Russia displaces U.S. as Latin America’s main arms supplier

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LONDON – As the United States remains otherwise engaged in the Middle East and Afghanistan, Russia has secured a long-term security role in Latin America, becoming its largest military supplier between 2008 and 2009, data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies showed.

It happened while the Bush and Obama administrations’ attention and energies were focused on anti-terrorist operations in the Middle East and elsewhere and not so much in Central or South America.

Analysts said the reasons for Russia’s rise as the purveyor of weapons in Latin America could be two-fold. First, Russia needs markets and cash to keep its weapons manufacturing operations ticking over.

Second, Russia may be a shadow of the moribund Soviet Union, but its old guard still lives by the glory that the union enjoyed. The union disappeared in 1991 in a politico-military implosion blamed on economic problems, defeat in Afghanistan and emboldened and rebellious republics.

The resurgent Russia of military merchandise on the go has been quick to move in wherever it has found either U.S. reluctance to fulfill customer demands or customer needs of weapons beyond their means. Most, but not all, of Russia’s arms deals in 2009 to Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela involved price discounts and flexible payment terms.

Unlike most commodity and consumer imports, military imports come loaded with the paraphernalia of maintenance and spare-parts deals, sometimes training programs and in some cases joint assembly and manufacture.

All of those arrangements guarantee that, once an arms deal has been put in place, a long-term relationship begins to develop and with it closer political, economic and trade ties.

The IISS said aircraft, tanks and missiles figure among the items purchased by Russia’s Latin American customers last year.

Latin American defense expenditure increased to $58.4 billion in 2008, equivalent to 1.35 percent of gross domestic product, from $39.1 billion in 2006. Not all figures are available because of the buyer countries’ secrecy, and a major part of that figure is due to Brazil’s defense modernization program and not just shopping for arms abroad.

Two of the buyers, Colombia and Mexico, are dependent largely on U.S. military equipment and expertise and are unlikely to make a complete switch to Russia as their main supplier. However, their purchases were small when compared with those made by Brazil and Venezuela.

Russia was the world’s second-largest arms supplier in 2008 after the United States and launched new diplomatic initiatives in Latin America last year aimed at expanding the market for its military hardware.

At least one other country, Argentina, is considering Russian offers of flexible payment terms, though there is resistance within the Argentine military to making a break from American sources as that would be costly.

Total Russian arms sales to the region in 2009 exceeded $5.4 billion, made up of contracts with Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. Russian officials have indicated they aim to match that figure this year, after arms deals that are currently under negotiation with Bolivia, Uruguay and Ecuador.

Venezuela, one of the largest customers for Russian arms, spent more than $4 billion shopping for military hardware in Moscow and is considering more purchases this year. At least $2.2 billion of Venezuelan arms purchases from Russia form part of a deal that gives Russian corporations a share in the development of Venezuelan oil, gas and tar fields.

Brazil has indicated it wants to develop its own arms industry and has looked into joint manufacture and technology transfer deals with exporters, including France.

The IISS said Russian industries had also been busy developing military technologies as part of their export inventory. Analysts said military technology was still an area where Russia would need years to catch up with U.S.-based global leaders, including Boeing and Grumman.

Source: United Press International, Inc

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