Russia Turns to Cuba amid Crisis in Venezuela and Nicaragua

Moscow invests in the Cuban military to secure its strategic presence in the Caribbean Sea.
Gustavo Arias Retana/Diálogo | 21 March 2019

Capacity Building

A Soviet-made limousine passes in front of a Vishnya class Russian warship at the Port of Havana. Moscow uses its vessels to collect intelligence. (Photo: Adalberto Roque, AFP)

In early February 2019, the Russian government approved a loan for Cuba to acquire new weapons, a decision that exposes Moscow’s renewed political and military interest in the island due to the humanitarian crisis in its most active regional allies, Venezuela and Nicaragua. According to Carlos Murillo, an international relations analyst at the National University of Costa Rica, the $42-million loan denotes Russia’s increasingly scarce options for projection in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

“Maduro can no longer help Cuba, which nears a ‘special period’ like that of the 1990s, when Russia withdrew its support and now Havana needs urgent assistance. It’s better to tell a ‘friend’ beforehand that they are there to help,” Murillo told Diálogo. “Moscow foresees a comeback of the Cold War, and views its military presence as strategic in this scenario.”

Antonio Barrios, a specialist in geopolitics and security at the University of Costa Rica, agrees with Murillo, adding that after the Cold War ended in 1991, with the Soviet Union fragmenting upon recognizing the independence of the Baltic countries, Moscow and Havana became estranged. President Vladimir Putin has now reactivated these bonds, which the crisis his partners experience in the region strengthened.

“Putin is interested in reactivating and deepening relations with Havana. For many years, Russian specialists visited the island to strengthen commercial, political, and military bonds,” Barrios told Diálogo. “The island sought this military investment for a long time, because it stopped renewing its arsenal. Moscow is interested in strengthening Cuba because the bridge the Chavist regime built is broken or about to break.”

Military lag

Despite Russian investment in Cuba, some specialists believe Cuba’s military aspirations are limited, since its geopolitical role completely changed and its defense resources lag far behind. The island’s only influential element now is its geographical location, which is likely one of Russia’s main interests.

“Cuba doesn’t have the same lead role and aspirations than in the last century; it won’t embark on any military adventures around the world. Now it’s only interested in surviving,” Murillo said. “However, in case the international scenario becomes tense, it will undoubtedly be willing to provide troops, like in the past.”

Tourists visit a Soviet-era arms exhibition in La Cabaña, Havana, October 16, 2017. (Photo: Yamil Lage, AFP)

Barrios also doesn’t see Cuba’s military weakness as an impediment to its role as an important country in the strategic control of the Caribbean. In the current panorama, this would be one of the few things Moscow can use to obtain some power in the region.

“Military issues on the island got left behind; they were left with obsolete weapons from the Soviet era. What Russia wants is not only to strengthen its political influence in the relationship, but also to enhance the island’s military resources,” Barrios said. “This investment guarantees Moscow a military presence in the Caribbean, which it knows is only possible if it has a presence in Cuba.”

Change in Nicaragua

Although the crisis in Nicaragua is relatively milder than in Venezuela, Nicaragua’s social crisis also incentivizes renewed Russian interest in the Caribbean. According to Murillo, Moscow clearly sees Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega as one of their weakest partners who might not remain in power. This makes Cuba a safer bet for Russia than investing to keep Ortega in power.

“Managua is the least of Russia’s worries [in Latin America]. Putin knows that Ortega has few chances of survival, so he will back him up, but without risking much,” Murillo said. “The interest for Cuba doesn’t curb the need for Russia to support the Nicaraguan government,” Barrios added. “If the crisis continues in Venezuela, the Slavic country’s position in Latin America could take quite a beating.”

There might be a complicated domino effect for Russia. If Maduro is overthrown, the Castro regime will likely stay in power, but Ortega might fall. Moscow’s only three partners in the hemisphere are Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela.

“Putin will sustain Maduro as long as possible, because it guarantees Nicaragua’s survival,” Barrios said. “That’s why they are interested in Cuba. The island doesn’t depend on Ortega to survive.”

Moscow’s expansionist interest in Latin America continues. Cuba projects itself as Russia’s latest resort in the face of the weakening of Venezuela’s Chavist regime. Latin American countries must watch out for external influences on the island, because as the past showed, Russian foreign policy is only concerned with one country: Russia.

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