It is not surprising that Venezuela, Bolivia, and other Latin American governments are strengthening their military ties with Russia. Since the United States suspended arms sells to Venezuela in 2006, Venezuela has signed billions of dollars worth of weapons deals with Russia. Bolivia’s interest in buying weapons from Russia spiked in the last month as its relations with the United States spiraled downward. Colombia, on the other hand, is the United States’ strongest ally in the region and a recipient of about $600 million annually in U.S. military aid. So why did Colombia recently send its vice president and defense minister to Russia and why is it discussing buying helicopters and radar systems from Russia?
There seems to be two competing theories about Colombia’s intentions. Some have ventured that Colombia is trying to counter the military might of Venezuela and that Bogota may be searching for alternate sources of weapons, concerned that the next U.S. administration may not be as generous as past ones in funding Colombia’s military. They point to Colombian vice president Francisco Santos, who said during his June visit to Russia that “countries should diversify their military arsenals to ensure a change in political conditions doesn’t harm one’s ability to buy weapons.”
But Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos did not highlight weapons purchases during his October visit, but instead questioned Moscow over arms sales to Venezuela and presented the Russian government with proof that Russian weapons have been reaching the FARC. Colombia’s strategy seems to be to offer to purchase Russian weapons in exchange for some leverage with Moscow over its outfitting of the region’s other armed forces.
Concerned with Venezuela’s massive arms purchases, Colombia could have requested greater U.S. support to strengthen its defenses. This would have heightened tensions and further polarized the region. Instead, Colombia seems to have devised a clever and somewhat counter-intuitive strategy: to buy weapons from the country that is supplying its regional archenemy in order to some day have a voice over how its counterpart gets funded. This strategy recognizes the polarizing effect that the United States has adopted in the region and demonstrates that Colombia’s government, even if it is not concerned about losing funding under an Obama administration, is beginning to think outside the box of U.S.-Latin America relations. This itself is a good sign for Colombia’s future.