U.S. is the third wheel in Russian-Venezuelan negotiations

MOSCOW. (Military commentator Andrei Vasilyev for RIA Novosti) - President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is arriving in Russia at the end of June on an official visit.

Pundits are asking whether the two sides will sign new contracts for arms supplies, in particular, submarines. The United States is particularly interested. For some reason it thinks its opinion must be taken into account in the decision-making process.

The Bush administration has cause for concern. Russia has entered the arms market so aggressively in recent years that many, including the U.S. itself, have called American dominance into doubt.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States dominated the highly competitive market for conventional arms, military analyst Richard Grimmet said in December 2006. Now the situation has changed. Moscow is acting more aggressively.

Many countries like Russian weapons, and not only regular buyers. Recently more armies have changed suppliers, finding that equipment from Russia is more advanced, more reliable and less expensive. Colombia's armed forces purchased 10 Mi-17 military transport helicopters, which not only perform better than American Black Hawks, but also cost $18 million less - an important factor for a country which is not among the richest on the continent.

Lastly, when in March 2005 Venezuela set aside $3.4 billion for 100,000 Russian-made AK-103 automatic rifles, 24 Su-30 MK2 fighter jets and 38 Mi-35 military helicopters, Washington's anger boiled over. Chavez then protested that Venezuela had no other option, since the U.S. had imposed an embargo on arms exports to the country under the pretext that Caracas was not cooperative enough with Washington in fighting terrorism. Meanwhile, Russia, unlike the U.S., supplies weapons to Venezuela without any political strings attached and respects the country's sovereignty.

Nor did the United States' attempt to put pressure on Russia have any effect. The first person to protest was U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who could not understand why Venezuela needed a hundred thousand Kalashnikov rifles. Then, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced concerns over the contract during her visit to Moscow. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told her that Russian military cooperation with Venezuela did not violate international law. Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov put an end to the matter by saying that "the contract was not liable for review ... 24 aircraft are not too many to protect a country as large as Venezuela ... The country is subject to no international sanctions, and there are no restrictions on fulfilling the contract."

The Venezuelan breakthrough has proved a contagious case of disobedience, one that could seriously harm American influence on the continent. When Argentina looked into possible purchases of Russian military equipment last year, its defense minister, Nilda Garre, said that Buenos Aires was not afraid that the U.S. might react negatively. Arms purchases are the sovereign right of every country, she said, and should not cause any grudges.

In 2005, Russian arms exports totaled $6.13 billion. The figure for the U.S. was almost twice as high: $12.3 billion. And the U.S. kept the 33% share of the market it had in 2004. But it is still concerned, because in previous years the U.S. controlled up to 50% of the market. The last thing Washington wants is for Russia's role to increase.

For Russia, growing military exports provide a chance to develop the most advanced sector of its economy, which has in the past two years demonstrated its ability to serve as an engine for growth in other sectors. Gone, fortunately, are the days when the defense industry was advised to produce vacuum cleaners or broiling pans rather than develop new generations of weapons. It is now understood that modern bombers and interceptors can fetch more money. An example is the Irkut corporation, whose president, Oleg Demchenko, told a recent news conference at the Le Bourget air show that his company would supply 242 multi-role Su-30 MKI fighters worth a total of about $7 billion to foreign countries by 2014.

This in no way contradicts Russia's military doctrine. After all, people in all countries want a peaceful life. But such a life requires that the borders be tight and secure. And when President Chavez says he intends to build a national air defense system "covering all the Caribbean" that can pick up targets 200 km away and destroy them 100 km from Venezuela, that it his right, if only because the project in no way threatens American security.

It is anybody's guess whether the coming visit will spawn additional arms contracts. It is quite possible that there is no substance behind the ballyhoo raised by the press, and submarines will not come up in the negotiations. But whether or not they do is Caracas' business - and Moscow's. But not Washington's - it is the third wheel.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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