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When Hugo Met Vladimir
Venezuela and Russia are up to no good.
by Reuben F. Johnson
08/07/2006, Volume 011, Issue 44


"I AM JUST GOING CRAZY about how she's doing it so quickly," Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez reportedly said, as he beamed at a young Russian woman in the provincial city of Izhevsk last week. Chávez, who was on a three-day trip to Russia, did not make this statement while carousing at a local strip club. He was marveling at the IzhMash factory's female production-line workers assembling one of the famous Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles. He had just made a deal to buy 100,000 of them. And that's not all he bought on his Russian shopping spree. There are also fighter aircraft, advanced radars, and other assorted baubles for Vene zuela's air force.

The AK-47, the weapon of choice for armies and insurgent movements around the world, was invented in Izhevsk, about 600 miles east of Moscow. Its designer, Mikhail Kalash nikov, spent most of the first 70-odd years of his life toiling in obscurity--not traveling outside of Russia until the fall of communism, when the export of Russian weapons became big business. Today, at 86, he is treated like a combination rock star/elder statesman at international defense expositions, where he is often seen wearing his Hero of the Soviet Union medals and other decorations. In the last two years, he has even launched his own brand of vodka.

But the success the AK-47's designer has had at promoting his brand has not been mirrored in the sales of his famous rifle. Earlier this year, Vladimir Grodetsky, the CEO of the IzhMash factory, bemoaned the fact that Russia makes only 10 to 12 percent of the sales of the more than one million AK-47s purchased on the world market each year. "The rest are unlicensed copies," he said in a press conference this past April.

Chávez's visit to the factory and the extensive list of agreements he signed the next day at a pomp-and-circumstance-style Kremlin cere mony are all about reversing this trend. Russia makes a number of large weapons systems--fighter aircraft, naval vessels, air defense systems--that it has sold to China and India for billions of dollars, but it has had less success with smaller weapons. More important, it has yet to make a big dent in the Latin American market.

Latin America is one of the last unexplored frontiers in the weapons-export business, as the previous money-making venues in the Pacific Rim and the Middle East have--for the time being--purchased about all they can afford for the next several years. Most of Latin America's air forces operate an odd mix of older model U.S. and French aircraft, many of which date to before the weapons embargoes that were clamped on South American dictatorships in the late 1970s. Some of these aircraft have been modernized by Israeli firms in the years since as a stop-gap, but it is only recently that the new Latin American democracies--unencumbered by those sanctions--have begun to rearm themselves with more modern weaponry.

The Chilean air force took delivery this year of the first of a batch of Lockheed Martin F-16s, and last year Brazil signed an agreement with France to purchase a number of used Dassault Mirage 2000 fighters from the French air force. Previously, Brazil's navy had purchased the Clemenceau-class aircraft carrier Foch from France, since renamed the S o Paulo, and equipped it with a wing of Douglas A-4 Skyhawk carrier aircraft that it acquired used from the Kuwaiti air force.

Russia has had no such luck on this continent. A handful of Russia's most advanced fighter jets, the Mikoyan MiG-29, were sold to Peru in the early 1990s, but these were used aircraft purchased not from Russia but from its neighbor, Belarus.

Chávez's visit and the impressive list of arms deals he signed give the Russians their first big weapons bonanza in Latin America, and enemies of Chávez, in Washington and elsewhere, another big headache. He has already taken delivery of 30,000 of the 100,000 AK-47s. Concern that many of these assault rifles might end up in the hands of Colombian rebels or the drug lord armies in the favelas around Rio de Janeiro is well-founded. But the more serious dangers created by the new Caracas-Moscow axis are longer-term and can be found in the other deals the two have reached.

The total bill for Venezuela's arms purchases in Russia will exceed $1 billion and includes 24 Sukhoi Su-35 Super Flanker fighter aircraft--a system so advanced that not even the Russian air force has this model in its inventory yet. Based on the famous Su-27 and Su-30MK fighters, the Su-35 is a slightly larger, more powerful, modernized version of its predecessors. It will incorporate the latest in avionics and weapons systems, including a radar system superior to that used by the Indian air force's Su-30MKIs, which defeated U.S. Air Force F-15 and F-16 aircraft in recent joint exercises. It will make Venezuela the big kid on the block in South America and will significantly increase the striking range of the Venezuelan air force. Chávez could conceivably now offer air support against the Americans to his friend Fidel Castro should the United States decide to take action against Cuba in the future.

There are also things to worry about in the nondefense deals that are ancillary to these arms sales contracts. Chávez is known to be incensed at the embargo on spare parts and other military assistance that the United States has placed on his country, and on two occasions he has threatened to sell the F-16s his country acquired in the 1980s during a period of good relations with Washington. On one occasion he said he would give them to the Cuban air force. Later, he suggested he might sell them instead to Iran. Although these are older export models of the F-16A/B series and are far outclassed by those operated by the U.S. Air Force today, turning them over to either of those nations would represent a technology jackpot for those dictators and a blow to U.S. interests.

The other half of the Venezuela-Russia dealings last week is just as disturbing. That's the oil deal Chávez agreed to in a meeting with LUKoil president Vagit Alekperov in Volgograd. The Russian oil company will start exploration in two areas of Venezuela, one of which, near the Orinoco River, is thought to contain substantial oil reserves.

Experience shows that when Moscow signs big weapons sales and energy deals, the tentacles of Russian organized crime are not far behind. Russia recently signed an even larger arms-plus-oil-and-gas deal with Algeria, in which the energy sector payoffs are so large that the weapons pur chases are almost like the toy prize in a McDonald's Happy Meal by comparison. "The fighters and other weapons are practically being given away in this deal," said one Moscow-based aerospace industry analyst, "and the sums of money that are being bandied about are so large it is frightening."

When the Russian mafia first became a concern in the mid-1990s, former CIA director James Woolsey testified before Congress that "if an American businessman meets with a nattily dressed and articulate Russian who claims that he is with an international trading and banking firm in Moscow and he would like to discuss a joint venture covering, say, the export of Russian oil, such an individual may be what he says he is. Or he may be a Russian intelligence officer operating under commercial cover. Or he may be an important member of a Russian organized crime group. But the really interesting point is that there is a reasonable chance that he is all three--and that none of those three institutions sees any problem with such an arrangement."

And it is just such an "arrangement" that the United States may find on its doorstep thanks to the Venezuelan president. AK-47s can come from almost anywhere these days--50 countries use this infantry weapon, and six of them even include it as an icon on their nation's coat of arms. But problems on a scale this mega-deal could cause in the Americas can only come from Moscow.

Reuben F. Johnson is the defense correspondent for Aviation International News and for Military Periscope, a Washington-based defense information service.

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