If focused exclusively on Russian actions in Ukraine or other areas contiguous to Russia, one loses sight of major elements of Moscow’s foreign policy. The Russian Federation considers itself to be a global power that is active everywhere and that, whatever Russia’s leadership might publicly claim, is challenging the United States anywhere that it can. One such arena is Latin America. Even as the Ukrainian crisis rages, Moscow is steadily trying to increase its profile throughout the Western Hemisphere. But as is generally the case in such Russian endeavors, Moscow picks certain key actors with whom it pursues a deeper “strategic partnership.” In Latin America, Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela has played an important role in this guise. But with Chavez’s death and the mounting instability in Venezuela, it appears that Russia has shifted to Nicaragua as a more stable and equally reliably anti-American partner. In February 2014, Moscow announced that it was seeking naval bases in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba—the “usual suspects” of Russian policy in the region (RIA Novosti, February 26).
Since then, Russia’s efforts to establish a long-term strategic presence in Nicaragua has steadily grown. In April, Russian legislators approved draft legislation to set up a satellite navigation monitoring system in Nicaragua. “Under the agreement, Russia would set up a network of land-based control stations in the Latin American country to monitor and augment the accuracy of navigation satellites in Earth orbit” (RIA Novosti, April 1). In reality, besides enhancing Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System (Globalnaya navigatsionnaya sputnikovaya Sistema—GLONASS), the Nicaraguan facility will probably become a substitute for the electronic tracking center at Lourdes, Cuba, which Moscow gave up a decade ago. At the same time, Nicaragua is again turning to Moscow to modernize its armed forces. Following the International Court of Justice’s 2012 decision to award Nicaragua 100,000 square kilometers of territorial waters, which this Central American country was contesting with Columbia, Managua will presumably now be boosting its forces to assert its sovereignty against Bogota (The Nicaragua Dispatch, April 6). So once again, Russian arms sales and political support will likely be directed against a key US ally in Latin America. As was the case with Venezuela and Cuba, Moscow sought to forge an anti-US and anti-Colombian alliance among these countries in 2008–2009.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega claimed that he was turning to Russia, just as he had done a generation ago, because Washington offered nothing to Nicaragua despite requests for military and other aid. But his conservative opponents suspect, not without reason, that this is just cover for reaching a deal on a Russian base in the country (The Nicaragua Dispatch, April 6; globalresearch.ca, April 7). Allegedly Nicaragua is particularly concerned about the threat of drug running. And there is no doubt that Moscow is collaborating with Managua on counter-drug operations, providing weapons and trainers (Nicaragua Dispatch, April 7). But given the incorporation of much of Russian organized crime into the state, it is unlikely that Moscow is solely helping Nicaragua and other Latin American states with counter-drug activities (Bruce Bagley, “Globalization and Transnational Organized Crime: The Russian Mafia in Latin America and the Caribbean,” in Menno Vellinga, ed.,The Political Economy of the Drug Industry: Latin America and the International System, Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004).
Nor has Russian meddling stopped there. Indeed, for the first time, Russia has linked up with China on a major commercial project in the region—namely, the discussion between them of joint participation in a long-held dream of a trans-oceanic canal through Nicaragua (Voice of Russia, April 8; La Prensa, April 23). Formally, the concession to dig the canal is owned by Chinese businessman Wang Jing, but there is speculation he may grant Russia the concession for providing security for that project; or something larger may even be in the offing (La Prensa, April 23).
Nicaraguan opposition deputy Eliseo Nunez Morales has observed that Wang also holds a concession for a deep water port in Crimea, pointing to an already close relationship between Wang and the Russian authorities. In addition, he noted the troubling fact that the planned Nicaragua Grand Canal project lacks a declaration of neutrality, suggesting that in the event of a conflict this maritime route would not remain neutral. Moreover, the legal framework of the canal concession allows for the establishment of a military base (La Prensa, April 23). Therefore, granting Russia the security concession could be a cover for a military base, which, in turn, would afford excellent cover for the introduction of a host of covert agents and programs and for laundering criminally obtained profits. Another deputy, Victor Hugo Tinoco, observed that Nicaragua’s Grand Canal Law allows for carrying out “business without paying taxes.” In other words, it provides a platform for massive corruption within the project as well as the government—potentially with both Russian and Chinese money (La Prensa, April 24). Consequently, former government officials and opposition figures have publicly articulated their fears that Ortega might turn Nicaragua into a Russian base of operations (La Prensa, April 9). Meanwhile, the recent evidence of potentially large-scale natural gas deposits in the Caribbean Sea near Nicaragua will also undoubtedly stoke Russian interests in the country even more than in the past (Centralamericadata.com, April 14, 2014)
This combination of arms sales, military installations, and large-scale economic, infrastructural and energy projects is a hallmark of Russian policy. They are well-tested instruments by which Moscow seeks to permanently leverage “friendly states” into partners or, more bluntly, clients. The process is already well advanced in Nicaragua and in Venezuela. On Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s April 29–30 trip to Managua, Nicaragua reiterated its support for Moscow’s policies in Ukraine, denounced US sanctions and evoked the congruence of Russo-Nicaraguan views concerning a desirable global order (Voice of Russia, April 29–30). A similar Russian push to stir up Latin America and forge an alliance network against the US has earlier been evident in Venezuela and, years before that, in Cuba.
Of course, Russia’s clout should not be exaggerated. However, there are now growing signs that Russia is linking itself to China’s much greater economic penetration of the Western Hemisphere. This phenomenon, combined with Russia’s unremitting efforts to wage “asymmetric war” against the United States globally and in its neighborhood, should at least disturb the dogmatic slumbers of those in Washington who have hitherto neglected to ponder Moscow’s goals in Nicaragua and across Latin America.