Since 1992, when America cut off the sale of arms and spare parts to Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has been cobbling together a military machine made up mainly of weapons from Russia and other non-Western suppliers. Last week, in an oil-for-arms deal with “Europe’s last dictator,” Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Chavez was able to add a key element to his growing arsenal: advanced ground-to-air radar.
While most experts say the deal itself doesn’t change the balance of arms in the region, they do concede that it represents a strengthening of Chavez’s military might. Moreover, they say the deal also cements an alliance between the respective bad boys of their continents and allows both some wiggle room in their relations with nearby dominant powers.
For Chavez, that would be the United States, which has been weaning itself from Venezuelan oil. For Lukashenko, it is Russia, which has maintained a stranglehold over his nation’s energy supplies.
Chavez's new radar system, called the Tor M-1 Missile Defense System, can detect aircraft and cruise missiles and can operate in “an environment of intense jamming,” according to public military profiles of the system.
“It is something that has to be contended with,” said John Pike, director of Global Security.org, who said the military is the basis of Chavez’s authority and legitimacy.
“To him a strong military equals a strong country,” he said, “and what is good for the military is good for the country” -- even if the actions sometimes seem senseless.
“Sometimes he makes these moves irrationally, just to get attention,” Pike said.
But Anna Gilmore, a military analyst with Jane’s Defense weekly, said the deal was done not only to upgrade Chavez’s military but to cement a relationship with Belarus as part of Venezuela's strategy to widen relations and commercial dealings with countries outside the Americas. “The new oil market takes up some of the slack American cutbacks have caused,” she said.
The deal also aided both countries in a time of economic recession, she said. “Venezuela, which has no currency reserves left, gets to buy the radar with oil instead of hard currency. And Belarus gets 80,000 barrels of oil a month without having to dip into its currency reserves.”
Asked if possessing a mix of arms from many different sources might cause Chavez problems, she said “the deal compliments the military equipment he has procured so far and strengthens his arsenal.”
Venezuela is on a military buying spree. It has just closed a deal with the Russian arms export agency for the purchase of tanks, and it recently bought a small fleet of airplanes from China, ostensibly for drug interdiction.
For Belarus, the deal provides a boost for Lukashenko. Since 2007, when Russia stopped providing subsidies for Belarusian energy supplies, the pariah state of Europe has been searching for allies. Like Venezuela, Belarus has been drawn to the same clique of outcast states—Iran in particular--to bolster its economy and give it a place in the international system.
The most significant boost, according to Matthew Clements, a London-based Eurasia analyst with Jane’s Defense, was to “relieve pressure on Lukashenko’s ability to keep providing generous benefits to the welfare state “that Belarus has become.
“Without the benefits, his hold on power would be undermined,” Clements said. “It relieves the pressure on him. It doesn’t solve all his problems, but it helps.”