Russian foreign policy seems to be increasingly affected by an unresolved schizophrenia that causes it to strike blindly at America, even if it gains little in the process. Last month Russia tried to sell Syria, a known sponsor of terrorism and opponent of the Middle East peace process, surface-to-air missiles and other weapons that Damascus cannot afford. More recently Moscow is selling weapons to another sponsor of terrorism, Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.
There can be no doubt of Chavez’s support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the blind eye he has turned to terrorists who seek to use Venezuela as a transit point or as a sanctuary. Indeed, he has given them Venezuelan passports so that they can travel freely around the world. Chavez also is a protege of Fidel Castro and talks regularly of organizing a Latin American counter-bloc to Washington, which he accuses, quite fantastically, of seeking to invade Venezuela.
Chavez turned to Moscow for 40 Mi-35 helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles. Other reports state that Chavez wants to buy 50 MiG-29s, anti-tank weapons, and air defense weapons as well. While Venezuela’s arsenals may be obsolete, purchases of this magnitude, plus a reputed desire to buy $5 billion in weapons from Russia, China, Ukraine, and planes from Brazil by 2010, suggest that Chavez is prey to a megalomania borne of enormous oil revenues and a desire to emulate his mentor Castro. While he certainly has grounds to fear U.S. policy, he and everyone else knows that no invasion is even remotely in the cards. Moreover, there is probably no way Venezuela could even begin to maintain — or even operate — this arsenal.
Therefore both Washington and Bogota have good reason to fear that these weapons will be given to the FARC or to other terrorists operating in South America, notably Bolivia. The arms purchase is all part of Chavez’s plan to create a populist or neo-Castroite counter-bloc to Washington. Such a bloc would seek to destabilize the pro-American government in Colombia and use FARC as a preferred method of doing so, no doubt with Castro’s blessing and support. Indeed, Venezuela has virtually subcontracted its intelligence and domestic security forces to Cuba.
Russia’s motives are clear. Moscow aspires to dominate the Latin American arms market, register its anger with Washington, and show that it is a power to be reckoned with even if it directly supports terrorists. Nor would this be the first time that Russian-made weapons might end up with the FARC. It has never been explained how a Kilo-class submarine wound up in Colombia in 2000.
Russia and Venezuela also have energy-related motives for their collaboration. Chavez and Russian President Vladimir Putin both want to maintain high oil prices, and Chavez has even urged OPEC to remove price ceilings on oil. He seeks to punish American companies and divert oil from Washington to other countries in Latin America and to China as part of his grand design. Russia talks of investing some $5 billion in Venezuela over the next decade, and both governments are discussing major oil and gas deals whereby Russia’s Gazprom would explore in Venezuela and participate in building gas pipelines there. Lukoil, too, is interested in Venezuela’s refining and processing holdings in North and South America as part of its “American” strategy.
Naturally Moscow, as in the Syrian case, waxes indignant over American opposition to the projected arms deal and trots out the usual argument that it and Venezuela, just like it and Syria, have sovereign rights to buy and sell weapons with each other. And indeed, it appears that the Syrian deal is on again, even though it antagonizes Washington and Jerusalem, even as Syria is widely believed to be behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on February 14.
Chavez’s motives for acquiring weapons and for posturing against Washington are clear and well known. Like so many other Third World strongmen he wants guns to spread his influence abroad. Russia’s arms manufacturers and oil and gas sectors also have clear motives. But there certainly could be other lucrative markets for their goods that do not support terrorism. While Russia may claim that its main enemy is terrorism, in fact it continues, much like its Soviet predecessor, to become a sponsor of other states who sponsor terrorism, just so it can display its anger with Washington. While it gains dollars and a rather limited influence over these customers, can it really be said that the Russian national interest is well served by such deals?
(Agence France Presse, February 16, 2005; RIA-Novosti, November 26, 2004, February 14, 2005; Aerospace Daily and Defense Report, December 8, 2004; Kommersant, November 26, 29, 2004; president.ru November 26, 2004; polit.ru, January 17, 2005; Itar-Tass, November 27, December 13, 2004; RusData Online-BizEkon News, November 30, 2004; Nefte compass, February 10, 2005; Gazeta.ru, December 2, 2004; Interfax-AVN, February 11, 2005; Vremya novosti, February 11, 2005.)