The Russian Bear Comes Out of Hibernation in the Western Hemisphere

Putin's promise of additional weapons sales, and assistance to help Venezuela draw up plans for a nuclear power plant only complicates the hemispheric security and development agenda.
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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Venezuela raised some eyebrows. He promised additional weapons sales, which could reach billions of dollars on top of the $4.4 billion already sold to Venezuela since 2005, and, even as a number of world leaders are in Washington this week to discuss ways to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation, also promised assistance to help Venezuela draw up plans for a nuclear power plant. Coupled with a visit on Thursday to Argentina and then to Brazil by President Dmitri Medvedev, Russia is raising its profile in the Western Hemisphere, waking up from its self-imposed post-Cold War hibernation to expand its regional ties.

This time, however, the primary motivation is different. During the Cold War, Moscow had an overriding political agenda. Its links to Cuba took the world to the brink of nuclear war, and it proactively attempted to support governments and non-state actors friendly to the anti-Western, pro-Soviet worldview. The Russian agenda now is more economically self-interested. It revolves around commercial exchange based primarily on energy investment and development, and the sale of weapons and related technologies. It's economic stimulus, Russia's own version of "cash for clunkers."

Building relationships in Latin America is, quite simply, good business. Quick profits can be made by selling items that much of the rest of the world doesn't want. Moscow also doesn't seem to mind that building such ties creates concern in Washington, particularly given the Kremlin's continued anger at US support for Georgia during the brief 2008 conflict and other US steps to build a presence in Central Asia. (Other actions, such as Moscow's promise of joint military exercises with Nicaragua, appear to follow this same pattern.) Putin's direct association with controversial arms sales and Latin American nuclear reactor deals -- when his formal responsibilities as Prime Minister do not include foreign policy -- does add a political dimension that might not otherwise exist, showing that Moscow is not adverse to taking steps that will also complicate US actions in the hemisphere or, indeed, have negative implications for the people of region themselves. But at least for now, the Kremlin appears to be sensitive to traditional US interests in the Western Hemisphere, and is hewing to a commercial diplomacy model with built-in foreign policy externalities. In the vernacular, Moscow is intent on having regional friends with benefits.

Nonetheless, even though commerce may be the primary motivation, the goods that the Russians are selling could potentially have negative consequences for regional peace and stability, as leading voices including Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias have argued. If they were selling cotton shirts or vodka, the region would have zero reason for concern. But they are not. According to press reports, they are selling nuclear reactors and weapons such as Kalashnikov AK-103 series automatic rifles, advanced fighter jets and helicopters, tanks and anti-tank missiles, communications equipment, and air defense systems including sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries.

Legitimate questions exist as to whether all such promised weapons and technologies will actually be delivered. The record is spotty. To the extent they are delivered, questions can also be asked as to whether countries like Venezuela and others will have the wherewithal to operate and maintain them, or whether advanced equipment would quickly and harmlessly turn into expensive parade pieces or decrepit piles of junk. The short answer is that nobody really knows, though Russian weapons in the developing world often deteriorate. But, for a region where poverty alleviation remains the prevailing issue, this would not appear to be the best way to spend scarce resources.

Unfortunately, it might just be the beginning, because the primary weapons purchaser is the Caracas regime, which has courted Moscow and others including Tehran and Beijing in a determined ideological effort to play a larger, rejectionist global role. As Newton noted, actions in nature will cause an equal and opposite reaction. The same can be said about politics and international relations. A build-up in Venezuela could well raise sensitivities as its neighbors seek to bolster their own deterrent capabilities. It would also almost certainly undermine a region-wide movement toward transparency and confidence building measures.

Still, the most likely scenario is not an arms race in big ticket items -- among other things, it's tough to drive a tank through triple canopy jungle, and it's difficult to envision a realistic scenario whereby Venezuela invades Colombia or Brazil -- but rather the accidental or intentional leakage of small arms and weapons from government stocks to guerrilla groups active in the region. Indeed, in the recent past there have been credible reports that Venezuelan munitions have found their way to the FARC. It's an issue of growing concern for democratically elected governments, who rightly fear the potential destabilizing effects, and may not have the capacity to push back effectively.

Even more provocative is the promise of a Russian nuclear power plant for Venezuela. Should it actually get built, a nuclear plant for purely peaceful purposes would appear to be unneeded by a nation that already sits on a pile of oil and gas, which has voted at the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) against efforts to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions, and which has heretofore been disdainful of clean energy efforts globally, including at the Copenhagen meetings last December when Venezuela's president took the assembly hall to denounce global efforts to mitigate climate change. True, once online, additional nuclear-generated electricity would alleviate recent shortages created by mismanagement of the energy sector, but the way to improve that is to utilize better the resources that already exist, not to pursue new, potentially dual-use technologies. Clearly, something else is going on beyond a desire to promote clean energy in the Andes.

As sovereign nations, Russia and Venezuela have every right to engage in bilateral diplomatic and commercial exchange. At this stage, there is no particular threat to the United States. But we should not be unaware or naïve; US interests are being affected to the extent our regional friends and allies are negatively impacted. Sadly, changes are afoot in South America that will complicate, not improve, the hemispheric security and development agenda.

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