Another one of the global hot spots where Russian and American interests are currently clashing is South America. The situation between Venezuela and Columbia is a virtual powered keg that can explode at any moment. A major concern in Washington has been the arming of the Venezuelan military by sophisticated Russian weaponry as well as Chavez's concerted efforts at creating an international political union that is independent of Washington's influence. Moscow's close relationship with Venezuela is beginning to resemble that of the Soviet Union's strategic relationship with Cuba during the Cold War. With Cuba's Castro now more-or-less retired from politics, Chavez has been the one providing a new ideological push, a new political energy within South America. The biggest difference between Venezuela and Cuba, however, is that Venezuela is economically self-sufficient due to its vast oil reserves. As a result, unlike Cuba during the Soviet years, Venezuela is not dependent on Moscow for handouts, which makes for an ideal relationship between the two strategic partners. There are serious concerns in Washington that Venezuela is fast becoming an anti-United States stronghold, and a Russian outpost, within the very backyard of the United States. As a result, Washington has been strengthening its relationship with Colombia and is currently building up its military with the intention of creating a balance of power in the region. Although the Middle East and Central Asia gets much of the media coverage, there is a real risk today that a major international war will break out inside South America, most probably between Washington backed Colombia and Russian supplied Venezuela.
Latin-American crisis deepens following cross-border raid
Venezuela and Ecuador have cut diplomatic ties with Colombia in a deepening crisis over a cross-border raid by Colombian troops into Ecuador. Tensions in the region are threatening to grow into an armed conflict. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has warned that another Colombian attack could mean that war may flare up in the region. It came to a head when Colombia killed the senior FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebel Raul Reyes and 16 others in a cross-border skirmish in Ecuador. Colombia claims that in the raid they found proof that the Venezuelan government had paid $US 300 million to the rebels - allegations Caracas dismisses.
The stakes were raised when Chavez threatened to use Russia-purchased Sukhoi fighter jets against Colombia if it attacked Venezuela. Military analyst Ruslan Pukhov doesn’t expect a war soon. “I don't think we will see the conflict blow up very soon, but obviously such raids and such Columbian behaviour in response to Chavez might trigger one sooner or later,” Pukhov said. In fact, all three sides are equipped with Russian-made weapons, but in different quantities. In the past few years the Venezuelan government has been modernising its massive military arsenal. Venezuela was very active on the arms market in 2006, with the help of an oil-rich economy, Chavez agreed a US$3-billion-dollar arms deal with Russia. A hundred thousand Kalashnikov rifles, 24 advanced Sukhoi fighter jets and dozens of Russian helicopters were all added to Venezuela's military. The deals made Russia Caracas's main arms supplier.
The Colombian Army is using several BTR-80 armoured personnel carriers and ordered a hundred more from Russia's Rosoboronexport. Bogota's Air Force has over a dozen MI-17 helicopters and also plan to acquire MI-35 attack helicopters from Russia. “Columbian forces are more or less tailored to chase rebels like FARC. Chavez’s troops are also in a period of transformation and at this particular moment I would say the forces are more or less equal,” Pukhov added. Ecuador is also equipped with transport MI choppers. Its army mostly has U.S.-made weapons, but also has 36 of the renowned Soviet T-55 tanks. With the crisis deepening, Ecuador and Venezuela are reinforcing their troop numbers and tanks at Colombia's borders. All are poised for a possible all-out conflict and all are waiting to see who will make the next move.
Venezuela, Ecuador punish Colombia Diplomats removed, trade impeded and troops mobilized
Venezuela and Ecuador sought Monday to make Colombia pay a high diplomatic and economic price for killing a leftist rebel leader in the Ecuadoran jungle - expelling its diplomats, ordering troops to the border and largely halting trade at key points along the frontier. But Colombia quickly struck back, revealing what it said were incriminating documents seized from the rebel camp that suggest its neighbors have been secretly supporting the rebels' deadly insurgency. Colombia's national police chief said the documents show Venezuela recently paid $300 million to the rebels, among other financial and political ties that date back years, and that high-level meetings have been held between rebels and Ecuadoran officials.
And this shocker: Colombia says some documents suggest the rebels have bought and sold uranium. "When they mention negotiations for 50 kilos of uranium this means that the FARC are taking big steps in the world of terrorism to become a global aggressor. We're not talking of domestic guerrilla but transnational terrorism," Gen. Oscar Naranjo said at a news conference. Naranjo didn't give any details on when, where or from whom the uranium was allegedly bought. He provided no proof of the payment and wouldn't release copies of the documents. Both Venezuela and Ecuador dismissed his allegations as lies. They expelled Colombia's top diplomats and recalled their own. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa planned to visit five Latin American countries starting Tuesday to defend his decision to break off diplomatic relations, accusing Colombia of being an enemy of peace and lying about the raid.
Colombia said military commandos, tracking Raul Reyes through an informant, were fired upon from Ecuadoran territory. But Correa said Colombia deliberately carried out the strike beyond its borders, and that the rebels were "bombed and massacred as they slept, using precision technology." Both countries also began reinforcing their borders, mobilizing troops and tanks as Chavez warned that another Colombian attack could spark a wider South American war. Venezuelan National Guard troops and customs authorities suspended new imports and exports at the busiest border crossings. One Colombian police commander, Col. Ivan Florez, told the AP that all vehicles with Colombian license plates were being turned away from a key border crossing. Maintaining trade with Colombia, essential to Venezuela's economy, is one of many factors weighing against outright war. But the bellicose rhetoric has worried Latin American leaders. The presidents of Chile, Mexico and Brazil offered to mediate, and an emergency session of the Organization of American States was scheduled for Tuesday in Washington.
U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the United States supports Colombia's right to defend itself against the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and called for dialogue. Colombian officials have long complained that rebels take refuge in Ecuador and Venezuela. But Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said Monday that his government isn't moving any troops and "we have the situation under control." The rebels, who have been fighting for more than four decades for a more equitable distribution of wealth in Colombia, fund themselves largely through the cocaine trade, while holding hundreds of kidnapped hostages for ransom and political ends. The drug trafficking and kidnappings haven't helped their reputation, which is why both Correa and Chavez have denied supporting them.