Analysis | The Russians Return: New Russian Engagement in Latin America​​​​​​​

Analysis | The Russians Return: New Russian Engagement in Latin America​​​​​​​

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Taylor Valley

- Eastern European Affairs & Latin American Affairs Specialist
- Graduate Student in Russian, Eastern European, & Central Asian Studies at Harvard University

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The Russians are Coming... Back!

While U.S. analysts have a keen eye on activity in Ukraine and Syria, few have seriously considered the fact that Russia has slowly been expanding its presence in Latin America. Last spring a new Russian compound was erected in the jungles near Nicaragua’s capital city Managua. Nicaraguan officials claim that the compound is used to house the surveillance equipment necessary in the fight against international drug trafficking, but some U.S. analysts suspect that the Russians have ulterior motives.

The Russian Federation is not the global superpower that was the Soviet Union and expansion into Latin America signals that the country aspires to be more than just a regional power. From military modernization to meddling in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, Russia’s worldview has drastically expanded in the past decade. At the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Russia lost its great power status and in turn inherited the brunt of a failed empire. Today, the Kremlin’s aggressive policy of expansionism can be explained by Putin’s ultimate goal of returning Russia to a position of great power, known concisely in Russian as derzhavnost.

Under Putin, Russia has gone from a strong regional power to a weak global one. Classic great powers like the United States and the Soviet Union share thraee traits: global influence, superior hard power capabilities, and a world-class economy. The classic clash of ideologies seen between the U.S. and the USSR arguably ended in 1989 with the fall of the Eastern bloc. Modern Russia cannot compete in this domain, but, all the same, throws its weight around as if it were en route to usurp the current Western-backed liberal democratic order.

As for hard-power capabilities, Russia is a nuclear state with the world’s fifth largest army at around 845,000 and is striving to reach one million by 2020. Albeit impressive, Russia’s military aspirations are unlikely to live up to expectations for structural reasons. Russia is currently in a state of demographic decline, and furthermore, young Russians do not typically choose to join the army. The Russian military is rife with hazing rituals, known in Russian as dedovshchina, which have left servicemen physically and psychologically damaged before they even set foot on a battlefield. This, coupled with the fact that eligible conscripts can easily bribe their way out of service, makes reaching the million-person army more of a pipe dream than an action plan. In regards to the economy, Russia has faced several recent hardships including low oil prices, high inflation, a weakened ruble, and capital flight. With Western sanctions and endemic internal corruption, Russia is neither an investment nor innovation hotspot. If Russia can ever be considered a global power, its not because of its endowments, but rather its aggressive global posturing.

The Soviet Union in Latin America
From the signing of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 to the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Latin America had been strictly considered under U.S. control. Until Castro’s gradual turn towards communism in the early 1960s, the Soviets believed that communist regimes could only manifest in two ways: 1. As a result of a communist revolution— like the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917; or 2. As a result of reformation after war— like the creation of the Eastern Bloc after WWII.  For the first three years of Castro’s reign, the U.S. government regarded the leader with great suspicion, but it was not until Castro began nationalizing U.S. business in the early 1960s that the Cuban revolution started to take on a socialist face. On December 2, 1961 in a televised address Castro proclaimed: “I am a Marxist-Leninist and shall be one until the end of my life...Marxism or scientific socialism has become the revolutionary movement of the working class,” (read more: Castro’s revolution in Cuba was anomalous in the fact that communism did not just happen, the new government deliberately chose to pursue it. This progressive change in governance shifted the aforementioned Soviet paradigm on communist expansion. Cuba proved to be a watershed event, which signaled not only the fragility of U.S. control in Latin America, but also that regimes could simply adopt communism without a cataclysmic event to ignite it. From the Soviet perspective, Cuba’s turn to communism justified expansion into the developing world.

The Cold War put Latin American countries in the middle of a violent struggle for influence. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was only the tip of the iceberg in this long history of engagement. The true history of the Cold War in Latin America is characterized by exported ideologies, and U.S.-Soviet meddling in countries like Chile, Grenada, and Nicaragua. Excitement for Latin America, however, died with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The ideological war had ended and Russia was no longer able to financially support its distant allies. The Cold War connections between Russia and Latin America, however, did not vanish with the Soviet empire.

Contemporary Russian Engagement
Two important flashpoints in recent history have demonstrated that Russia’s attention remains on Latin America. Some analysts have theorized that Russia’s engagement in Latin America peaks with conflict in Russia’s “near abroad”, i.e. Russia’s fourteen post-Soviet neighbors. The first concurrence of conflict and increased engagement arose in 2008, when Russia invaded post-Soviet Georgia and supported two of its breakaway separatist regions. The international community condemned Russia for the invasion of its neighbor and refused to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s claim to sovereignty. Only four countries officially recognized the Russia-dependent pseudo-states, and two of these countries happened to be Nicaragua and Venezuela. After the invasion, Russia increasingly reached out to Latin American countries as a way of rebuffing U.S. condemnation. For example, Russia responded to U.S. military drills in the Black Sea by sending “two supersonic, nuclear-capable Tu-160 backfire bombers to Venezuela to conduct exercises in the Caribbean,” (Read more: Army War College).

The second flashpoint that elucidates Russian-Latin American ties was the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. While Russian hostility was again met with sharp international criticism, Russia had no problem garnering support for its actions in Latin America. Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela all officially supported Russia’s claim on Crimea and were eager to ramp up trade with the country amidst the U.S.-EU sanction crusade. Both the events of 2008 and 2014 show that Russia’s reach expands further than Kazakhstan or Belarus. Increased military cooperation with Nicaragua and Venezuela as well as interest in the region as a whole may signal that Russia indeed has global aspirations and is seeking a swift return to derzhavnost.

So why Nicaragua?
While the mainstream theory holds that Russian engagement in Latin America is a Russian-driven initiative, it is worth considering the fact that Latin American countries gain just as much, if not more from cooperation with Russia. I propose that Russia’s engagement with Nicaragua is driven by the re-election of Nicaragua’s long-time revolutionary leader Daniel Ortega. Ortega, a former Soviet ally, returned to the presidency in 2007 after almost two decades out of public office. No stranger to the U.S.’s pervasive influence in the country, Ortega set out in his first term to strengthen his fragile socialist regime. This included a variety of domestic welfare programs as well as gaining necessary protection from abroad—enter Russia. Russia’s unpopular invasion of Georgia gave Nicaragua a golden opportunity to offer support and expand trade ties with the country. By engaging in a series of cooperative initiatives including arms’ trade, military exercises, and a joint anti-narcotic trafficking program, Nicaragua has gone from a Soviet-foreign-policy nightmare to Russia’s strongest Western partner. Through cooperation with Russia, Nicaragua has gained almost unlimited access to Russian credits to buy arms, an opportunity to modernize its military, and an outside protector against untoward U.S. influence.

In 2008 Russia and Nicaragua signed an agreement on bilateral relations to increase cooperation in the agriculture, surveillance technology, telecommunications, and energy. The new Russian compound that was built last spring near Managua may just be another bullet point in the ongoing list of Russian-Nicaraguan projects. Skeptics, who see Russia’s actions as part of a greater scheme to upset the liberal democratic order, note that the ensconced Russian compound may serve an additional purpose—to spy on American diplomats abroad.

Until the full capabilities of the compound become known, we are left to speculate upon what is really driving Russia’s actions in Latin America. Is it Russia’s quest to assert global dominance in the spirit of derzhavnost? Or, simply, Latin American governments seeking regime security? Either way, shrouded in mystery and located just ten miles away from the US embassy, this new development in Nicaragua has become a new old headache for U.S.-Russian relations.

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

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