The latest round of military assistance packages for Ukraine, including billions of dollars' worth of Western-made armored vehicles and air- defense systems, is not stopping the United States from also trying to get the Ukrainian military Russian-made equipment.
U.S. military officials overseeing operations and defense relations in Central America, South America and the Caribbean see an opportunity to persuade some of those countries to give up their Russian-made weapons and systems and send them to Kyiv.
“We are working with the countries that have the Russian equipment to either donate it or switch it out for United States equipment,” General Laura Richardson, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, told a virtual audience Thursday during an appearance at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
Richardson said discussions with six countries, in particular, “are in the works,” but did not elaborate.
U.S. Southern Command also declined to provide additional details.
“As a matter of protocol, we are not going to discuss details about the defense resources of sovereign nations or speculate about any support to Ukraine they have not already announced,” SOUTHCOM spokesperson Jose Ruiz told VOA by email Friday.
“Insofar as offering our defense partners opportunities to purchase or receive U.S. defense equipment, we offer what we consider to be a better alternative,” he added. “U.S. defense equipment is superior in both its proven reliability and the level of sustainment support it receives during its operational life.”
Familiar to Ukrainians
Other top U.S. officials have hinted at the importance of providing Russian-made equipment that is already familiar to Ukrainian troops, cautioning that it may not be possible to fully train Kyiv’s forces on the new Western systems in time to counter possible Russian offensives in the coming months.
“That'll be a very, very heavy lift,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday after a meeting of the Ukraine Contact Group at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
“The Ukrainians have the personnel, but they have to be trained,” he said. “And if you look at the weather and terrain, et cetera, you can see that you have a relatively short window of time to accomplish both those key tasks.
“I think it can be done, but I think that it will be a challenge. There’s no question about it,” Milley added.
In contrast, Russian-made weapon systems currently being used in Central and South America could be used by the Ukrainian military almost immediately. And some countries have significant stockpiles.
"The best examples of that are Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina,” said Ryan Brobst, a research analyst at the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD).
“Specifically, they have a lot of Russian- or Soviet-made helicopters,” he told VOA.
According to data collected by the Swedish-based Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, at least seven Central and South American countries have bought weapons from Russia since 2000, with Brazil and Peru taking delivery of Russian military equipment as recently as 2016.
Additional data, collected by the International Institute for Strategic Studies as of 2021 and analyzed by Brobst and his colleagues at FDD, indicate six of those countries have systems identical or similar to those traditionally used by Ukraine’s military.
Helicopters, rocket systems
For example, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru all have variations of the Russian Mi-17 transport helicopter requested by Ukraine shortly after Russia launched its invasion last February.
Ecuador and Peru have a total of about 40 Grad multiple launch rocket systems, though some may not be serviceable.
Peru and Uruguay have a variety of Russian-made armored vehicles, including BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles and MT-LB amphibious armored vehicles.
Just as important, Peru and Uruguay have other capabilities that could meet immediate Ukrainian needs, including tanks, air-defense systems and even fighter jets.
Uruguay has 15 Tiran-5 tanks, an Israeli-modified version of the Russian T-55.
Meanwhile, Peru has the Russian-made S-125 surface-to-air missile system, 35 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns and 80 towed anti-aircraft guns.
Peru also reportedly has nine serviceable MiG-29 fighter jets and another four Su-25 ground attack aircraft in storage, though some analysts estimate the number of serviceable attack aircraft is higher.
There are also a large number of Russian-made man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) that could be available.
“Countries like Brazil and Ecuador operate hundreds of Russian Igla portable surface-to-air missiles, with Brazil in particular having received modern Igla-S systems since 2010,” Henry Ziemer, a program coordinator and research assistant at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA by email.
“MANPADS, especially older Igla-1 models which, while less effective, are easier to part with and fairly plentiful within the hemisphere,” he said. “Ukrainian forces … are well-trained by now on both the Igla and U.S. Stinger systems, and their compactness and mobility makes these systems vital for sustaining combined-arms offensives.”
Some of these countries, though, have previously balked at sending weapons to Ukraine, notably Mexico, with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador last June calling the notion “immoral.”
Other countries, though, could be persuaded.
“The United States would probably have to offer the correct incentives for these countries to transfer their weapons, be it cash, some sort of security arrangements or promises to backfill with weapons,” the FDD’s Brobst told VOA.
That none of the countries has agreed so far to give up their Russian-made weapons and weapon systems illustrates the difficult task facing U.S. officials. And it may not get easier, given that U.S. defense companies are already under pressure to increase production to meet looming U.S. shortages.
Still, Russia’s hold on some of these Central and South American nations could be loosening.
“Typically, Russia's advantage in the arms export markets was that they're significantly cheaper, faster delivery timelines and they don't care how countries use them,” Brobst said. “However, given the fact that Russia has lost a huge amount of equipment in Ukraine and needs to resupply their own forces, it’s going to be very hard for them to offer arms for exports.
“This is an opportunity for the United States to peel away these countries from reliance on Russian weapon systems.”