Russia's Race to Arm the Americas

(International Relations and Security Network, 01/12/2006)


Talk of a regional arms race in South America has surfaced numerous times in the international press. In 2006, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Chile and Venezuela made military purchases, but none of the leaders in these countries considered that the purchases would lead to a regional arms race. The focus should not be as much on who is buying but on who is selling.


Chile’s purchases have been to strengthen military power with German armored vehicles, British frigates and US war planes. Brazil has also shopped in the US and Germany for armored vehicles and parts. Colombia has expressed interest in Brazilian aircraft and Peru has shown interest in used frigates from Italy.


Russia, however, has sold arms to all these countries, making 2006 a significant year for Russia’s increased presence in the Latin American arms market.


A decade ago, Russia was considered one of Latin America’s common threats to security. Yet in 2006, Russia sold military equipment to Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Uruguay and Ecuador, making the Russian military one of the region’s closest allies.


Russia’s best friend in South America by far is Venezuela.


Dozens of reports about the country’s multi-billion arms sales to Venezuela have catalyzed reactions from conservative voices in US military and political circles of an impending arms race. Assault rifles, helicopters, airplanes and most recently, specially-designed presidential helicopters populate a long list.


Perhaps the most threatening piece of military equipment Russia has sold to Venezuela is the Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jet. Assuming Venezuelan pilots have undergone extensive training, Venezuela will soon have the region’s most powerful air force, capable of extended dog fights in Brazilian, Colombian, Cuban and Caribbean air space.


A little-known announcement adds some balance to Venezuela’s potential for air force might. Sergei Ladygin, the Latin American region department head for Russia’s state-owned military export company Rosoboronexport, said on 28 September that Russia would soon sign export agreements that would open the door to the sale of Sukhoi Su-30 aircraft to Mexico and Brazil.


Rosoboronexport will also offer Mig-29 Fulcrum fighters to Mexico and Brazil. Ladygin also stated that he intended to sign an agreement with Chile for the sale of Mi-17B5 Hip H helicopters.


He made these announcements in from the sidelines of the SINPRODE 2006 military exhibition in Argentina, where the government is interested in purchasing Russian-built planes, boats and helicopters.


On 2 August , Russian Ambassador Yuri Korchagin met with Argentine Defense Minister Nilda Garre to discuss arms sales. The Argentine daily La Nacion reported that earlier talks involved the prospect of trading Argentine beef for military helicopters and armored patrol boats. To date, the Argentine government has not commented on such plans.


The US, however, has complained loudly of the arms going to Latin America, especially the sale of 100,000 AK-103 assault rifles to Venezuela. Apart from stockpile security and the possible leakage of the AK rifles to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), some observers in the US are worried most about ammunition. Unlike rifles, ammunition does not have serial numbers and thus is hard to track.


As of now the delivery of all 100,000 rifles has been completed. These 7.62 mm caliber rifles will most likely use ammunition initially supplied by Russia, but eventually manufactured inside Venezuela as the planned Kalashnikov factories there move from paper to construction and finally operation.


According to experts on small arms in South America, the FARC is in desperate need of 7.62 mm caliber ammunition for its stock of AK-47 rifles. It is possible that the FARC regard Venezuela as a new, neighborly supply of ammunition. This possibility is worrisome but far from realization.


A final point of contention concerns military-military relations between the US and various Latin American countries. The sale of equipment by US companies to Latin American countries is usually followed by a series of training secessions that catalyze personal relationships between US pilots, mechanics, engineers and commanders and their Latin American colleagues. The same is true for Russia. The more Roxoboronexport sells Russian-built arms in Latin America, the closer the Russian military grows to its Latin American counterparts.


Losing ground on the political front in many Latin American countries, as the US has done since the beginning of the Bush administration, can be regained from one administration to the next, but military relationships take years to build. The US has a head start on Russia in the region, but as regional ties between the US and Latin American countries loosen over time, military relations between numerous countries there and Russia will only grow.


There is not an arms race in South America, nor will there be one in the foreseeable future. There is a race, however, to push the US as far away from Latin American governments – and militaries – as possible. Russia has taken a leap forward in 2006. US leaders should shift their focus from a non-existent arms race to the military-military relationships that are slipping away with every Russian built rifle, jet, boat or helicopter sold.