MOSCOW, July 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) – Venezuela's flamboyant president, Hugo Chavez, is due to arrive in Russia on July 25 for a two-day visit during which is expected to conclude a major deal to buy 30 fighter jets and 30 helicopters from Russia.
The deal is large -- worth over $1 billion, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov -- and an important breakthrough for Russia's arms industry.
The agreement is also vital for Chavez, whose strained relations with the United States are preventing Venezuela from upgrading its fleet of U.S.-built fighter jets.
Aleksandr Golts, a prominent Russian defense expert, says that the United States' ban on the sale of arms to Venezuela and its refusal to sell spare parts for its fleet of planes also meant Western countries "were unlikely to sell weapons to Venezuela. The only remaining manufacturer of modern arms is Russia."
Chavez also hopes to sign a deal under which Venezuela would build a factory to produce Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Last year, Venezuela purchased 100,000 Russian-made Kalashnikovs, prompting the United States to voice concerns.
Russia's dealings with Chavez this week are therefore likely to anger Washington further.
At Odds With Washington
Chavez is a former army lieutenant colonel known worldwide for his virulent anti-U.S. rhetoric. The United States accuses him of establishing an authoritarian regime and jeopardizing stability in Latin America. For his part, the maverick Venezuelan leader claims the U.S. is plotting to invade his oil-rich country.
Golts, however, says Venezuela's purchase of Russian arms is a populist move that poses little threat to the United States.
"All the arms supplies that Venezuela is buying will, of course, not be able to protect it if the nonsense that Hugo Chavez believes in -- an attack by the United States -- becomes a reality," he says. "Some 30 Russian fighter jets and a few hundred thousands rifles are not enough to wage a war against a leading world power."
The route Chavez has picked for his current international tour is seen by many as having a strong anti-U.S. slant. Chavez has just completed a three-day visit to Belarus and plans to stop in Iran, two countries that are sharply at odds with Washington.
In Minsk, Chavez declared that he had forged a strategic alliance with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to counter what he described as U.S. imperialism.
Like many observers in Russia, Yevgeny Volk, the director of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, says the deepening ties between Russia and Venezuela also signals Moscow's ambition to challenge U.S. influence.
"Russia, in its attempts to limit the influence of the United States, is edging closer to other countries that hold an anti-U.S. position," Volk says. "This is illustrated by its cooperation with Iran. Russia is on friendly terms with Hamas. Cuba and Syria are among Russia's allies. So Hugo Chavez is the logical continuation of this line."
After Russia, Chavez is slated to visit Qatar, Vietnam, Iran and Mali
Chavez said earlier that one of the aims of the tour was to lobby for a seat on the United Nations Security Council as a nonpermanent member.