Moscow vies to become a central player in Latin America to strengthen its influence.
Amid its obsession with reconfiguring world order, Russia seeks to increase its bonds with other Asian and Latin American countries through weapons, economic, and political connections. In addition to Venezuela—Russia’s main partner—Nicaragua and Bolivia help the Kremlin increase its influence in the region. There is also renewed interest in reviving relations with Cuba.
“Russia doesn’t bet on a regime, but on a position,” Armado Rodríguez Luna, research fellow at the Collective for Security Analysis with Democracy, based in Mexico, told Diálogo. “Due to its proximity to the United States, Latin America represents a geostrategic scenario for Russia.”
The Russian government will favor countries that can bring economic and security benefits to Moscow and those offering leverage to help the Kremlin become a tactical player in the world. Russia is on a global quest for opportunities.
“Since Vladimir Putin took office as the Russian president, he seeks to show that Russian power is as strong as it was in the days of the Soviet Union,” Jorge Serrano Torres, professor and advisor of Strategic Intelligence at the Center for Higher National Studies in Peru, told Diálogo. “He insists on strengthening partnerships and establishing new bonds with some Latin American countries to satisfy their strategic, economic, and even nuclear needs.”
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, his Bolivian counterpart Evo Morales, the Castro regime in Cuba, and Putin not only share the same political view of the world, but also cling to power. “Bolivia and Nicaragua help Russia extend its influence in the region, so as to remain in power in the face of their Venezuelan partner’s downfall,” Serrano said. In light of the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan crises, Putin is trying to revive ties with Cuba.
Nicaragua and the domino effect
Nicaragua and Russia revived their bond in 2007, when the Sandinista National Liberation Front made a comeback and Ortega became president again. More than a decade ago, Russia started sending military tanks to Nicaragua, where it installed the Global Satellite Navigation System, or GLONASS, in 2017.
Russia also sent patrol boats, missile warships, fighter and training aircraft, and air defense systems to modernize the Nicaraguan Armed Forces and strengthen their response capabilities. Russian cooperation includes the construction of the Central American Counternarcotics Military Training Center.
According to a March 2019 report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), weapons imports in Central America and the Caribbean increased 49 percent between 2014 and 2018, compared to the previous five years. The report indicates that Russia is one of the main exporters of weapons and military equipment.
“Nicaragua is an important bridge for Russian strategic positioning, when it comes to having military leverage in the region,” Rodríguez said. “It’s also a linking platform for Moscow to access information on transnational organized criminal networks in Latin America, especially Central America, to create a base for intelligence operations.”
Rodríguez and Serrano agree that Russia’s actions in the Central American country are not intended to get Nicaragua “armed to the teeth,” but to show Russia’s repositioning capabilities and “power game.” They also think that Russia’s military connection helps exhibit some Nicaraguan military power, because the country doesn’t have a defense policy as such.
“Putin is aware that the Latin American reality changed, and he knows that he won’t be able to set up military bases in Latin America. However, he is bent on increasing his influence in the region,” Serrano said. “Nicaragua will fall like a domino after Maduro’s dictatorship comes to an end.”
The Bolivian case
Morales was the first Bolivian president to visit Moscow and bet on Russia. In July 2019, Morales will visit the Kremlin to review the bilateral agenda and sign new strategic agreements with the Russian president. The two countries have signed technical military agreements as well as trade and energy agreements.
Since Morales took office in 2006, he pushes to modernize the Armed Forces by updating military equipment to improve defense capabilities. In November 2018, Bolivia announced it would obtain training helicopters for its Air Force.
“For years, the Kremlin sought to spell out trading projects concerning military weapons with Bolivia,” Serrano said. “In their next meeting, Putin and Morales will discuss this issue, as well as Maduro’s imminent demise, as Bolivia will be isolated in the region, lacking strategic, political, or economic support.”
Technical military cooperation between Bolivia and Russia focuses on tactical training and instruction for Bolivian officers, since China is Bolivia’s main weapons provider. The Asian country has donated armored vehicles, communications systems, and funding for helicopters.
“In this context, Russia is unlikely to depend on a country like Bolivia to position itself in the region. Bolivia doesn’t have Venezuela’s resources,” Rodríguez said. “Fragile economies can’t afford to purchase conventional military weapons and keep up a maintenance system for this kind of purchase.”
Bolivia is important to Russia because of its natural reserves, Serrano said. Since 2016, Russian public and private companies are involved in gas and oil exploration projects in different Bolivian sites. The Kremlin also supports La Paz in building the Nuclear Technology Research and Development Center, which will open in El Alto before 2019 ends.
Since 2000, Russia has made more than 43 state visits to Latin American countries. Half of these, Serrano said, were to countries of the so-called Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, comprising Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Cuba.
“Latin America isn’t a strategic priority for Russia or China,” Rodríguez said. “Nicaragua and Bolivia are ‘wild cards’ for these countries that play to move and disrupt other nations’ geopolitical interests.”
For Rodríguez and Serrano, far from being the major source of weapons for Latin America, Russia wants to remain within the trading system, as it provides access to many defense and security networks and information on the region. “Moscow seeks to diversify its sources to get repositioned in Latin America and become a strategic player in the world,” Rodríguez concluded.