International Herald Tribune
Russia selling new sniper rifles to Venezuela
By C.J. Chivers
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
MOSCOW: A proposed contract between Russia and Venezuela that could transfer thousands of sniper rifles to Venezuela has raised concern in the United States about the potential use or regional distribution of the weapons by the socialist-inspired government of President Hugo Chávez.
The rifle in question is the latest variant of the Dragunov, a long-barreled, semi-automatic design with an optical sight. It is derived in part from the much more widely circulated Kalashnikov assault rifle.
First manufactured in 1963 for use by militaries and intelligence agencies in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, the Dragunov and its clones have become one of the most lethal and effective weapons against American troops and their allies in Iraq.
Venezuela is negotiating a contract with Rosoboronexport, the Kremlin-controlled arms export agency, to purchase about 5,000 modernized Dragunov rifles, according to officials at Izhmash, the rifle's manufacturer.
Venezuela has about 34,000 soldiers in its army and 23,000 in its national guard, according to estimates by Jane's Information Group, which analyzes military forces and regional risks.
Because sniper rifles are specialized infantry weapons and not typically issued to large numbers of soldiers, diplomats and military officers and analysts said, a purchase of several thousand Dragunovs would not seem to have a conventional military use for Venezuela's armed forces.
"Sales like this, and other sales of military equipment and arms to Venezuela, don't seem consistent with Venezuela's needs," David Kramer, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said by telephone.
"It does raise questions about their ultimate use," he added. "We're not sure what their purpose would be."
Mark Joyce, the Americas editor for Jane's Country Risk, part of Jane's Information Group, said that a purchase of thousands of sniper rifles would fit with the ongoing defense reorganization in Venezuela under Chávez.
The changes emphasize large civilian reserve forces, which bypass the traditional military chain of command and report directly to Chávez, and which could form the core of a domestic guerrilla force if Venezuela were invaded.
"Obviously, what he has in mind is some sort of urban, guerrilla war against an invading force, and the model for that is Iraq," Joyce said.
Venezuela had previously purchased 100,000 AK-103s, a modern Kalashnikov rifle that shares much of the underlying design of the original AK-47. With Russian technical assistance, the country is also planning to build a new plant to produce its own Kalashnikov line, and a second plant to make ammunition for Kalashnikovs.
These contracts do not defy any sanctions, and are legal. But they also drew criticism in Washington, which has expressed worry that Chávez's government was buying more weapons than it needed, and could distribute weapons to South American guerrillas or terrorists.
Joyce noted that Venezuela has long been accused of providing weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a large and heavily equipped Marxist group that the State Department classifies as a foreign terrorist organization.
Washington's concerns about Chávez led to a suspension of U.S. arms sales to Venezuela in 2006. Chávez has scoffed at the suspension and has bought equipment from Russia, including military jets, helicopters, rifles and, potentially, submarines.
The Venezuelan Embassy in Moscow declined several requests since last week for an interview about the latest proposed contract, details of which were discussed last week by officials at Izhmash.
Vladimir Farafoshin, a deputy director at Izhmash, said that the full order of 100,000 AK-103s had been delivered to Venezuela, and that Russia was negotiating the sale of "about 5,000" Dragunovs as part of a separate arms deal.
Vladimir Grodetsky, the general director at Izhmash, expressed satisfaction with the contracts, saying that Venezuela was a reliable partner that made its scheduled payments regularly and on time. "We are very much satisfied with this cooperation," he said.
The contracts with Venezuela are the largest foreign sales by Izhmash that have been made public.