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Russia’s Military Power in Latin America

As tensions between the United States and Russia over the future of the Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula continue to rise, Moscow officials may look to beef up their country’s stronghold in Latin America.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on February 26 that his country is planning to expand its long-standing military presence in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, possibly bringing the U.S. and Russia’s icy diplomatic standoff into the Western Hemisphere.

Although Shoigu mentioned that Russia would also boost its armed presence in Vietnam, Singapore, the Seychelles and several other countries, Moscow’s anticipated embankment in Latin America will surely be perceived as a threat to U.S. defense policymakers.

“The talks are under way, and we are close to signing the relevant documents,” Shoigu said in a press conference in Moscow. “We need bases for refueling near the equator, and in other places,” he explained.

It is still unclear, however, whether Russia will construct new Moscow-owned bases in the proposed countries. Russia may only seek permission from already-existing naval defense ports to increase its access to military stations with refueling, maintenance and repair capabilities. The country’s only naval base outside the country is located in Tartus, Syria.

Conversely, the U.S. currently owns Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force facilities in several countries within Russia’s proximity, including South Korea, , Japan, Greeceand Turkey.

While U.S. government officials have not yet publicly commented on Russia’s military expansion plan, defense authorities could be apprehensive of the idea, especially considering Washington’s strained relations with Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. 

Cuba

Although Cuba maintained a strong relationship with Russia throughout the Cold War, military diplomacy between both nations came to a screeching halt during the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, Cuban President Raúl Castro and Russian President Vladimir Putin have recently improved military diplomacy—an armed Russian intelligence-gathering military vessel arrived in Havana the same day Shoigu made the announcement of his country’s increased presence in Latin America. The vessel also visited Havana in September 2012.

Despite minor improvements in U.S.-Cuba diplomacy, Russia continues to maintain a stronger military relationship with the Caribbean island than its northern neighbor—a bond that may worry defense officials in Washington and put them on the offensive as Putin beefs up his country’s defense capabilities.

Venezuela

Throughout former President Hugo Chávez’s tenure and President Nicolás Maduro’s current administration, Venezuela’s relationship with the United States has soured. One one side, Maduro and his supporters have accused the United States of destabilizing Venezuela by financing privatization efforts and supporting the campaigns of political opponents. Meanwhile, ongoing protests continue, led by opposition leaders like Leopoldo López and Henrique Capriles, who have accused the Bolivarian government of bringing Venezuela’s inflation and crime rates to unprecedented levels.

Deteriorating relations between Venezuela and the United States have established solidarity between Caracas and Moscow officials. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a meeting with Venezuelan counterpart Elías Jaua on Monday that his country supports Venezuela’s efforts to maintain stability in the country, which both governments feel are being undermined by U.S. support for opposition protests—Lavrov made the announcement a few days before Russia initiated talks with the Maduro administration about expanding its military presence in South America.

Although Jaua has said that Venezuela will “work hard to facilitate contacts with Russia,” he also,  noted that, "because of the constitution, we cannot allow a foreign military installation in our country."

Nonetheless, Russia’s solidarity with Venezuela, coupled with its plans to shore up defense capabilities in South America, will likely upset Washington officials who are critical of both governments.

Nicaragua

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) has demonstrated his willingness to work with Putin, who he regards as his “brother president.”

Ortega asked the Russian leader to continue to “defend the peace that the world needs so dearly” in a letter expressing his condolences following the Volgograd terrorist attacks late last year, which killed more than 30 people. Although Nicaraguan Vice President Moisés Omar Halleslevens said establishing a base would breach the nation's constitution, a government decision made last November allows Russian military formations, ships and aircraft to visit the country as part of a six-month training program. While the country’s friendliness toward Russia may not necessarily be perceived as a threat to Nicaragua’s Central American neighbors, the U.S. will undoubtedly monitor the growing relationship between both nations.

Ultimately, Russia’s plans to expand its defense capabilities in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua will not only test the United States’ willingness to accept the foreign policies of its sovereign Latin American neighbors, but it may also increase the possibility of future conflict between Moscow and Washington over the Western Hemisphere.

*Ramiro Sebastián Fúnez is a Honduran-American political journalist and activist earning his master's degree in politics at New York University. Follow him on Twitter at @RamiroSFunez.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Russia

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