Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing...

So the man George Bush called "Pootie-Poot" was in Venezuela this past week and virtually all the media coverage was about Russia selling arms to Venezuela. Specifically, Putin told a press conference that arms sales to Venezuela could exceed $5 billion, at which point the mainstream media's heads began spinning until they were soo dizzy that instead of doing any research or thinking they just ran with their pre-fab story. The whole thing even prompted a response from the US State Department.

There was one sane commentator that put this number in some sort of context, Richard Weitz at World Politics Review wrote (emphasis mine):

In reflecting on the results of his first-ever visit to Venezuela, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin estimated on Monday that Venezuelan orders for Russian weapons "could exceed $5 billion." The resulting headlines are somewhat misleading, and may overlook developments that will have a larger impact on the bilateral relationship in coming years.

The $5 billion figure appears to include Russian arms still being supplied under existing contracts, including four MI-17 multirole combat helicopters whose delivery coincided with Putin's visit. These were the last in a contract for 38 of the helicopters signed in 2006. No new arms deals were announced before, during, or after Putin's trip last week.

After signing a dozen contracts with Russia to buy a total of $4.4 billion worth of weapons between 2005 and 2007, Venezuela made no major purchases in 2008 and early 2009, despite the Russian government approving a $1 billion loan in September 2008 to facilitate such sales.

Weitz's main argument is that the Venezuela/Russia alliance is really much more about energy than arms, and I would have to agree with him there. But he does give credence to the opinion that Venezuela spends more on defense than is needed, which takes me to my next point. Personally, I think almost ANY military spending is more than is needed, but when you compare Venezuela to the rest of South America the "arms race" theory really just falls apart.

There are a number of measures you could look at, and they all would tell you pretty much the same thing, but below is a chart with military spending per capita in South America. It compares levels in 2008 to 1998 to get a sense of where things have gone over the last decade. The numbers are from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and are in 2005 USD.

As you can see, not only has Venezuela barely increased their per-capita spending over the last decade, but that they are getting out spent by a number of other countries in the region, who apparently really really need all those arms, unlike Venezuela.

One reason for all this hoopla is that it seems so nefarious for someone to buy arms from Russia, I mean, everybody knows the US is the largest arms trafficker in the world, that Hugo has to be up to something going all the way to Russia to buy arms....

Not exactly; as Weitz writes, "Washington introduced an arms export ban on Venezuela in 2006 that applies to all U.S. companies as well as foreign weapons that contain American-made components -- a provision that has blocked proposed weapons sales from Europe and Israel."

But what about all those weapons that the US sold Venezuela previously? I mean how do you maintain those? How do you replace old weapons? Well, this one is pretty simple, YOU BUY THEM FROM RUSSIA.

The Venezuelan embassy responded in 2008 (PDF) to criticism of their arms purchases:

The purchase of 24 Russian fighter jets corresponds exactly to the number of F- 16s sold to Venezuela by the U.S. in 1980. Since the U.S. refuses to supply key parts necessary for maintenance of these planes, Venezuela has been forced to look elsewhere to rebuild its air force. These planes are a replacement, rather than an expansion, of its fleet.

Similarly, the 2006 purchase of 100 thousand rifles was made in order to replace Belgian-made rifles that were over fifty years old and were obsolete.

The purchase of 53 helicopters was made in order to patrol the border with Colombia. These helicopters will be used to fight drug trafficking and other illegal activities in the area. Ironically, Venezuela is being criticized for taking a direct step towards securing its borders from drug traffickers and guerillas.

But don't expect to find any reference to this in the mainstream media's analysis though.

The other issue with the arms sales that continues to rear its ugly head is that it is worrying that Venezuela is buying arms because they might give them to the FARC. This is pretty much what J.P. Crowley, speaking for the State Department said yesterday:

But our primary concern is that – that if Venezuela is going to increase its military hardware, we certainly don’t want to see this hardware migrate into other parts of the hemisphere.

A pretty clear reference to the FARC, despite there being NO evidence that this has ever happened. The best response to this is definitely from the same Venezuelan embassy response:

To accuse Venezuela of providing arms to Colombian insurgents due to some weapons being transited through Venezuela would be like accusing the U.S. of providing arms to Mexican drug cartels, given that over 90% of weapons confiscated from these groups are first purchased in the U.S. There has also been an allegation that “heavy duty weaponry has been stolen from Department of Defense facilities and National Guard armories and trafficked into Mexico.” Despite these statistics and claims, it would be irresponsible to accuse the government of the United States of participating in or allowing illegal weapons trafficking. It is similarly irresponsible to accuse Venezuela of the same.

Well put. And so concludes a much, much too long post about a non-issue that just won't go away.


  1. Structurally maladjusted manages to make IKN's "chart of the day" post easy once again,

  2. Ya know, if someone would quit hyperventilating for just one moment and look at what the US "sells" (read "Gives") Israel every year or what the US sells to Saudi Arabia or Egypt or so many other countries, this arms deal is chump change.
    For God sake's people, get some perspective. With the US sabrerattling again in the region (reactivation of the 4th Fleet and basing it in Curacao) aimed mostly at Venezuela, it would seem to most rational people that taking a few steps to beef up your own defenses might be in order.