Moscow’s relationship with Hugo Chavez has long been a topic of obsession on this blog, so it’s been pretty interesting to get access to some of the leaked diplomatic cables underscoring U.S. concern over arms transactions between the two countries. In this cable released last night, a pretty hostile meeting between diplomat Kirk Augustine and Anatoly Antonov of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is summarized. The U.S. went into the meeting wanting 1) information and serial numbers on a huge batch of Kalashnikov assault rifles being sold to Venezuela (because, you know, sometimes these things disappear and end up in the hands of FARC), and 2) whether or not Russia would be selling MANPADS (man portable air defense systems – those shoulder rocket launchers beloved by guerilla fighters across the world). In answering these questions with the diplomatic equivalent of “buzz off,” Antonov added that Washington should stop treating Russia like it was Gabon (which would sort of be a compliment, given that Gabon ranks about 50 points higher than Russia on the corruption index).
From a cable dated Sept. 14, 2005:
Regarding sales of AK-103 rifles, Antonov confirmed that the sale was indeed moving forward. He maintained that Venezuela was a legitimate market for Russian arms, and that Russia intends to remain active in this market. He also commented that the tone in parts of ref A points was demeaning to Russia. The U.S. should not “speak to us like we are Gabon or Mali,” he remarked. Antonov said that Russia does not and will not give out specific information, such as serial numbers of AK-103 rifles, to others.
Comment: There was an explicit rejection of the U.S. position with regard to the AK-103 rifles, but a less categorical response on the possibility of a MANPADS sale. While Antonov’s general response on arms sales gave little grounds for optimism in the event that Venezuela does request to purchase Russian MANPADS, there may have been enough of a difference in the tone of his remarks on MANPADS to constitute a possible opening that can be further explored.