Defying the United States, Russia agreed in July to sell $1 billion in combat aircraft to Venezuela. The deal marks the latest in a series of Russian arms sales to a state that has increasingly clashed with Washington over different ideological approaches to Latin America and the developing world.
Capping Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s July 25-27 visit to Russia, the deal’s announcement comes just two months after Washington said it would no longer permit new U.S.-origin arms sales to the South American state. At that time, U.S. officials said they were disturbed by Venezuelan ties to Iran and Cuba, allegations that Venezuela was serving as a transit point for arms and individuals of concern, and the Chavez government’s links to left-wing Colombian guerrilla groups. (See ACT, June 2006.) By contrast, Moscow has been a willing arms supplier to Venezuela, concluding more than $3 billion in weapons deals, including the most recent agreement, over the past 18 months.
The latest deal will send 24 Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 MK2 fighter jets and 53 military helicopters to Venezuela. Chavez also announced that Moscow has agreed to build a Kalashnikov rifle factory in Venezuela. Under a prior deal between the two countries, 100,000 Kalashnikov AK-103 rifles are supposed to arrive in Venezuela this year. (See ACT, May 2005.)
The Bush administration has questioned both the necessity and motives for Venezuela’s increasing expenditures and new arms buys. Department of State spokesperson Tom Casey told reporters July 25 that “the arms purchase planned by Venezuela exceeded its defensive needs and are not helpful in terms of regional stability.” He further urged Russia to “reconsider the sale.”
Russian officials defended their deals with Venezuela, saying that they do not break international law. At a press conference July 27 with Chavez, Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to defuse tensions with the United States by asserting that “cooperation between Russia and Venezuela is not directed against any third country.”
Chavez claims that the military purchases are necessary for Venezuela’s self-defense, commenting July 26 that “it is a state responsibility to equip and train the nation’s military bodies. In my case, that is what I am doing, nothing more.”
In an interview the same day with Colombian radio station Radio Caracol, Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel echoed Chavez. “ Venezuela’s purpose [behind its arms buys] is to guarantee the country’s defense and not to attack other countries,” Rangel stated.
In the past, Venezuela purchased U.S. arms, including a 1982 acquisition of 24 F-16A combat jets, but new sales and the supply of spare parts have declined over the course of Chavez’s rule. Venezuelan officials say that this trend has left their military in need of new and replacement weapons and military equipment.U.S. politicians have questioned how Venezuela intends to use any new arms imports. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation, said at a July 13 hearing that “it is the fear of many that these weapons, or the weapons they replace, will end up arming left-wing terrorist groups.”