Photo: courtesy of Flickr user Andrewy Korchagin.
Russia is pursuing a military buildup in the Americas to consolidate commercial deals and develop closer military and inter-governmental ties. The push also brings collateral benefits: Russia has placed contractors and advisers in local defense ministries and military headquarters who can influence doctrine, tactics and purchasing decisions.
In February 2014, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced negotiations with Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela for the use of Nicaraguan military bases, ports and airports to refuel Russian planes.1 The announcement a month later that Nicaragua could soon host Russian military personnel and equipment provoked concern, both within Nicaragua and among its neighbors. Costa Rica accused Russia of helping Nicaragua to gain an advantage in territorial disputes, in particular over the San Juan River on their common border.2
Is the Russian military threat in the Americas real? In the past decade, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), there has been a surge of Latin American countries purchasing military equipment and arms from state-owned Russian Technologies (Rostec) or receiving Russian military aid. SIPRI notes the following prominent Russian sales of military equipment in the region.3
Argentina: purchased two Mi-8/Mi-17 helicopters in 2010 and is estimated to have ordered another three in 2012 for use in Antarctica.
Brazil: upgraded its anti-tank missiles, surface-to-air missiles (SAM) 5 and bought 12 Mi-24/Mi-35 combat helicopters.
Colombia: purchased eight BTR-80 armored personnel carriers (APC) as well as four Mi-8/Mi-17 helicopters in 2006 and five in 2008.
Ecuador: purchased two Mi-8/Mi-17 helicopters and 50 SA-18 Grouse Portable SAMs in 2008.
Nicaragua: according to local news outlets, Managua received $26.5 million in 2011 to support its military in search and rescue (SAR) operations over the next three years.4
Peru: bought 288 AT-14 anti-tank missiles in 2008 and replaced its fleet of military vehicles with six Mi-17 armed assault helicopters and two Mi-24 combat helicopters in 2010.
The most attention-grabbing deals have been between Venezuela and Russia. According to SIPRI, since 2005, Venezuela has purchased 24 Sukhoi fighter planes, 51 transport, armed assault and combat helicopters, tanks, artillery, anti-tank, anti-ship and air-to-air missiles, multiple air defense systems, and infantry and assault weapons.5 New orders for Su-35 combat aircraft, An-74 and Il-76 transport aircraft, Mi-28 combat helicopters, Kilo-class submarines, and other equipment are rumored but not confirmed.6
In early 2014, Rostec, whose subsidiaries participated in the sale of military hardware to Venezuela, estimated the value of Russia’s arms contracts to be $12 billion.7
Venezuela’s purchase of 100,000 AK-103s in 2005 and the construction of two factories for the production of Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition led to speculation that Russia was abetting hemispheric conflicts.8
The Colombian government feared that older rifles would be resold to the FARC, sparking an arms race. But, delays in completing the two factories and production problems have plagued the project.
Only 3,000 AK-103 rifles had been produced by June 2012 and the status of the two armaments factories remained unclear.9
The George W. Bush administration questioned the necessity and motives for Venezuela’s increasing weapon purchases. In July 2006, State Department spokesman Tom Casey expressed concerns that “the arms purchase planned by Venezuela exceeded its defensive needs and are not helpful in terms of regional stability,” urging Russia “to reconsider the sale.”10 The Obama administration has avoided voicing concern regarding these sales. However, both U.S. administrations have watched developments in Venezuela closely, given the strident anti-American rhetoric out of Caracas, the dismantling of domestic democratic institutions, and the public celebration of alliances with countries hostile to the U.S., such as Iran and Syria.