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Analysis & Opinion
23.07.08 Moscow Stays Pragmatic With Chavez
Blog by Andrei Zolotov, Jr.

The visit of the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to Moscow on July 22 grew into a major event as fears of another standoff between Russia and the United States are mounting. First, Moscow is rife with rumors about a possible future deployment of Russian strategic bombers in Cuba as a response to the planned deployment of the U.S. anti-ballistic missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Cuba stopped being used as a base for the Russian military back in 2002, when the last remaining Soviet-built radar station was removed from there on President Vladimir Putin’s order, much to the dislike of Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro, who had not been warned of the removal. Second, accusations are flying in Columbia that president Chavez in fact supplied Columbian ultra-left guerillas with weapons, possibly including the ones bought from Russia. Since Columbia is an ally of the United States, the visit of Washington’s harshest Latin American critic to Moscow could be seen as another irritant to the Russia-U.S. relations.

However, a closer look at the situation offers hope for more pragmatism on Russia’s side. “Moscow sees Chavez primarily as a trading partner, not as an ideological ally, as was the case with communist Cuba between 1959 and 1989,” said Zbigniew Ivanovsky, director of the Center of Study of Societies in Transition of the Moscow-based Institute of Latin America. Despite signing deals with Chavez on supplying to Venezuela three 636 Kilo-class diesel submarines and 20 Tor-M1 air defense missile systems, worth $1 billion, Moscow stopped short of selling Chavez the famous Igla portable anti-aircraft complexes. The possible sale of these weapons to Venezuela led to increased worries in neighboring Columbia, where Chavez is suspected of supplying weapons to the ultra-left guerillas from the so called Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). If the FARC members get Iglas, they could use these weapons against American-made helicopters, which the Columbian government uses in fighting guerillas and their drugs business.

“I am pretty sure Venezuela will never get Igla complexes from Russia,” commented Alexander Pikayev, a leading research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “This is a very effective weapon, and I think its sales are regulated by some kind of non-public agreement between Russia and the United States.”

Kommersant daily reported on the eve of Chavez’s visit that, in June, President Dmitry Medvedev met Columbian Vice-President Francisco Santos, who obviously raised the problem of Russia’s arms supplies to Venezuela.

“I know that Columbians keep an eye on the developments in Venezuela, making every effort to keep a sort of a balance of defense capabilities between the two countries, which have a long common border,” said Marina Chumakova, a research fellow at the Institute of Latin America. “In October, Moscow will be visited by the Columbian president Alvaro Uribe, who will also sign contracts on arms supplies from Russia.”

This may lead to lucrative contracts for Russia’s defense companies, as the amount of Russia’s previous arms supplies to Venezuela is estimated at a level of $4 billion. Relations between the two countries started to warm in the year 2002, when Chavez made his first visit to Moscow. Since then, Venezuela bought from Russia 50 combat helicopters, 24 Su-30MK fighters, and 100,000 AK-103 submachine guns. Over the years, Chavez established cordial relations with then President Vladimir Putin, whom he calls “Volodya” and “my friend.”

In Chumakova’s opinion, even if Russia supplies weapons to Columbia too, Russia’s current government will still sympathize with Chavez for his aggressive rhetoric on defending Venezuela from United States’ “infringement.”

“Russia is returning to the traditional orbit of its policy toward Latin America, and this is not to everyone’s liking, including mine,” Chumakova commented. “I don’t understand why we paid for the previous shipment of weapons by issuing Chavez a loan. Doesn’t he have his petrodollars?”

Despite condemning Chavez’s authoritarian methods and tacit support for FARC, Chumakova is optimistic about the long-term perspectives of the Russian-Venezuelan relationship.

“FARC is almost dead now, and I don’t think any arms shipments from Venezuela will help it survive,” Chumakova said. “Columbia’s president Alvaro Uribe and Venezuela’s president Chavez will find ways to remain in power, even though their constitutions do not allow them to run for the third time in a row.”

Chavez and Medvedev also announced several important agreements on energy cooperation between the two countries. Anglo-Russian oil venture TNK-BP and Venezuela's PDVSA agreed on the joint exploration of the Ayacucho-2 area in the Orinoco oil belt in Venezuela. Russian state-run energy giant Gazprom signed a deal with the Venezuelan company on the appraisal and certification of the Ayacucho-3 oil fields.

LUKoil and PDVSA signed a memorandum of understanding and an agreement on joint exploration in the Junin-3 area, also in the Orinoco belt.
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