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A Problem for Chávez, an Opportunity for Putin

I have been watching with great interest the events unfolding recently in Colombia and Venezuela, where following a raid on a rebel camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) a laptop computer was retrieved which confirmed active links between this group and the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Among other partners and allies, this discovery presents a problematic challenge to Moscow, which has for years enjoyed a preferential relationship with Chávez while dealing millions in arms to their military.

Beginning today, Colombia’s Vice President Francisco Santos is on his first week-long visit to Moscow, which is the first high-level diplomatic contact these governments have ever made, prompted by these discoveries of Chávez propping up the FARC. Kommersant reports that “Colombia’s unexpectedly ardent desire to establish close relations with Russia has an unseen aspect (…) Santos will try to convince Moscow to amend its Latin American policy, especially in arms sales. The exceptionally high level of military-technical cooperation between Moscow and Caracas seems to have pushed Colombia to take action.“Furthermore, as the Wall Street Journal reports, along with funding offers of over $250 million, Chávez’s government was exploring other business opportunities to help FARC, such as state contracts, oil quotas, and, most importantly, offering use of the port of Maracaibo for FARC to import Russian and Chinese made arms.We have observed for many years now Russia’s flirting interest in creating novel alliances of various nations which may or may not have poor relations with Washington – Belarus, Iran, and Venezuela, just to name a few. However what has been learned from the FARC laptops has distinctly raised the acceptable reputational cost of this foreign policy adventurism, taking on a whole new level as Russia comes dangerously close to recreating a 1980s Soviet-style kind of interventionism in the sovereign affairs of Latin American nations to destabilize democracy.We have not yet arrived to that point, and so far Moscow has warmly received the Colombians and may be willing to make some policy adjustments (even President Alvaro Uribe is set to make a state visit in September). It is unreasonable to argue that Putin or Medvedev is responsible for all of Chávez’s antics – nor has any other “ally” show much success in influencing events in the country. In at least one respect, Russia has already achieved one objective following the discovery of the Venezuela-FARC links – Colombia has come directly to them to work on the problem, rather than going through Washington to get what they need.Now that is one devastating measurement of how inept the U.S. government has become in arbitrating problems for their friends and allies.