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10.12.10

Even while the United States sought to improve relations with Russia as part of the Obama administration's policy of "reset," behind the scenes U.S. diplomats made little headway on the contentious issue of arms sales, according to secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

Over a period of at least four years and as late as last year, diplomats lobbied Russia to halt arms sales to Venezuela, expressing particular concern over an advanced man portable air defense system, or MANPADS, called the Igla-S. Russian officials, in turn, repeatedly rebuffed those requests, maintaining that such sales were perfectly legal.
Anatoliy Antonov, Russia's director for disarmament and security affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "stressed that there was no international restriction on selling arms, including MANPADS, to Venezuela," Daniel Russell, a U.S. diplomat stationed in Moscow, wrote in a 2005 cable marked "secret."

The sale of the Igla-S, one of the most advanced MANPADS, has been of particular concern to U.S. officials, because of fears it might be diverted to FARC rebels in Colombia. But Antonov, the Russian official, took umbrage at the notion that U.S. concerns about Venezuela should be enough to restrict Russian arms exports, saying, "That is your decision, not ours; we have our own policy."

The cables on Russian arms sales are some of the latest of more than 250,0000 diplomatic notes being released by WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that has sparked controversy for its explosive leaks. WikiLeaks is posting the diplomatic documents in small batches on its website, even as its founder, Julian Assange, remains in jail in Britain, awaiting possible extradition to Sweden on rape charges.

While the cables on arms sales do not necessarily run counter to what was publicly known about Russian arms sales to Venezuela, they do highlight how the United States made little headway in resolving its concerns.

In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow asking that diplomats there again try to convince Russia to suspend sale of the missiles to Venezuela. The sale went ahead, as evidenced in a 2009 parade in which Venezuela proudly displayed its newly acquired Russian Igla-S missiles.

Despite the missile sale to Venezuela, the United States earlier this year lifted sanctions on Rosoboronexport, the Russian state arms exporter.

Though some cables expressed optimism over Russia's cooperation on specific proliferation issues, on the whole, the cables painted a dark portrait of Russia's arms sales, concluding that "a compelling motivation is profit -- both licit and illicit."

The Russians also expressed pride in their arms sales, and one cable quotes former Deputy Prime Minister Anatoliy Kulikov saying, "Russia makes very bad cars, but very good weapons."
In the meantime, the Igla-S remains a concern for arms-control analysts, as well as for U.S. government officials.

"Given the history of diversion from Venezuela's arsenals, regular on-site inventories and inspections by Russian officials are also merited," writes Matt Schroeder, manager of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

According to the diplomatic cables released, the Russians last year told their American counterparts that they have the right to conduct surprise inspections in Venezuela to ensure that the missiles haven't been diverted, but no inspections had been done so far, and none was scheduled.

Schroeder declined to comment on the details of the cables. "What I've concluded is this stuff shouldn't be out there," he told AOL News. "By analyzing it, there would be value added that would worsen the problems and damage. I've disavowed it."

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