July 21 (Bloomberg) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez heads to Moscow today to shop for air defense systems, submarines and other weaponry as Latin America's arms race quickens amid signs that his regional influence is waning.
Past Venezuelan arms purchases from Russia have strengthened ties with Moscow as its rivalry with the U.S. intensifies over President George W. Bush's plans for an Eastern Europe missile defense system and other issues. Chavez, 53, also plans to visit Belarus, a Russian ally that the U.S. considers a dictatorship.
Chavez ``regularly refers to us as an `empire,' opposes our initiatives in the Americas and seeks out our adversaries as friends and allies,'' Assistant U.S. Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon said July 17 in testimony to a congressional committee.
Chavez will order $2 billion worth of weapons, including Project 636 diesel subs, Mi-28 combat helicopters and airplanes made by Ilyushin Co., the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported May 12, without saying how it obtained the information. The Russian Interfax news service, citing an unnamed defense ministry official, said today Chavez may order $1 billion of weapons, including three Varshavyanka subs and up to 20 Tor-M1 air-defense systems.
``What Chavez likes to do is to shock, and this will create some shock in Washington,'' said Riordan Roett, a professor of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Chavez, who plans to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev tomorrow, has bought more than $4.4 billion of Russian arms since 2003. He says the hardware, including jets and submarines, is needed to counter a military threat from the U.S. and its main regional ally, Colombia.
Russia last year announced plans to build two factories to make Kalashnikov assault rifles in Venezuela.
Russia has used Venezuela to diversify its arms-selling business beyond China and India, said Dmitry Vasiliev, an analyst at the Center for the Analysis of Strategies & Technologies, a Moscow-based defense research center. Venezuela was Russia's third-biggest arms customer last year, he said.
Trade between the two countries surged to $1.13 billion in 2007 from $517 million the previous year, according to a statement published on the Venezuelan Information Ministry's Web site.
``Russia is trying to be good friends with Chavez because he is an ideal partner in arms trade,'' said Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow.
The Venezuelan president said this month he'll also discuss the creation of a joint development bank and an investment fund with Russia.
Latin American countries have gone on a military spending spree in recent years as their governments collect record income from commodities, including Venezuela's oil windfall. Regional arms spending jumped 55 percent over four years to $38.4 billion in 2007, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The buildup comes amid increased regional rivalries. Chavez was outmaneuvered this month when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe rescued 15 hostages from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans.
Chavez had been trying to negotiate the captives' release from the guerrilla group, while denying accusations by the U.S. and Colombia that he had supported the FARC rebels with arms and funding. Uribe has been increasing military pressure on the FARC since becoming president in 2002, with the help of $5 billion in military assistance from the U.S.
Colombia and Brazil on July 19 signed an accord to strengthen military ties, promote the sale of weapons and expand joint training exercises.
Venezuela ordered troops moved toward the Colombian border in March, after Colombia conducted an anti-FARC raid into neighboring Ecuador, a Chavez ally. The three countries later moved to mend relations.
In May, Chavez said he was prepared to scramble his fighter jets after a U.S. Navy S-3 aircraft flew into Venezuelan airspace. The U.S., which buys about 1.36 million barrels of oil a day from Venezuela, says the incursion was due to a navigational error.
The U.S. has tried to isolate Chavez. It cut off U.S. arms sales to Venezuela in 2006, refusing to sell it F-16 jet replacement parts, and declared that the government ``isn't fully cooperating'' in the war on terror.
Since then, Chavez has stepped up purchases from Russia. Last month, the Venezuelan military fired its first test missile from a Russian Sukhoi fighter jet.
Chavez will also travel to Spain and Portugal this week to discuss energy and trade accords. Lisbon-based Galp Energia SGPS SA, Portugal's biggest oil company, has agreed to work with state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA to build liquefied natural gas plants.
Chavez last month threatened to stop selling oil to Europe and outlaw investment from European countries after the EU passed legislation allowing detention of undocumented workers.
``With all due respect, I recommend that the leaders of Europe make a sustained effort to understand what's happening in Latin America,'' Chavez said in a speech last month. ``They don't understand us
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