Hugo Chavez, the flamboyant leftist president of Venezuela, visited Russia last week as part of a tour of European and Asian countries that included Belarus and Iran. In Minsk and Tehran Chavez joined his hosts in issuing anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric. In Russia, Chavez’s rhetoric was less dramatic, but here he did some genuine business. Moscow and Chavez concluded a number of arms deals, reportedly to the tune of $3 billion. The chief of Rosoboroneksport — the Russian arms-trade monopoly — told journalists that Venezuela will buy 24 Sukhoi Su-30 jets for $1.5 billion, 53 military helicopters (both attack and transport) for $250 million, and several anti-aircraft Tor-M1 missile systems and Amur submarines for an additional $1 billion (Gazeta.ru, July 28).
Tom Casey, a deputy spokesman for the U.S. Department of State, announced July 25 that the United States wants Russia to review the deals, pointing out that the weapons purchases exceed Venezuela’s needs and undermined regional stability. But Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s defense minister and deputy prime minister, rejected that view: “In my opinion,” he declared, “the 24 planes and the number of helicopters recorded in the contract are not excessive for the defense of a small country such as Venezuela. We will honor the contract” (RIA-Novosti, July 26). The first Su-30K jets may be delivered to Caracas before the year’s end.
The Russian jets will replace old U.S. F-16A fighters that Venezuela’s Air Force has, but cannot operate, because of a U.S. embargo on spare parts. Military experts say that the Sukhoi jets could transform Venezuela’s air force into the most powerful in South America within years. Chavez has announced publicly that he needs Russian weapons to repel U.S. plans to invade Venezuela and take control of its huge oil reserves (The Times [London], July 25).
The Su-30K is a two-seater that was converted into an attack jet in the early 1990s, using the basic design of the Soviet-made Su-27UB trainer. A few dozens of these jets were produced and sold to India. New Delhi, in fact, wanted to buy the more sophisticated Su-30MKI, but got the Su-30K on a temporary basis instead, as it took time, effort, and hundreds of millions of dollars, provided by India, to start production of the Su-30MKI. Eventually the Su-30MKI began arriving and the Indian Air Force sent its Su-30K back to Russia.
The Russian Air Force does not have plans to procure any Su-30s. If Chavez will take the first delivery of Su-30s in several months, these jets cannot be newly made ones or taken from the Russian Air Force inventory. It is a good guess they are repainted, second-hand models from India.
The Su-30 deal is huge in size, but militarily senseless. The Venezuelan Air Force will have 24 heavy long-range bombers, but no jet fighters to defend the nation’s air space. The Tor-M1 purchase is also a strange deal: This anti-aircraft system is designed to defend large armored formations on the march against incoming air attack. The Tor-M1 missile cannot hit targets higher than six kilometers and cannot defend effectively against the United States’ modern stand-off, air-carried weapons.
The announced arms deals would make sense if Chavez were planning a large-scale invasion of neighboring Colombia or Brazil, which he clearly is not. At the same time the Russian weapons that are hastily procured could not seriously impede a possible U.S. onslaught. The Su-30s, which may be second-hand, are also outrageously overpriced at $62.5 million each.
It is an open secret that many of today’s Russian “newly made” export arms are not exactly “new.” Arms production uses Soviet designs and equipment, Soviet-made components for assembly. Often entire Soviet-made weapons systems are repainted and sold as “newly Russian-made.” As a result production costs are low, illegal profits are sky-high, and the veil of secrecy surrounding the arms trade helps to avoid taxes.
Foreign customers, especially from rogue states, are happy to trade with Russia. The weapons they buy in Russia may not be the latest design, but they are usable and reliable. Also, Russian arms traders are ready to pay substantial bribes to customers. Ten percent of the total sum of a contract is considered a “normal” obligatory kickback. In some cases, as arms trade insiders told Jamestown, the “service fee” may exceed 20% of the contract money. The payback Chavez might get under the table for paying Russian arms traders with cash for weapons Venezuela does not need may be as high as $600 million.
Russian arms traders have told Jamestown that cash paybacks to foreign procurement officials are often paid in advance. Chavez has announced he will be running for reelection later this year and will clearly need a large sum of cash to stay in power.
Its a win-win situation: Russian arms traders dump weapons Russia does not need and get huge profits, Chavez gets a PR boost by publicly defying the mighty United States and at the same time accumulates an electoral war chest under the guise of an overpriced and militarily senseless arms deal. The only losers are the citizens of Venezuela.