Russia increases weapon sales to Chavez
Betsy Pisik (Contact)

UNITED NATIONS | Russia is showing its irritation with U.S. intervention in its back yard by selling more weapons to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

Mr. Chavez is to arrive in Moscow on Tuesday with a reported billion-dollar shopping list of armaments, including submarines and helicopters.

It is the controversial Latin American leader's third visit to Moscow since 2006, when he purchased $3 billion in Russian weapons systems.

The choreographed display of commerce and camaraderie provides a rare opportunity for two of Washington's most passionate antagonists to tweak the Bush administration, with the added benefit for Russia and Venezuela of raising their profiles in their own regions.

Russia is furious with the Bush administration's plans to base missile defenses in former Soviet satellites Poland and the Czech Republic, while Venezuela is chafing at U.S. support for rivals Colombia and Brazil.

"The Russians also see this as a way to push the notion that there is a multipolar world," said Michael Shifter, adjunct professor of Latin American studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. "And if Chavez is not all that strong, these [military purchases] boost him up a bit."

Mr. Chavez, who has portrayed himself as the leader of Latin America and a socialist alternative to U.S. hegemony, has been rattled lately by the Colombian military's daring rescue of hostages held by the FARC rebel group, as well as by Brazil and Argentina's economic surge, Mr. Shifter added.

Besides missile defense, the Russian leadership has tangled with the United States in the U.N. Security Council over political conflicts ranging from Georgia to Zimbabwe.

In a recent essay, Ariel Cohen and Ray Walser, both senior foreign-policy researchers at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, warned that Venezuela could be the new Cuba in a 21st-century Cold War, one that is emboldened by rising oil revenues.

"Russia and Venezuela, together with Iran, are among the trend-setters in the democracy rollback taking place since the late 1990s, especially in petro-states," they wrote. "The rise of oil prices has accelerated this process and helped precipitate the rise of statism and the decline in democratic governance, while energy revenues provide the means to buy off political opponents and the media, build up internal security forces, and insulate regimes from any domestic and international criticism."

The Venezuelan leader told reporters in Caracas that his goal inMoscow is "to consolidate a strategic alliance with Russia in the political, economic, technological and military fronts," according to the Venezuelan publication El Universal.

Mr. Chavez, who has been spending Venezuela's oil windfall on a variety of conventional weapons, has bought more than $4.4 billion in Russian arms in the past five years and plans to add to this arsenal by purchasing $2 billion more.

The Russian Interfax news service Monday quoted an unnamed Russian Defense Ministry official as saying that Mr. Chavez might order three Varshavyanka submarines and up to 20 Tor-M1 air-defense systems. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported May 12 that Mr. Chavez wants Project 636 Diesel submarines, Mi-28 combat helicopters and Ilyushin airplanes.

The Venezuelan purchases are feeding a regional arms race.Chile, Colombia and Brazil also have been modernizing their militaries.

"It could get out of control," Mr. Shifter warned. "I don't think the U.S. has anything to fear from Venezuela militarily, but you can see a scenario where, if things get tense, there is with Chavez an element of unpredictability. If he feels threatened, under attack, there is a potential for destabilization" in the region.

Venezuela's weapons purchases have been difficult to track. Russian Deputy Permanent Representative to the U.N. Konstantin K. Dolgov on Monday maintained that all sales are within international covenants and guidelines.

The United Nations maintains two sprawling voluntary databases on international arms purchases, one to track total military expenditures and the other to break down purchases and sellers.

Venezuela has not contributed to either since at least 2002, according to Ewen Buchanan of the U.N. Department of Disarmament.

This article was based in part on wire service reports. ... to-chavez/