Will Nicaragua Become Russia’s ‘Cuba of the 21st Century?’

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 118

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Daniel Ortega (Source: YouTube)

The victory of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in the summer of 1979, made Nicaragua an essential element of the Soviet Union’s zero-sum competition against the United States in the so-called “Third World.” By the mid-1980s, annual Soviet aid to the Latin American country stood at $250 million (1984) in military support and $253 million (1982) in economic assistance. Following Moscow’s temporal withdrawal from the scene after 1991, a renewed wave of cooperation ramped up between 2007 and 2017, turning Nicaragua into Russia’s “main partner and ally in the Central American sub-region,” according to Russian ambassador to Nicaragua Andrei Budaev (Interaffairs.ru, July 25, 2017). The intensification of multidimensional cooperation between these two states inspired arguments in Spanish-language media that Nicaragua is rapidly turning into “Russia’s Cuba of the 21st century” (Abc.es, August 17, 2017).

The seriousness of the Russian government’s policy was underscored by a memorandum it signed with Nicaragua on May 8, 2018. The document is said to “mark a new step to boost political dialogue” in such areas such as “international security and cooperation within various international political platforms.” The Russian side also underscored its gratitude for Managua’s support on “such topics as Crimea, Donbas, the Caucasus,” which makes Nicaragua “an ally of far greater importance than just [within] the Central American region” (RIA Novosti, May 8, 2018).

Russian-Nicaraguan cooperation is built on four pillars:

– Military cooperation, based on Nicaragua’s security needs. In the past two years, Nicaragua received from Russia a number of T-72 and T-72B modernized main battle tanks, four Mirage-class border patrol boats, two Molnia-class missile corvettes, and several Yakovlev Yak-130 light fighters. In total, Russia makes up 90 percent of Nicaraguan arms and munitions imports (RIA Novosti, December 13, 2017). The list of Russian exports also includes, among other weaponry, Mil Mi-17 helicopters, GAZ Tigr all-terrain infantry mobility vehicles, and ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft twin-barreled autocannons (Russiancouncil.ru, October 27, 2017). Arms sales (an integral part of both Russian and Soviet foreign policy toward economically weak dictatorships) are an effective tool to influence a country hardly able to sustain major military-related expenditures on its own.

– Para-military cooperation, reflected in training and knowledge transfer, which supplements and expends the above-mentioned policy. In 2013, the chief of Russia’s General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, inaugurated the opening of a Russian training center, named after Soviet Marshall Georgy Zhukov, on the territory of Nicaragua (Interfax, April 22, 2013). And by 2016, close to 400 Russian military personnel were present in the country under the pretext of “joint military exercises,” “training of humanitarian and military operations,” and “anti-drug trafficking” (a new special center was established for this latter purpose). Allegedly designed to “train” local forces, these measures may be serving a different purpose—containing so-called “hybrid threats” (in particular, anti-government public protests) at their primary stage. Namely, in April 2018, Nicaragua experienced a surge of violent street demonstrations triggered by unpopular social reforms personally promoted by President Daniel Ortega that were crushed by the police and special forces (Sputnik News, April 25, 2018).

– Non-military cooperation in the information space. The Russian Doctrine of Information Security distinguishes between “information” and “cyber” components and allows Moscow to act in these spheres on behalf of its allies (see EDM, October 26, 2016; December 16, 2016). The former element is primarily concerned with both the offensive and counteroffensive sides of “information confrontation.” For this purpose, Russia actively uses its own Spanish-language information outlets (with the key roles played by RT and Sputnik News) in Nicaragua and throughout Latin America, aimed at establishing a positive image of the Russian Federation and countering anti-governmental propaganda emanating from the opposition. The Russian authorities and intelligence agencies also actively employ social platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), as well as “digital diplomacy” to “expose anti-Russian moods and Russophobia generated by the West.” On top of that, in November 2016, the Russian World Foundation (Fond Russkii Mir), with active support from Rossotrudnichestvo (the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation—a Russian federal agency under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), concluded an agreement with the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) establishing a “Russian Center” under the roof of the university (Interaffairs.ru, July 25, 2017).

– Non-military cooperation in cyberspace capabilities and Electronic Warfare (EW). One of the most notable developments in this area has been the construction, last year, of a Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) monitoring station in Nicaragua—the first of these ground-based facilities in Central America (Topwar.ru, April 7, 2017). Though said to serve “purely civilian purposes,” the GLONASS station alarms many experts, who fear it may allow Russia to gather valuable signals intelligence throughout the wider region and help Moscow expand its presence in the United States’ backyard. Similarly, with its growing offensive cyber capabilities boosted by the Ministry of Defense (via the establishment of so-called military “research units”—see EDM, November 30, 2016; May 11, 2017), Russia could use Nicaragua as a base for offensive cyber operations against the US and its regional partners.

This being said, another element must not be omitted—Moscow’s far-reaching interest in building the Nicaraguan Canal, seen as a potential direct competitor to the Panama Canal. The proposed project has three main stakeholders: Nicaragua, Russia and China. Moscow specifically plans to assume a security-related mission both during the construction phase and after its completion (see EDM, May 2, 2014; July 22, 2014). Commenting on this in 2015, Colonel General (ret.) Leonid Ivashov posited that involvement in Nicaragua will allow Russia to “get [physically] closer to the United States,” thus raising Moscow’s regional profile (Moskovsky Komsomolets, January 12, 2015).

Well-known Cuban-American political scientist and writer Julio M. Shiling has argued that, in Latin America, Vladimir Putin’s Russia will primarily rely on Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, with the last state assuming the most important role. Shiling has noted that Russia’s activities in the region are aimed at undermining local democracies through the use of New Type war or “asymmetric warfare,” which includes various types of espionage (Laprensa.com, April 15, 2018). In the past decade, Moscow has intensified its penetration of Latin America, and the trend demonstrates that this is not a response to US “infringement” on Russia’s sphere of influence, but rather is part of a far-reaching strategy. Having lost much of its influence over Cuba since the end of the Cold War, Russia now perceives Nicaragua as its prime regional ally.