Global Policy Forum

Venezuela Continues to Purchase Russian Weapons


By W. Alejandro Sanchez

Power and Internet News Report
October 25, 2007

During a June trip to Russia, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez signed a deal with the Kremlin for the purchase of five diesel-fueled submarines. The deal came one year after the purchase by Caracas of more than US$3 billion worth of military equipment from Russia. These major military hardware purchases are increasing Venezuela's military power in South America, while Russia is maintaining its role as a major weapons supplier to the world.

The Venezuela-Russia Relationship
The Caracas-Moscow relationship made international headlines in 2006 when Venezuela agreed to purchase military equipment with a total price tag of around $3 billion (2.2 billion euros). Through this purchase, Venezuela acquired 24 Su-30MK2 multi-purpose fighters, 100,000 AK-103 rifles and more than 50 helicopters of various models. Chavez has been quoted by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass as saying that only a strong military "can stop the imperia [the United States], which threatens our democracy." In addition, Russia's Izhevsk Manufacturing Plant has reported that it will build two factories in Venezuela to manufacture Kalashnikov rifle-type AK-103 and its ammunition. An August 15 United Press International article argues that "the AK-47, like the old U.S. Army Jeep and the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, is an example of a weapons system design that never grows old because it is virtually impossible to improve on it." The objective is to have both plants completed by 2010.

Recent Military Purchases
In the latest chapter of Caracas-Moscow relations, during Chavez's late June trip to Moscow, the Venezuelan president ordered the purchase of five Russian submarines to increase the power of the Venezuelan Navy. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, Venezuela ordered five Varshavyanka-class submarines, also known as Kilo 636. Interfax explained that "the subs are powered with diesel fuel and equipped with six torpedo tubes, 18 torpedoes, 24 mines and eight surface-to-air missiles." Reports estimate the total sale price of the purchase to be anywhere from $1-3 billion. A July 9 article by RusData Dialine-BizEkon News argued that the $3 billion sum is "closer to the mark because Russia will also have to build a submarine maintenance base in Venezuela, supply weapons and components, and train crews." The article praises the Kilo's power, describing it as a "silent killer" and explaining how it possesses "up-to-date Club-S cruise missiles which have a range of 7,500 nautical miles." The report explained that "the single-screw Kilo-class submarines are among the most silent in the world because the screw rotates more slowly; and all equipment has special noise-reduction systems."

Three of the purchased subs by Caracas will be built in St. Petersburg, while the other two will be built in the Far East. Rosoboronexport, Russia's state-owned arms export agency, has reported that the contract will be initiated before the end of the year. A July 5 article by U.P.I. quotes Chavez as saying, "People often ask me if Venezuela is going to buy submarines. 'Why not?' I answer. We have half a million square kilometers of territorial waters. That's a great expanse. What is strange about our buying a submarine? No one needs to worry. Will it carry weapons aboard? It will." There are rumors that the Venezuelan leadership may be considering buying four more subs of Amur-class. Additionally, on August 20, Itar-Tass reported that, during a speech on Chavez's Sunday TV and radio show "Alo Presidente," the Venezuelan leader had claimed that, besides the Russian submarines, he had also purchased 5,000 Russian Dragunov sniper rifles.

Geopolitical Security Considerations
Through its military purchases, particularly from Russia, Venezuela is attempting to change the balance of power in Latin America and the Caribbean. Even with Russian military equipment, however, Venezuela does not pose any real military threat to the United States; however, Chavez is creating a powerful defensive force that could dissuade foreign powers from attacking him, or from targeting the country's vital oil industry. Venezuela's army totals around 80,000 troops, hence Chavez has resorted to increasing the country's armed reservists to engage in a form of "people's war" if attacked. This idea makes sense when combined with the construction of the Kalashnikov factories, a traditional weapon for guerrilla warfare.

Venezuela's military acquisitions are also an issue for neighboring Colombia, with whom Venezuela has had some historical tensions. Recently, there have been accusations by the Colombian government that Chavez has some sympathy for the Colombian F.A.R.C. guerrilla movement. It is yet to be seen how Colombia's military will react once the Russian-made subs begin patrolling Venezuela's territorial waters. Furthermore, the purchase of military equipment by Caracas adds to the belief that South America is slowly moving to a new arms race. An August 10 article by Defense Daily International reported that "Brazil wants five Integrated Combat Systems for submarines and one shore-based training facility, as well as associated equipment and services.The total value of the sale, if all options are exercised, could be as high as $58 million." In addition, Brazilian President Lula Ignacio da Silva has declared his intention to complete Brazil's dream of having a nuclear submarine. In the meantime, Chile has purchased a number of military hardware in recent years, prompting its historical adversary, Peru, to do the same.

If anything, Washington policymakers are concerned about how Chavez continues to take actions counter to U.S. interests. The recent purchase of the five subs, while not threatening to the U.S. military, yet again runs counter to U.S. interests when it comes to the military (and economic) strengthening of a country in the Western Hemisphere over which the U.S. has little influence. In the end, Venezuela's military acquisitions show its improving ties with Moscow. While there have not been any reported major oil or gas agreements between Moscow and Caracas, the military relationship between both countries continues to grow, making Venezuela the newest military powerhouse in Latin America and giving more credibility to the belief that Russia is reestablishing its influence in the Western Hemisphere.

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