August 21, 2009 | Commentary on Latin America, Democracy and Human Rights

Authoritarian Arms

President Hugo Chavez recently announced that Venezuela will purchase dozens of Russian tanks and other arms, signaling growing military ties between the two countries -- and trouble ahead in the hemisphere.

The deal comes amid tensions with Colombia as Mr. Chavez continues to support the narco-terrorism of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and as he campaigns against the United States using Colombian facilities for anti-drug efforts in the Andes.

The announcement of pending Russian armor purchases follows revelations that the Colombian army recovered Swedish-made anti-tank weapons, sold to the Venezuelan army, in FARC weapons stocks. The Swedish government has confirmed the original sale to Venezuela. Because of the allegation, Mr. Chavez recalled his ambassador and is "freezing relations" with Colombia.

As senior leader and paymaster of anti-Americanism in South America, Mr. Chavez also wants to derail U.S. negotiations with Colombia that would grant American troops and aircraft access to seven Colombian military bases. Mr. Chavez denounces the U.S. effort as a "strategic threat," even though the number of U.S. personnel will not increase and the anti-drug surveillance aircraft will be moved from Ecuador to Colombia. The reason: Mr. Chavez's ally, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, voided the lease. Mr. Chavez's ire with the United States has increased following his failure to restore a deposed ally - former President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras.

The framework for the arms deal was partially laid during Russian deputy premier and energy czar Igor Sechin's visit to Caracas in July. During Mr. Sechin's trip, a number of wide-ranging cooperation accords covering energy, military and agricultural cooperation were signed. Mr. Sechin's trip was intended to prepare the ground for Mr. Chavez's upcoming visit to Moscow.

Mr. Sechin, the head of the siloviki (men of power), has emerged as Russia's point man on global energy geopolitics. He graduated from Leningrad State University (Vladimir Putin's alma mater) in 1984 as a linguist in Portuguese and French. In the 1980s, Mr. Sechin worked in Mozambique and in Angola, officially as an interpreter, but according to numerous intelligence sources, he was a Glavnoye Razvedyvatel'noye Upravleniye (GRU) officer there.

Geopolitical information service Stratfor claims that Mr. Sechin was "the USSR's point man for weapons smuggling to much of Latin America and the Middle East." He reportedly served with well-known international arms dealer Viktor Bout in Mozambique in the 1980s.

Russia uses arms sales to gain friends and influence governments. Weapons are a key component of the Kremlin's relationship with Venezuela. This deal builds on previous arms sales worth $4.4 billion signed between 2005 and 2007, which included advanced Sukhoi fighter jets, combat helicopters, and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, plus a whole factory to produce more.

Caracas is also interested in Russian air-defense systems and diesel submarines. In other areas of cooperation, Mr. Chavez has offered bases for long-range Russian bomber missions, and in November 2008, Russia and Venezuela held naval exercises in the Caribbean.

Venezuela has reciprocated Russian arms sales by offering preferential treatment to Russian energy firms inside Venezuela. During Mr. Sechin's visit, he and a delegation of Russian government and energy company officials were taken to the Orinoco oil belt to visit an oil field once owned by ConocoPhillips Co. before it was nationalized.

Various Russian companies are already in the Orinoco belt, which boasts what may be the largest hydrocarbon reserves in the world. After the visit, Venezuelan Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez (who happens to be brother of Carlos the Jackal, the notorious terrorist currently in a French jail) announced a joint venture between PDVSA and a Russian consortium that includes Rosneft, Gazprom, Lukoil, TNK-BP and Surgutneftegaz to develop it. Mr. Sechin also heads Rosneft.

Standing side by side with Mr. Ramirez, Mr. Sechin said, "We look forward to more agreements with Venezuela." Potentially, Russian energy firms could be involved in up to 1.2 million barrels a day of production inside Venezuela.

Besides capitalizing on arms and energy as foreign-policy tools, Venezuelan and Russian leaders are among the trendsetters in the democracy rollback taking place since the late 1990s. The rulers of Russia and Venezuela are increasingly rejecting civil society, muzzling or manipulating the media, and narrowing political space in their respective countries. Recently, Mr. Chavez cracked down on opposition radio stations. Both governments have mounted sustained attacks on the rule of law, and limited market access to keep out international energy companies.

Their statist efforts are excessively strengthening the state, limiting political freedoms, expanding geopolitical clout, and threatening American friends. It may be time for the State Department to declare Venezuela a terrorist-sponsoring state. Both Russia and Venezuela are among Iran's principal supporters and have contacts with Hezbollah and Hamas.

The Russian-Venezuelan axis bodes ill for hemispheric security, energy access and for the cause of liberty in the Western Hemisphere.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Allison Center of the Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation. Owen B. Graham is research assistant at the Davis Center.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Owen Graham Research and Operations Coordinator
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First Appeared in the Washington Times