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The Axis of the Embittered By: Matt Gurney
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A recent trip to Russia by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has brought those two embittered states closer together. Chavez, known mostly for his firebreathing anti-Americanism, found a welcoming crowd in Moscow.


After meetings with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Chavez announced new financial and arms deals. Venezuela will purchase 100 battle tanks from Russia, and the two countries will found a joint bank for the funding of mutual, and as yet unspecified, economic ventures.


In exchange, Venezuela has given Russia something it had until now proven virtually incapable of finding elsewhere: diplomatic recognition for its South Ossetian puppet states, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia had been trying for over a year to find international support for its assertion that these slivers of Georgian territory are indeed independent, pro-Russian republics. In exchange for his tanks and investment capital, Chavez has helped further this flimsy illusion. No doubt Russia’s diplomats are pleased.


Still, one must question what possible strategic advantage Russia sees in cultivating an ally so far from home. While many have drawn comparisons to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but today’s developments bear little similarity to the military stratagems of the 1960s. In 1962, Cuba offered the Soviet Union a base close to America for medium and intermediate-range nuclear missiles, as a way of compensating for the Soviet Union’s failure to develop a reliable intercontinental missile. Almost 50 years later, such strategic considerations are obsolete. Both Russia and the United States have fully developed nuclear delivery systems, and the thought of Russia using Venezuela as a launch pad for an invasion of the United States is preposterous. Russia has no need whatsoever for a military base in Latin America, arms sales and occasional naval visits notwithstanding.


Given that there is no military reason to build up a Latin American ally, Russia clearly seeks only the propaganda value of having a friend irritatingly close to America’s shores. In this way, the Cuban comparison holds. At the same time, it demonstrates just how far Russia has fallen. Fifty years ago, the Soviet Union came halfway across the globe to build up an ally with enormous monetary assistance, thousands of troops, and a phalanx of nuclear missiles – a development so worrisome to Washington that the world came to the very brink of a nuclear war before a peaceful resolution was found.


This time, the best Russia can do is to play host to a buffoon, trading tanks for a bit of diplomatic credibility in a conflict most of the world has already forgotten about. While the Russians might consider the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be a major accomplishment, in fact the opposite is true. Where once the Soviet Union stood astride the world like a colossus, dominating entire continents and projecting power across the planet, today the best it can do to legitimize its pick-pocketing of a tiny republic’s territory is to buy the support of Venezuela and Nicaragua.


In a world full of countries eager to take a political swipe at America, Russia still can find only a few fringe leaders to side with them. As unpopular as America might be in parts of the world today, the memory of the Soviet Union is no more beloved. Russia, desperate to recapture the swaggering confidence of the Soviet-era, must content itself with the likes of Chavez and Iran’s Ahmadinejad. How the mighty have fallen.


Meanwhile, America has taken virtually no notice, and quite correctly continues to treat Chavez like the overstuffed caricature that he is. Increasing Russian military provocations, such as aggressively sending bombers towards NATO leadership conferences, and continually probing U.S. and Canadian air defences, are brushed off by an America that better appreciates the outcome of the Cold War: Russia lost, and cannot make up for its lack of strength with bluster. The nuclear brinksmanship of the Cold War no longer applies.


The only country with anything to truly fear from a Russia-Venezuela Axis of the Embittered is Venezuela’s neighbour and rival, and close U.S.-ally, Colombia. Colombia in recent years has begun to win its war against FARC, a domestic terrorist organization fuelled by drug money and held together by the Marxist ideology close to Chavez’s heart. Supported by U.S. military training programs and generous arms sales, the Colombian military has won a series of decisive battles against FARC, which Colombia believes is being supplied with weapons by the Venezuelan military, with the full knowledge and support of Chavez and high-placed members of his government.


Last year, after Colombian troops crossed into Ecuadorian territory to destroy a high-value FARC camp, war seemed likely. Chavez sent thousands of Venezuelan soldiers to the border with Colombia and launched a vicious war of words against Colombian President Alvare Uribe, calling him an American puppet. While war was averted and tensions have since declined, Venezuela has recently levelled trade sanctions against Colombia, each the other’s second largest trading partner.


Economic issues, however troubling during the current global crisis, are not the primary risk of this continuing confrontation. Colombia has long-feared that FARC might find itself in possession of advanced weaponry. Surface-to-air missiles, in particular, would make impossible Colombia’s highly successful air campaigns against FARC. Should Russia and their Venezuelan allies wish to do more than simply irritate America, undermining Colombia and its counter-narcotics efforts might be their best option.


It would be wise for America to monitor closely Russian arms shipments to Venezuela. So long as Chavez limits his forces merely to posturing within their own country, there is no cause for alarm. But should advanced Russian weapons begin falling into the hands of the FARC, with either the direct support or wilful blindness of Venezuela, the United States will be forced to consider its response carefully.


Parallels to the Cold War can be overstated. But a very real threat to a valuable Western ally, launched by two nations blinded by their irrational hatred and jealousy for all things American, could create a foreign policy irritant that the Obama administration, distracted by economic trouble at home and two difficult wars abroad, would much rather do without. Until Russia’s economic woes and Venezuela’s ruinous socialist polices force those countries to truly turn a new page with Washington in a new era of cooperation, their irritating, and occasionally worrisome, posturing must be expected to continue unabated.

Matt Gurney is an assistant editor for comment at Canada’s National Post, and writes and speaks on issues of military and geopolitical concern. He can be reached at mgurney.responses@gmail.com

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