Secretary of State Rice seems baffled by Vladimir Putin’s recent speech denouncing the United States in some of the harshest terms possible, as Anne Applebaum eloquently points out in the Washington Post.
But the time for treating Russia like a trustworthy ally in fighting global terror, or having common interests with the United States in Latin America, Africa or Europe has long passed. Only the administration, perhaps still tied by Bush’s peering into Putin’s soul, seems oblivious to what Russia really wants-to reestablish itself as a world power whose interests will often collide directly with the interests of the United States and its allies.
Russia is a sovereign state, and most (with important exceptions) of its clients are also sovereign states, with the right to enter into these international agreements. But it is time to stop pretending Russia’s interests are anything but extremely hostile to combatting Islamist terrorism, stabilizing key regions and ending regional conflicts that pose the real threat of becoming much broader wars.
The first is Russia’s ongoing supply of weapons to Iran and Hezbollah at a time when both are posing direct threats to U.S. interests in several regions, including Iraq and Lebanon. This has been well documented, including senior Israeli officials’ formal protest to Russia over the sale of sophisticated anti-tank weapons that Hezbollah used with great effect in last summer’s war.
This link to Hezbollah, in which Viktor Bout is alleged by U.S. and foreign intelligence officials to be directly involved, has drawn little public comment from U.S. officials.
There are other cases cases much closer to home that have drawn little response from the Bush administration. The Chavez government in Venezuela has spent some $4.3 billion on weapons since 2005, placing it ahead of China ($3.4 billion); Pakistan ($3 billion); and Iran ($1.7 billion), according to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
Most of those weapons come from Russia, including the construction of a Kalashnikov (AK-103) assault rifle factory, combat helicopters, missiles and fighter jets. I recently wrote a paper on it for the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
The sales come as Chavez has gone out of his way to court Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. The two presidents have held at least three face-to-face meetings in the past six months, and address each other as “brother.”
The growing economic ties between the two nations can be seen in the dozens of economic agreements the two leaders have signed in that time, and the mutual support for cutting OPEC’s oil production, which is significant given that the two countries are OPEC’s second and fourth largest oil producers, respectively.
The real impact of Russia’s weapons sales to Venezuela and Iran will be felt in several regions.
Chavez has long had at least tacitly support the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), one of the major drug trafficking organizations in the world. The FARC, when I used to deal with its members in the early 1990s as a Washington Post reporter, retained some vestiges of a true insurrection, whether one agreed with them or not. There was an ideological cohesion.
That has now devolved into an organization with little political agenda beyond making billions of dollars from protecting coca and poppy fields, moving cocaine and heroin and supporting the major cartels. They need weapons, and one can safely assume, I believe, that Chavez’s revolutionary support will extend beyond his own borders.
This risks destabilizing not only Colombia, but the rest of the Andean ridge, from Ecuador through Peru and to Bolivia.
The Chavez-Ahmadinejad axis, with Russian weapons and support, will likely also have a direct impact on supporting the extensive Hezbollah network of money and operatives that flow through Latin America. Iran directly sponsors the group, Russia arms the group and Venezuela offers the friendly ground for operations. Not a pretty picture.
It is hard to imagine Secretary Rice really meaning what she said on Feb. 15: “I have a difficult time explaining that (Putin) speech. It doesn’t accord with either the world as we see it nor with the character of our interactions with the Russians.”
Unfortunately, the speech was a clear articulation of what Russia is doing around the world. Perhaps that is not the world Secretary Rice sees, but it is visible to almost anyone else.