Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Washington’s favorite Latin American bete noir after Fidel Castro, unsettled Washington again last year by negotiating a $1 billion deal with Moscow to purchase a number of 636-model Varshavianka-class (NATO designation “Kilo”) diesel electric submarines (Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostei, April 4).
Various Russian and Venezuelan media reports say that the initial delivery will consist of three to four boats with an eventual nine submarines from Russia. President Chavez is reportedly traveling to Moscow next month for the inauguration of Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev, and while there will sign an agreement for the delivery of the first three boats (El Universal, April 4).
Venezuelan Ambassador to Russia Alexis Raphael Navarro Rochas undiplomatically observed that the purchase was a calculated slap at the United States, remarking, “The military collaboration between Venezuela and the U.S. was sharply reduced for two reasons: First, because of the U.S. refusal to fulfill previous contractual obligations, as a result of which Venezuela suffered serious losses; secondly, because of the complexities that arose with maintaining military technology already purchased from the U.S. This technology has already become obsolete.” In contrast, Rochas noted, “Russia carries out, and very thoroughly, all its obligations in the area of military technical collaboration”(RIA-Novosti, April 10).
Venezuela’s Minister of Defense General-in-Chief Gustavo Rangel was even blunter about the deleterious effects of Washington’s policies. Speaking at a press conference on April 8 in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, Rangel said that the U.S. embargo introduced in May 2006 on deliveries to Venezuela of armaments, military equipment and spare parts had had a ruinous effect on the country’s military hardware, especially the country’s aging fleet of 21 Lockheed F-16 Flying Falcons, which are no longer produced for the US Air Force and of which only 10 remain operational (www.aviacion.mil.ve).
The purchase comes in the wake of earlier significant Venezuelan purchases of Russian armaments. Previous weapons purchases by Venezuela include 50 Mi-28N helicopters, 24 Su-30MK2 jet fighters, TOR-M1 anti-aircraft systems and 100,000 100 AK-47Y0E automatic rifles. Negotiations are also underway for the purchase of 12 Il-76 heavy military transport planes, with a repair station and training center to be built in Caracas (Kommersant, April 4). Not that the Russian cornucopia will then be empty: In May Chavez might be offered Sukhoi-35 fighters as well.
Venezuela’s submarines will be built at either St. Petersburg’s Admiralteiskiie Verfi Shipyards or at the Amur Shipyards in Komsomolsk-on-Amur on the Pacific coast, and will replace Venezuela’s two aging Type 209/A-1300 German-built Sabalo class diesel electric submarines, which date from the mid-1970s.
Venezuela has been shopping for replacements for its aging craft for nearly four years, beginning in 2004. In September 2005 Venezuelan Navy chief, Vice Admiral Jose Laguna, said that the decision on future Venezuelan submarine purchases would be strongly influenced by the level of technology transfer the various manufacturers could offer. At the time, among the leading contenders were Germany’s Type 21/214, Russia’s Amur-1650, and France and Spain’s Scorpene (ACAN-EFE, September 29, 2005). Even before the May 2006 U.S. embargo, Washington was out of the running, because it had shut down its diesel assembly lines decades ago when the U.S. Navy went nuclear. The Kilo diesel-electric submarines were actually not the Venezuelan navy’s first choice, because by displacing 3,000 tons they were deemed too large, with the navy preferring lighter, 1,500 ton boats like the Scorpene, whose 1,285 ton displacement is far closer in size to the navy’s Sabalos.
There also remains the problem of financing the submarines. Caracas is negotiating with Moscow for a loan of up to $800 million partially to underwrite the submarine purchase. Despite Venezuela’s immense petrodollar wealth, Russian analysts believe that Chavez would prefer to retain his oil revenues for his social programs and instead work with Moscow for military financing, with the state-owned Vneshekonombank reportedly being considered for underwriting the loan (Severnaiia nedelia, April 8).
While the Venezuelan submarine contract is significant, it hardly means that the Caribbean will become a Bolivarian lake anytime soon. Significantly, the contract will also include the training of the crew and the development of coastal infrastructure for submarines, both projects that will take years to complete.
Moscow seems to have a sanguine view of the whole affair, noting that Chavez has active opposition in Venezuela that has repeatedly tried to overthrow him and came close to succeeding in 2002. Accordingly, Venezuela’s arms purchases might be largely an effort to mollify the military brass as much as build up the country’s armaments. As an official with the Federal Service for Military-Technical Collaboration (FSVTS) commented, “He simply likes saber-rattling” (Kommersant, April 4).