Gadhafi Considering $2Bln Arms Splurge

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi would visit Moscow for the first time in 25 years, amid closer cooperation between the countries on energy and defense.

"Such a visit is planned," Lavrov said, Interfax reported. "An exact date will soon be announced. The goal of the visit is the development of bilateral ties and a dialogue on regional problems."

A Russian arms industry source said the visit might include the purchase of more than $2 billion in weapons, the news agency reported. The weapons could include some 50 tanks, dozens of helicopters, several fighter jets and surface-to-air missile systems such as the S-300, TOR-M1 and BUK, the source said.

The Foreign Ministry and the Libyan Embassy in Moscow did not respond to repeated calls for comment. A source in the ministry said Gadhafi will arrive on Oct. 31, Vedomosti reported.

A trip by Gadhafi would come as little surprise, as Russia has courted the energy-rich North African country since it stepped back into the international fold in 2003 after years of United Nations sanctions.

Earlier this month, three Russian warships, including the nuclear-powered cruiser Pyotr Veliky, or Peter the Great, visited Tripoli on their way for joint naval exercises with Venezuela.

In April, then-President Vladimir Putin visited Libya to oversee the writing-off of $4.5 billion of Soviet-era debt in exchange for contracts for state corporations, including a $3.5 billion deal for Russian Railways to build a 550-kilometer rail line from Sirte to Benghazi.

Gazprom has also been boosting its ties in the country, with CEO Alexei Miller offering in April to buy all of Libya's uncontracted energy. Gazprom also signed a memorandum of cooperation to establish a joint venture with Libya's state oil company.

The gas export monopoly already has an asset-swap agreement with Italian oil giant Eni, including part-ownership of an existing pipeline in Libya.

Libyan Prime Minister al Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi was upbeat about flourishing ties during talks with Putin in Moscow in late July. That meeting was accompanied by another gesture of goodwill -- the release of an imprisoned LUKoil executive, who was flown back to Moscow on the same flight as the prime minister.

But in a sign that the defense industry might be reluctant to engage in business with Tripoli, similar reports of an imminent $4 billion arms deal in April never materialized.

Andrew Brooks, an aviation expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said buying Russian arms would counter Libya's goal of rapprochement with the West.

"Gadhafi wants to make contacts with the West after years of being ostracized," Brooks said by telephone.

Countries still buying weapons from Moscow, including Venezuela and Cuba, are doing so primarily for geopolitical reasons, "to poke the United States in the eyes," he said.

Libya, by contrast, could buy arms on Western markets, not least because it would get a better deal.

"Gadhafi used to be another Hugo Chavez, but he no longer is," he said.