In reflecting on the results of his first-ever visit to Venezuela, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin estimated on Monday that Venezuelan orders for Russian weapons "could exceed $5 billion." The resulting headlines are somewhat misleading, and may overlook developments that will have a larger impact on the bilateral relationship in coming years.
The $5 billion figure appears to include Russian arms still being supplied under existing contracts, including four MI-17 multirole combat helicopters whose delivery coincided with Putin's visit. These were the last in a contract for 38 of the helicopters signed in 2006. No new arms deals were announced before, during, or after Putin's trip last week.
After signing a dozen contracts with Russia to buy a total of $4.4 billion worth of weapons between 2005 and 2007, Venezuela made no major purchases in 2008 and early 2009, despite the Russian government approving a $1 billion loan in September 2008 to facilitate such sales. One possible explanation for the lull is that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez anticipated a possible thaw in relations with the United States after his North American nemesis, former President George W. Bush, had left office. However, it is also possible that the decline in world energy prices simply forced Venezuela to rein in its military spending.