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CARACAS, Jul 19 2007 (IPS) - The announcement that Venezuela is buying five Russian submarines triggered alarm that a conventional arms build-up is occurring in a country that has adopted the defence doctrine of asymmetric war, or one involving " all of the people."
The submarines will cost more than one billion dollars, in addition to the three billion dollars the Hugo Chávez administration has already spent on Russian arms in the last two years. The Venezuelan government has also bought three radars from China, and this week announced it would import military transport planes.
The weapons systems Venezuela has acquired include 24 Sukhoi-30 fighter-bomber aircraft, 55 Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters, 100,000 AK-103 assault rifles and a factory to produce these Kalashnikovs and munitions. Several of the airplanes are already overflying Venezuelan territory.
"The United States is constantly threatening us. We need to defend our revolution," President Chávez, who is openly politically hostile to Washington, said during a visit to Moscow in late June.
Chávez, who took office in 1999, has accused the United States of refusing to supply ammunition and spare parts for the F-16 fighters Caracas purchased a quarter of a century ago, and for its Hercules C-130 transport planes. Both military aircraft are manufactured in the United States.
The Russian news agency Interfax reported Venezuela's order for five Varshavyanka class submarines, known in the West as Kilo 636. The subs are powered with diesel fuel and equipped with six torpedo tubes, 18 torpedoes, 24 mines and eight surface-to-air missiles.
"Why submarines?" said Chávez in response to critics, "Because we've got a huge sea, (we need them) to protect the oilfields in open waters, and because the North American empire has aggression plans (against us) and has carried out this kind of attempt years ago, when a (U.S.) aircraft carrier entered Venezuelan territorial waters."
In contrast, Rocío San Miguel, head of Control Ciudadano para la Seguridad y Defensa, a non-governmental organisation for social monitoring of security and defence matters, said that the submarines "don't fit in with Venezuela's marine vigilance needs, which are all land-based or on the surface, and include customs, the environment, tax and sanitary regulations, and the fight against the drugs trade."
Acquiring the submarines "will annoy our neighbours, and may upset geopolitics in the Caribbean," she said. Colombia, for one, has pending issues with Venezuela over demarcation of territorial waters along their northern border, in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Venezuela, San Miguel told IPS.
For decades, Colombia and Venezuela's military academies have included simulations of war between their two countries in their war games.
Retired General Fernando Ochoa, who was Defence Minister in 1992 when Chávez led a bloody and unsuccessful attempted coup, said that "because of the decline of his prestige, and because nobody believes in a U.S. invasion, Chávez needs to recover popularity the way Galtieri tried to do, by creating animosity with a nearby country."
In 1982, former Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri ordered a military invasion of the Malvinas/Falkland Islands in a bid to slow the downfall of Argentina's own regime that took power in 1976. The result was a war with the United Kingdom and defeat at the hands of the second most powerful navy in the world.
According to Ochoa, this is the reason behind the acquisition of "heavy war matériel, although it's inconsistent with the asymmetric war theory, for which light weaponry rather than high-technology submarines or aircraft are needed."
Asymmetric warfare is that between a nation-state and a non-state actor. Chinese theoreticians Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui call it "unrestricted" warfare, defining it as any kind of struggle against an overwhelmingly superior power, combining political and military action and involving the civilian population.
Preparing "all of the people" to take part in the defence of the country led Chávez to re-establish the Reserve a couple of years ago. The Reserve, made up of tens of thousands of civilians, is the fifth component of the Venezuelan armed forces, together with the army, the navy, the air force and the national guard, a military body with police functions.
General Gustavo Rangel, until now the commander of the Reserve, was sworn in on Wednesday as Defence Minister, "which will propagate the new doctrine of security, civil-military unity and the war of resistance," said retired Colonel Héctor Herrera, of the pro-government Bolivarian Civil-Military Front.
Rangel replaces General Isaías Baduel, the man responsible for returning Chávez to government in April 2002 when a civil-military coup removed him from office for two days. Baduel is now retired.
The press disclosed that Baduel led the "professionalist" faction of military officers who agree that conventional weapons should be acquired, while General Albert Muller, the coordinator of the presidential High Command, follows Chávez's outspoken ideas and favoured the "war of all the people."
"There are pressures within the military commands related to the change to a new defence model, because it removes a number of privileges. Personally, I'm opposed to professionalising the armed forces," said Muller, a leftwinger who was called out of retirement by the president at age 70, two decades after hanging up his uniform.
Venezuela's armed forces "must strive for the defence of all of the people, in a war of resistance waged by the people against a foreign invader," Muller emphasised.
Political scientist Alberto Garrido told IPS that "although Chávez agrees with Muller that a war with the U.S. would be asymmetric, the unpredictable geopolitics of the region and the domestic military reality force him to be cautious."
The president's strategy appears to be "to prepare for a combined conventional and asymmetric war. A conventional war would not be effective against the United States, but would be a valid approach to war with a neighbouring country," he said.
"This was outlined by Baduel when he put forward the hypothesis (a year ago) of a war caused by the conflicts spilling over from bordering countries," Garrido said.
San Miguel pointed out that Venezuela is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and its additional protocols of 1977, which protect the civilian population and ban the involvement of civilians in warfare, "because if they assume the role of combatants, lethal force can be used against them," she said.
The announcement of Venezuela's acquisition of the submarines caused no major tremors in the rest of the Americas. Washington did not discuss the subject with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he visited U.S. President George W. Bush at his summer residence, while Chávez was still in Russia.
Until he ended his term in Venezuela two weeks ago, Washington's ambassador in Caracas, William Brownfield, often repeated in his public statements that "the United States has never invaded, is not invading at this moment, and will never invade Venezuela."
Colombia has made no public statement on Venezuela's action.
A pact between Chávez and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe keeps sensitive issues affecting the two countries out of their public speeches.
European and Latin American diplomats in Caracas acknowledge in private that an arms build-up in Venezuelan will necessarily lead Colombia to take steps towards some kind of equilibrium.
According to Ochoa, the hypothesis of a conflict with Colombia would require the neutrality of the United States, "without which such an adventure would be unacceptably irresponsible."
In Brazil, naval commander Admiral Julio Soares de Moura was insouciant. "I wouldn't say that Venezuela is engaging in an arms race, I think it is reequipping itself, or renewing its arsenal. I don't think it poses any risk. Brazil and Venezuela have cordial relations," he said.
San Miguel insisted that Venezuela lacks a detailed assessment of the threats to its security which could be used to draw up contingency plans for national defence. "It appears as though the president talks and everyone falls into line. There's no one to say 'No' to him."
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