The domestic and foreign relations of Latin American countries often do not garner much attention from the U.S. government or media until an exceptionally noticeable crisis occurs. As a result, the Russian Federation’s growing presence in this region has not received extensive analysis. Moscow’s role in the Estonia cyber-attacks, five-day Georgian War, deployment of “little green men” in Ukraine, and annexation of Crimea supports the speculation that Russia now intends to utilize unconventional warfare tactics in the Western Hemisphere. By forging military relationships with states such as Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua and by pursuing objectives aimed towards weakening the West, Russia poses a threat to regional dynamics and the U.S. presence in Latin America.
Russia in Venezuela
Russia’s presence in Venezuela grew significantly as a result of the close relationship formed between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chávez. This alliance formed amidst deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Venezuela due to Chávez’s blatant anti-American rhetoric and alignment with Cuban communist, Fidel Castro. While the 2006 Russian-Venezuelan arms deal amounting to U.S.$2.9 billion strengthened this relationship, it further weakened U.S. relations with Caracas. From that point on, Chavez and Putin’s friendship only grew, demonstrated by the extensive military interactions that took place and continue to occur under Nicolás Maduro. For example, in September 2009, Chávez bought 92 T-72 tanks and an S-300 anti-aircraft rocket system after Putin opened a U.S.$2.2 billion line of credit for Venezuelan arms purchases. Two years later, Chávez took out a loan to finance the purchase of more Russian arms, and in 2017, Putin agreed to restructure U.S.$3.15 billion of the borrowed money. More recently, Maduro returned from Russia with U.S.$6 billion in investment and deals.
In addition to supporting the buildup of Venezuela’s military, Russia also participated in combined air maneuvers in October 2018 and sent two of its own Tu-160 “White Swan” strategic bombers to Caracas in December 2018. While it is not uncommon for countries to conduct military exercises together, uncertainty regarding the weapon capabilities of the bombers caused serious security concerns in the U.S. and signaled Russia’s ability to inflict damage on American soil. In January 2019, while the majority of the world acknowledged the illegitimacy of Maduro’s presidency and pledged its support to Juan Guaido as interim president, Moscow represented one of only eight governments that continued to support the Maduro regime. Kremlin-linked military contractors from the Wagner group deployed to Venezuela in order to support Maduro—a clear representation of how Russia’s influence in Venezuela poses a threat to American interests in the Latin American region.
At the surface, Rostec’s decision may seem to indicate the beginning of Russian disengagement with Maduro; however, Putin has yet to signal or declare such intentions. The obscurity surrounding Russia’s relationship with Venezuela only emphasizes the importance of understanding Moscow’s behavior in the Western Hemisphere.
Russia in Cuba
Russia’s long-standing relationship with Cuba formed after the Cuban Revolution (July 1953 to January 1959) when Fidel Castro courted Soviet leadership. This partnership greatly threatened America during the height of the Cold War. The danger posed by Russian-Cuban relations was one of the reasons that incited the U.S. to launch the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, an unsuccessful operation intended to remove Castro from power. Castro soon proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist, turning to the USSR for protection from the U.S. The infamous Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in 1962, when two American U-2 planes photographed missile sites in Cuba, an unforgivable and potentially fatal threat to American national security. After days of escalation, the USSR finally agreed to remove the nuclear-capable weapons from Cuba. In exchange, the U.S. removed its missiles positioned in Turkey and agreed to refrain from interfering with Cuba in the future. Since the Cold War, relations between Cuba and the U.S. have remained strained, as demonstrated by the extent of embargos still placed on the island.
Although interactions between Russia and Cuba declined following the collapse of the Soviet Union, leadership from both countries have engaged more frequently within the last decade. Signaling of military relations commenced in November 2008 when Russian warships visited Havana for the first time since the end of the Cold War. By 2012, Cuba’s reliance on Russia for arms and military research had grown, resulting in a contract that guaranteed Russia’s provision of research and technical support for Tu-204-100E/Tu-204CE planes. In May 2012, discussions began concerning the delivery of modernized Tu-204CM passenger medium-haul aircraft, and then in June, Cuba purchased six An-158 aircraft. Three of the aircraft were to be delivered in 2012, and the rest were to be sent in 2013 on a financial lease.
Current Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel participated in military discussions in October 2018, and returned from Russia with a contract of U.S.$260 million to improve various aspects of Cuba’s infrastructure. In addition, he secured a line of credit amounting to U.S.$50 million for the purchase of Russian military weapons and spare parts. In the same month, Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov announced that Russia intended to increase its military presence in Cuba with Havana’s permission. In November, Putin and Díaz-Canel further vowed to expand political, economic, and military ties. The renewed commitment to strengthening relations seemed to occur in response to the U.S.’s consideration of withdrawing from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. Moscow’s desire to better military relations with Cuba at a time of deteriorating U.S. relations casts a shadow over the future of regional dynamics in the Western Hemisphere.
Russia in Nicaragua
Russia’s military relationship with Nicaragua differs from those it formed with Venezuela and Cuba. Interactions with Nicaragua reflect Russia’s use of soft, rather than hard, power. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, Russia displayed benevolence by awarding Nicaragua financial assistance (2008 and 2010) and two free helicopters. In 2012, Putin and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega agreed to combine outer space research efforts for peaceful intentions. This agreement led to the eventual construction of a Russian satellite station in Nicaragua that, when completed, will track the Russian GPS satellite navigation system (GLONASS). Many are skeptical of the true intentions of the station as it is located directly across from the U.S. embassy, causing some concern over the possibility of espionage.
Between 2012 and 2015, Moscow established a military training center located in the Nicaraguan Army mechanized infantry brigade and began construction for a regional counter-drug law enforcement training center. Both centers are tasked with training Nicaraguan soldiers, but the latter also intends to provide specialized training to law enforcement in participating neighboring countries. Further, in 2014, Putin negotiated for the use of Nicaragua’s military bases, ports, and airports. Overall, Russia’s presence in Nicaragua has mainly focused on increasing cooperation. Russia stands to benefit much more from this partnership should its objectives involve establishing greater influence in Central America and promoting anti-Western rhetoric and values.
Following the Cold War, Russia withdrew from its near abroad and the Western Hemisphere in order to focus on instituting more fruitful domestic policies. However, within the last two decades, Russia has re-emerged in Latin America, specifically operating in unstable, anti-American countries associated with communist or socialist ideals. The increase in Russian military activity in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela has not drawn significant attention (except in the recent case of Venezuela) despite the many threats posed by its presence and influence. These relationships should warrant greater concern, especially due to Moscow’s past of utilizing unconventional warfare tactics that both defy international norms and directly challenge U.S. interests.