President Hugo Chavez recently announced that Venezuela will purchase dozens of Russian tanks and other arms, signaling growing military ties between the two countries -- and trouble ahead in the hemisphere.
The deal comes amid tensions with Colombia as Chavez continues to support the Colombian narco-terrorism of the FARC, and as he campaigns against the U.S. using Colombian facilities for anti-drug efforts in the Andes.
The announcement of pending Russian armor purchases follows revelations that the Colombian Army recovered Swedish-made anti-tank weapons, sold to the Venezuelan Army, in FARC weapons stocks. The Swedish government has confirmed the original sale to Venezuela. Because of the allegation, Chavez recalled his ambassador and is “freezing relations” with Colombia.
As senior leader and paymaster of anti-Americanism in South America, Chavez also wants to derail U.S. negotiations with Colombia that would grant American troops and aircraft access to seven Colombian military bases. Chavez denounces the U.S. effort as a “strategic threat,” even though the number of U.S. personnel will not increase, and the anti-drug surveillance aircraft will be moved from Ecuador to Colombia. The reason: Chavez’s ally Rafael Correa of Ecuador voided the lease. Chavez’s ire with the U.S. has increased following his failure to restore a deposed ally -- former President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras.
The framework for the arms deal was partially laid during Russian deputy premier and energy czar Igor Sechin’s visit to Caracas in July. During Sechin’s trip, a number of wide-ranging cooperation accords covering energy, military and agricultural cooperation were signed. Sechin’s trip was intended to prepare the ground for Chavez’s upcoming visit to Moscow.
Sechin, the head of siloviki (men of power) faction has emerged as Russia’s point man on global energy geopolitics. He graduated from Leningrad State University (Vladimir Putin’s alma mater) in 1984 as a linguist in Portuguese and French. In the 1980s Sechin worked in Mozambique and in Angola, officially as an interpreter, but according to numerous intelligence sources, he was a GRU officer there.
Geopolitical information service Stratfor claims that Sechin was "the USSR’s point man for weapons smuggling to much of Latin America and the Middle East." He reportedly served with well-known international arms dealer Viktor Bout in Mozambique in the 1980s.
Russia uses arms sales to gain friends and influence governments. Weapons are a key component of the Kremlin's relationship with Venezuela. This deal builds on previous arms sales worth $4.4 billion signed between 2005 and 2007, which included advanced Sukhoi fighter jets; combat helicopters; and 100,000 Kalashnikov, with a whole factory to produce more.
Caracas is also interested in Russian air-defense systems and diesel submarines. In other areas of cooperation, Chavez has offered bases for long-range Russian bomber missions, and in November 2008 Russia and Venezuela held naval exercises in the Caribbean.
Venezuela has reciprocated Russian arms sales by offering preferential treatment to Russian energy firms inside Venezuela. During Sechin’s visit, he and a delegation of Russian government and energy company officials were taken to the Orinoco oil belt to visit an oil field once owned by ConocoPhillips before it was nationalized.
Various Russian companies are already in the Orinoco belt, which boasts what may be the largest hydrocarbon reserves in the world. After the visit, Venezuelan Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez (who happens to be brother of Carlos the Jackal, the notorious terrorist currently in a French jail) announced a joint venture between PDVSA and a Russian consortium that includes Rosneft, Gazprom, Lukoil, TNK-BP and Surgutneftegaz to develop it. Sechin also heads Rosneft.
Standing side by side with Ramirez, Sechin said, "We look forward to more agreements with Venezuela." Potentially, Russian energy firms could be involved in up to 1.2 million barrels a day of production inside Venezuela.
Besides capitalizing on arms and energy as foreign policy tools, Venezuelan and Russian leaders are among the trend-setters in the democracy roll-back taking place since the late 1990s. The rulers of Russia and Venezuela are increasingly rejecting civil society, muzzling or manipulating the media, and narrowing political space in their respective countries. Recently, Chavez cracked down on opposition radio stations. Both governments have mounted sustained attacks on the rule of law, and limited market access to keep out international energy companies.
Their statist efforts are excessively strengthening the state, limit political freedoms, expanding geopolitical clout, and threaten American friends. It may be time for the State Department to declare Venezuela a terrorist-sponsoring state. Both Russia and Venezuela are among Iran’s principal supporters and have contacts with Hezbollah and Hamas.
The Russian-Venezuelan axis bodes ill for hemispheric security, energy access, and for the cause of liberty in the Western Hemisphere.