By Benjamin Miller, Nancy Menges
Putin and Chavez admiring a model of a Russian Tu-160 Strategic Nuclear Bomber, capable of carrying twelve 200kt nuclear missiles. The Venezuelan leader said the two Russian Tu-160 bombers that landed in his country in September were there to conduct maneuvers and that he hopes to “fly one of those things himself”.[3]

As relations between the U.S. and Russia have continued to deteriorate, Moscow has increasingly looked for opportunities to get even with Washington.  Exactly what prompted this shift in foreign relations can be traced directly to Putin’s concerns pertaining to NATO expansion and American aide relief to former Soviet republics such as Georgia.  It is no secret that Russia has continued to sell advanced weapons systems and technology to countries like Libya, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and China despite shared intelligence linking several of these governments to illicit trade and terror networks.  Likewise, one need only follow the money trail to see that Russia has now set its sights on Latin America and particularly on Venezuela.

According to the National Budget Office, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has tripled his country’s defense budget since 2000 to a whopping$3.3 billion in 2008.  Chavez’s biggest purchases from Russia came in 2006 when, in that year alone, he signed deals for over $3 billion in weapons.[1] Between 2004 and 2005 Venezuela doubled the value of the major conventional weapons it imported from$13million to $27million. This number then sky-rocketed to $406 million over the next 12 months, causing Venezuela to surpass other nations such as Argentina, France, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan in the index.[2] The large majority of the weapons it received came directly from Russia.

History has shown that oil-based power politics can be used as a valuable weapon. Both Putin and Chavez understand this better than anyone, for it is these very tactics that allow them to consolidate and maintain power at home while projecting power abroad.

Russia’s petro-giants, GAZPROM and LUKOIL, along with Venezuela’s PDVSA, recently agreed to form what will be the largest oil consortium in the world.[4] The deal includes the joint exploration of untapped Venezuelan oil fields in addition to shared crude-oil refining technology.   The plan is for Russia to build two oil refineries in Venezuela.

This is very much in line with Mr. Chavez’s pronouncements that he wants to find markets for his oil other than having to depend principally on the U.S. as his main buyer. Since China is also in the process of building three refineries in China to process Venezuelan crude, Chavez’s goal of cutting off the United States might be possible in three to five years. As proven by the OPEC crisis of 1973, oil and other natural resources can, and will be used as weapons by those who would cripple the global economy in an attempt to put a squeeze on the United States. By equipping leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez with the military and economic means by which to dominate entire regions and their subsequent markets, Russia is positioning itself to cause massive hemorrhaging in our hemispheric security structure.

 

The Hardware

Scholars continue to draw similarities between recent Chavez-Putin brokered military deals and those struck by Castro and Gorbachev in October of 1962.  While it may be argued that any strategic threat comparison of the two scenarios is an elastic one at best, the substance of such an argument is limited to the specific weapons capabilities of the respective hardware involved.

 

To date Russia has sold Venezuela[5]:

  • Twenty-four Su-30MK fighter jets[6]
  • Fifty or more military helicopters (Mi-17’s, Mi-35’s, Mi-26’s)[7]
  • At least five Kilo-Class attack submarines[8]
  • 100,000 AK-47’s as well as rights to a manufacturing facility[9]

 

In addition to the pending delivery of Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile systems, the most recent meeting between the two countries coincided with Russian military exercises showcasing the deployment of the Tochka (Scarab-1) short range ballistic missile platform for President Chavez.  If there are doubts about Russian ability or intent to sell this type of hardware, one need only look at their transaction records with nations like Iran and Syria.  The delivery of 29 Tor-M1 systems to Iran was the most controversial export of 2006[10] and Syria has already purchased multiple Scarab-1 platforms[11].  This meeting yielded a $1billion Venezuelan line of credit with which to buy other Russian armaments.  Additionally, Russia has promised Venezuela a large order of T-72 Main Battle Tanks and BMP-3 armored infantry combat vehicles.  While these weapons platforms are incapable of deploying nuclear payloads against the continental U.S., they greatly enhance Venezuela’s ability to launch conventional attacks and ultimately to attain regional military dominance.

 

Chavez’s Plan

Chavez is a cunning and rational adversary.  Both his long and short term agendas to uproot opposition to his control of the Venezuelan economy, military, and political system are clear in light of his ongoing efforts at military consolidation and constitutional reform.  While he remains adamantly anti-American in his policies, the Venezuelan leader is well aware that a direct attack against the United States would be political and military suicide.  Chavez understands that operating under the auspices of Russia provides him increased elasticity in dealing with the United States, and it would be unwise to place Venezuela in a situation where it could be left isolated and devoid of fruitful international allies such as Russia and China.  It is logical then, to deduce that Chavez’s new arsenal is intended to augment his broader hegemonic strategy in the region as a tool of coercion.

That being said, U.S. military personnel operating out of regional drug-trafficking monitoring locations and more permanent forward operating locations (FOLs) are significantly more vulnerable as a result of these weapons.  These tactical anchors play a vital role in U.S. counter-terrorism and narco-trafficking operations in the region, and are on the verge of collapse.  It is definite that the U.S. base at Manta, Ecuador will not be renewed by the Correa government when our lease there expires in 2009. Of the other two U.S. FOLs in the region, it is likely that the one in Honduras will be removed because of their recent turn towards more Chavista like policies.  The simple truth of the matter is that a growing Russian-Venezuelan strategic alliance, when combined with a potential decrease of United States regional influence, is directly affecting American hemispheric security interests.  To our regional allies such as Colombia, who has been fighting against a forty year long FARC insurgency and is actively engaged in the fight for democracy, the Venezuelan-Russian threat is an imminent one.

 

Benjamin Miller is an intern at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.  He is a graduate of the University of California San Diego and has a BA in Political Science, with a focus on Latin American and Middle Eastern Affairs.

Nancy Menges is co-founder of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center and Editor-in-Chief of the Americas Report.

 

 

 


NOTES

[1] Bloomberg.com, “Russia Offers Venezuela’s Chavez Weapons, Nuclear Cooperation”.  Allison & Meyer

[2] SIPRI Yearbook 2007, “Armaments, Disarmament and International Security”.  Oxford University Press 2007.  Page 419 Table 10A.1

[3] http://www.airforcetimes.com/news/2008/09/ap_russian_bombers_091008/

[4] Business News Americas

[5] All figures were confirmed through the Library of Congress using the databases from The Military Balance 2008.  Published by Routledge for the International Institute for Strategic Studies SIPRI Yearbook 2007, “Armaments, Disarmament, and International Security”.  Oxford University Press 2007.

[6] http://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/su_30mk/index.html

[7] Defense and Security (Russia), “Luring Chavez…” September 29th, 2008.  Taken from LexisNexis.com

[8] http://www.nti.org/db/submarines/russia/export.html, “Russia Export Behavior”.

[9] NTI:   “Russia Export Behavior”.

[10] The Military Balance 2008, “Russia:  Arms Trade”.  Pp 210.

[11] Defense and Security (Russia)

 

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