Tuesday, August 8, 2006

BUENOS AIRES — Russia is negotiating arms sales to Argentina less than two weeks after angering Washington with a $3 billion deal to sell jets and helicopters to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Russian Ambassador Yuri Korchagin met with Argentine Minister of Defense Nilda Garre on Aug. 2 to express Moscow’s willingness to “open a road to military and technical cooperation,” according to a statement from Argentina’s Ministry of Defense.

The statement said the Russian official presented a formal letter of intent, but an Argentine Defense Ministry spokesman declined to provide further details.

Miss Garre met previously on Jan. 18 and again on April 17 with the Russian ambassador, who was accompanied by Alexander Fomin, a ranking official within Russia’s technical and military cooperation program.

A leading Argentine newspaper, La Nacion, reported on Monday that in those earlier meetings, the Russian officials raised the idea of trading Argentine beef, of which Russia is the largest importer, for military helicopters and armor-plated patrol boats.

Argentina has for years looked to acquire artillery-capable helicopters, but its 2001-2002 economic collapse scuttled those plans, and a Venezuelan buyout of Argentina’s debt to the World Bank last year has done little to ease the burden.

But Mr. Chavez and Argentina’s leftist president, Nestor Kirchner, have deepened their relations recently with new energy deals and a joint effort to create a South American development bank that would compete with the international lenders.

Officials have yet to offer a public response to the Russian proposal.

“Argentina has maintained in recent years a low level of military purchases because of the economic situation, among other reasons,” Miss Garre told the ambassador, according to the official account of the meeting.

That account also said Mr. Korchagin talked of Russia’s military ties with Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.

The United States has already registered its concerns about Russian arms sales to Venezuela, whose president has been using his country’s oil wealth to counter American influence in the region.

On Friday, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on seven arms companies in Cuba, India, North Korea and Russia, including Moscow’s state-owned Sukhoi, a maker of fighter aircraft, and its state-owned export firm, Rosoboronexport.

Washington said the sanctions, which will remain in place until July 28, 2008, were imposed because of transfers of military technology to Iran. But Russian media are linking the sanctions instead to Washington’s anger over Rosoboronexport’s deal with Mr. Chavez, announced on July 27.

That deal provides for the shipment of 24 Russian Su-30 fighter jets and 53 helicopters. Venezuela, itself hit with a U.S. arms embargo in May, had already contracted to buy 100,000 Russian AK-103 machine guns, part of what U.S. officials cast as a disproportionate and unjustified Venezuelan military buildup.

In July, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, reported that military purchases in Latin America and the Caribbean spiked by 7.2 percent in 2005. The report says Venezuela experienced the third-largest yearly increase after Brazil and Chile.

During a visit to Moscow last month, Mr. Chavez praised Russia for defying U.S. objections to selling him arms and repeated an earlier proposal to combine the militaries of the five nations that make up Mercosur, the South American political and trade bloc.

“We must form a defensive military pact between the armies of the region with a common doctrine and organization,” Mr. Chavez said July 5 in Caracas during a military parade attended by Mr. Kirchner.

During his Russia visit, Mr. Chavez said: “We must form the armed forces of Mercosur, merging warfare capabilities of the continent.”

During a nationally televised program on Monday, Mr. Chavez said he intends to build a network of anti-aircraft missiles.

“We’re going to acquire the most modern anti-aircraft defense system,” Mr. Chavez said. “We’re going to armor Venezuela.” He suggested he saw the components of such a system during his visits to Russia, Belarus and Iran late last month.

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