Russian interests in Latin America involve military expansion, and regional crises favor their intentions.
Nicaragua’s instability since April 2018 isn’t coincidental. The Central American country was already an entry point for Russian interests in the Latin American region, as Daniel Ortega’s return to power in 2007 reactivated a close relationship that started during the Sandinista revolution and during Ortega’s presidency in 1979-1990. At first, this was advertised to the people as a commercial partnership, but the Russian government gradually revealed its true intentions.
Víctor Hugo Tinoco, former Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations (UN) from 1979 to 1980 and vice chancellor from 1981 to 1990, explained that the partnership between Ortega and Russia was seen as normal in the beginning. The turn of events that took place near 2015 raised alarms about Russian military interests and the facilities the Nicaraguan government provided.
“At the beginning, Russia tried to maintain the historical bonds that existed since the 1980s, political bonds, and provide continuity, as the Nicaraguan Army only uses Russian technology. To a certain extent, it was normal to think of having a relationship,” Tinoco told Diálogo. “However, in recent years it developed into a position of physical presence in terms of intelligence activities, especially to increase communication capabilities with special constructions in some areas of Managua.”
From 2007 to 2014, Russia supported the Nicaraguan public sector with taxis, buses, disaster response equipment, and wheat. That sort of help for the Central American country seized in 2015, and was replaced by military collaboration. The most controversial case was the purchase of 50 T-72 Russian tanks in 2016.
After the tanks, the Nicaraguan press reported that Ortega’s government had bought four speedboats, two missile warships, and at least one combat plane from Russia. No official, either Russian or Nicaraguan, confirmed or denied the purchase to the press.
In March 2014, Nicaragua—along with Venezuela, Cuba, and a few other countries—supported the Russian annexation of Crimea. “We are grateful for Nicaragua’s ongoing support of Russia in the matters involving Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria, which were debated at the UN’s General Assembly,” said to journalists Valeri Guerásimov, chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, at a get together with his Nicaraguan counterpart, Army Brigadier General Bayardo Rodríguez, within the framework of a UN Security Council meeting, on April 26, 2017.
The redirecting of Russian plans was also evidenced by the construction of the Central American Anti-drug Training Center in Las Colinas, Managua. The opposition questions the development of the Russian-funded project, asserting the center is a Russian base for espionage. Controversy also lingers over the construction of premises in Managua to operate 24 satellites of the Glonass Satellite System, the most expensive program of Roscosmos, formerly known as the Russian Federal Space Agency.
What does Moscow want?
According to Guillermo Barquero, a political scientist at the University of Costa Rica, what happens in Nicaragua coincides with Russia’s main interest in Latin America: military expansion, no matter if it requires partnering with controversial leaders such as Ortega or Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, who welcomed two Russian Tu-160 supersonic bombers in December 2018. “Russia actively provides political support and decided to advance with military, energy, and technological investments. The latter is of interest to Russia,” Barquero told Diálogo. “In Latin America’s case, exploiting the fragile social situation in Nicaragua and Venezuela helped create an enclave where everything is negotiated under the table.”
Barquero and Tinoco agree that opportunities for Russia are increasing. The Nicaraguan crisis, with a death toll of at least 264, left Ortega isolated internationally. Russia is one of the few remaining partners that doesn’t care about civilian deaths in the Central American nation.
“Putin’s Russia is taking greater advantage of the current situation. This is, however, a slow process. Russia will reinforce its military strategy and presence, because Ortega thinks he needs it to remain in power. The truth is that Russia is one of the few partners that ignores the terrible violations that the Nicaraguan people are experiencing,” Barquero said.
Russian authorities don’t condemn the Ortega government’s actions. On the contrary, they disseminate Ortega’s statements that the protests are organized from outside [of Nicaragua] and have a pro-coup nature.
When the United States brought the Nicaraguan issue to a UN Security Council in September 2018, Russian diplomat Vasili Nebenzia said the situation in Nicaragua wasn’t a threat to security. “It’s a sad, telling example of interference by a foreign and destructive external power,” he said, adhering to the words Ortega used in his defense in recent months. Conversely, the United States expressed concern about the situation in Nicaragua and urged other nations to find the truth.
“The Security Council cannot be a passive observer while Nicaragua descends into a failed, corrupt, and dictatorial state, because we know where that leads. Daniel Ortega and Nicolás Maduro are cut from the same corrupt cloth; they are both students of the same failed ideology. And they are both dictators who live in fear of their own people,” said Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the UN, at the September 2018 Security Council meeting.
In that scenario, and without a solution in sight for the Nicaraguan crisis, Russia takes advantage once more of the problems in the region, so as to extend its influence. Moscow cares not about civil violations. Its focus is to profit from the situation, and Nicaragua has all the ingredients to let them proceed as they please.