In a market, which is experiencing a global slowdown and therefore becoming increasingly competitive each year, Washignton's weariness is perfectly understandable. Russian arms sales are now expanding into what has long been a safe haven for U.S. defense firms.
In fact, the Russians have little alternative. Squeezed out of their traditional Eastern European and Arab markets back in the 1990s, they are aggressively fueling their resurgence by extending their reach to regions long dominated by the U.S. If the White House through its policies promotes the American arms trade in Russia's backyard, why not grab a market share in the overstretched area of U.S. interests, Russian arms executives say.
Originally, Russia's decision to sell arms to Venezuela was purely economic, believes Alexei Arbatov, a well-known Russian political expert and a board member of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Domestic defense orders, though growing, still amount to a mere quarter of Russia's Soviet-era defense production capacity, and defense producers are forced to go abroad to survive.
What is widely seen as politically motivated in light of Chavez's repeated warnings of U.S. aggression in fact stems largely from economic considerations: Russian equipment, which is as good - and sometimes better - than its American equivalent, is in any case far less costly. In addition, since U.S. firms have understandable difficulties selling arms to a leader with such an openly anti-American platform, Caracas has to look for partners elsewhere.
U.S. State Department officials have claimed that part of the first 33,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles supplied to Venezuela earlier this month might end up in the hands of Colombian rebels, which they worry could destabilize the region.
"Strange," replies Emil Dabagyan, a senior expert at the Institute of Latin American Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, "how then have the Colombian rebels coped without the Venezuelans before?" A long-lasting insurgency like theirs probably has multiple sources of weapons, so the Russian small arms are hardly at the top of their list of priorities.
After all, neither Venezuela nor any other Latin American nation is under any international arms trade restrictions. Russia abides by all applicable international norms in a market that Arbatov of the Carnegie Moscow Center describes as having a big future. One reason for this, he says, is that many Latin American nations are as prone to anti-Americanism as Venezuela.
Russian defense companies seem to have found a playing field where they have a clear advantage and therefore a wealth of opportunity, sending a message the U.S. should understand better than anyone else - nothing personal, just business.
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