarmist headlines announcing
the return of a Cold War standoff, and raising questions about the
impact of Hugo Chávez's arms shopping spree on the regional balance of

But even with the latest arms purchases, Venezuela does not top the list of the region's biggest military powers.

Since 2005, Venezuela has spent over $4 billion on Russian hardware,
including 24 Sukhoi fighter jets and dozens of combat helicopters. The
purchase of over 100 T72 tanks to replace older French models is in the
pipeline, say Venezuelan military officials. Recent unconfirmed reports
in the Russian press suggest that Chávez also has plans to buy Project
636 diesel submarines, Mi-28 combat helicopters and airplanes, and
around 20 Tor-M1 air-defense systems.

Furthermore, the presence of two Russian Tu-160 long-range bombers
capable of carrying nuclear weapons during recent military exercises in
Venezuela, as well as Moscow's $1 billion loan to Chávez for weapons
purchases has raised eyebrows.

Chávez says his arms spending is driven by the need to replace obsolete
weaponry, as well as legitimate defense concerns. For years, he has
claimed that the U.S. is plotting to overthrow him, and has warned
about a possible U.S. invasion. A recurring theme of Chávez's anti-U.S.
rhetoric — which reached a new level when he expelled the U.S.
ambassador to Caracas last month — is the need for Venezuela to be
prepared to counter a U.S. military threat.

But Chávez's increased arms spending, buoyed by Venezuela's oil
windfalls, is neither extraordinary nor unique compared with other
countries in Latin America. In fact, most South American nations have
raised defense spending, and while Chávez's arms purchases from Moscow
have captured the headlines, Chile has been quietly engaged in an arms
buildup as well. Between 2003 and 2007, Chile ranked 12th in the world
in arms imports. Last year, Colombia spent 2.8 percent of its GNP on
defense, compared to Venezuela's 1.14 percent.

"Brazil and Chile still remain the region's strongest military powers
with Colombia coming third," says Markus Schultze-Kraft in Bogotá,
Latin American director at the International Crisis Group. "It doesn't
change the military balance of power in Latin America."

More alarming than Chávez's big ticket purchases is the arrival in
Venezuela of 100,000 Russian Kalashnikov assault rifles two years ago,
as well as Chávez's reported plans to build a factory to produce his
own Kalashnikov line. "The main problem today in Latin America is small
arms and not the high-tech big weapons systems," explains
Schultze-Kraft. "The bombers don't represent any sort of real threat to
the region or to the U.S. It's the small arms that are problematic."

The question of what happens to the old rifles once they're replaced by
the shipments of new Russian AK-47s greatly worries the U.S. and its
main ally in the region, Colombia. Both countries suspect that Chávez
maintains close ties with Colombia's FARC guerrillas, a long-running
allegation that has led to fraught relations between Colombia and
Venezuela. Both Washington and Bogotà also believe there is a real risk
that the much sought-after AK-47s could end up in the wrong hands, be
it FARC guerrillas or drug-traffickers in Mexico and Colombia.

Some observers argue that Chávez's high-profile arms spending in Moscow
represents a show of force and bravado rather than a real threat. It is
seen as part of a deliberate ploy to deflect attention from Venezuela's
domestic woes, including soaring crime and inflation, ahead of what are
expected to be tightly contested key local elections in the country
next month.

For Russia, the strengthening of the Moscow-Caracas alliance is part of
the country's broader strategy to expand ties in the region.

"Latin America is becoming a noticeable link in the chain of the
multipolar world that is forming," said Russia's Prime Minister,
Vladimir Putin during Chávez's 11th visit to Moscow last month. "We
will pay more and more attention to this vector of our economic and
foreign policy."

Dan Erickson, senior associate of U.S. Policy at the Inter-American
Dialogue, argues that the Moscow-Caracas military alliance is part of
Russia's attempt to assert its authority and "exploit an opening in
Latin America" amid receding U.S. influence in the region.

"Russia seeks to reassert itself as a world power, which includes a
renewed presence in Latin America, while much of the region wants to
diversify its economic partners to reduce its dependence on the United
States," said Mr Erickson in a report. "None of this favors U.S.
influence in the hemisphere, which appears to be in free fall during
the Bush Administration's final months in office."

With his well-known hostility towards the U.S., Chávez has become an
expedient and ideal business partner for Russia, which is increasingly
keen to irritate Washington following the U.S. condemnation of Russia's
invasion of Georgia. (Venezuela was one of the few countries to
publicly back Russia's latest war.)

But with a global financial crisis and falling oil prices, it's
unlikely that Chávez can maintain the pace of his arms spending, making
Russian president Dmitry Medvedev's scheduled visit to Caracas next
month an interesting barometer of the two countries' unfolding

Anastasia Moloney is a Bogotá-based journalist and a World Politics Review contributing editor.