Last week, the Russian ambassador to Nicaragua falsely claimed that a “neo-Nazi junta” was in power in Kyiv. These misrepresentations around the Russian invasion of Ukraine reveal the sinister aims of Russia’s relationship with Nicaragua – more than anything, and it’s not just rhetoric.
Today more than ever, the Russian President Vladimir PoutineVladimir Vladimirovich PutinInternational Criminal Court to rule on genocide allegations against Russia Defense and national security overnight – Presented by AM General – US fears China will help Russia Lawmakers pressure on Biden reaches its limits MORE would be interested in Latin America, especially its anti-democratic allies. Russia’s relationship with Nicaragua is firmly rooted in geopolitics, and Russia demonstrates its global reach, despite American and European efforts. The wider implications – an increased presence in Latin America, among others, threaten democracy, security and regional stability in the Western Hemisphere. For starters, the Russian presence interferes with US and hemispheric interests, namely democracy and regional security. Moreover, Putin’s alliance with dictatorships goes against President BidenJoe BidenSaudi Arabia invites Chinese Xi to visit Riyadh: Report Biden attends in-person DNC fundraiser to tout climate agenda Man charged with attempted murder and hate crimes after Asian woman of New York was struck 125 times MOREcommitment to democracy. “We don’t coddle dictators” Biden said during the election campaign, yet here we are. The United States will have to act, beyond mere words.
Periodically since 2008, Russia has increased its presence in Latin America, particularly with anti-democratic regimes. One of the consequences of this type of relationship can be seen in the recent UN General Assembly emergency meeting on Russian invasion of Ukrainesome Latin American countries chose not to condemn the invasion, among them are those who are allied dictators: Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela.
Although Moscow is no longer leveraging socialist ideology to build closer ties with Latin America, Putin has deepened ties with allies who share his authoritarian style of government and resentment toward democratic leaders. Currently, Nicaragua and Russia strengthen their bilateral cooperation, particularly on economic and military issues. Last month, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov held a meeting with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega where he assured Russian support for Nicaraguawhich can be seen as a challenge for the United States in the Americas.
Putin has developed partnerships with Nicaragua in the common interest of creating institutions and relationships that are not dominated by the United States or Europe. Whether built around arms sales, trade deals, or similar political views, cooperation can translate into physical access for Russian military and security activities. The United States, in particular, faces potential challenges as Russia could strike deals with Nicaragua that would give it the ability to place its assets and forces in the backyard of the United States. Russia may continue these relationships outside of the EU and US out of necessity in the face of current and future economic sanctions.
Nicaragua is Russia’s staunchest political and military partner in the region. In fact, it cannot be ignored that Ortega’s pro-Russian rhetoric and cooperation in Nicaragua dates back to the Cold War. The relationship is based on years of Soviet support for Ortega’s Sandinista movement. Moscow sent weapons to the Sandinista government as it struggled to suppress the US-backed Contras. Moscow too provided Nicaragua with oil, machinery and food. The ties established provide Moscow with a base of experience and networks to draw on today, especially when negotiate arms sales.
Russia’s renewed relationship began with Ortega’s return to power in 2007 and Nicaragua’s diplomatic recognition of the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia following Georgia’s 2008 war. authorized the holding of Russian naval exercises in its territorial waters later in 2008and, in 2015, the Nicaraguan parliament voted to allow Russian warships dock in Nicaraguan ports.
In 2014, Putin visited Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and Nicaragua, achieve several economic and security agreements. In 2015, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela where he met with leaders to discuss the potential Russian access to ports and airfields. Access to ports and airfields allows Moscow to deploy military assets in the region, projecting its power and sending messages to the United States.
Nicaragua became dependent on Russian military support. In 2013, the two countries signed an agreement for Russia to modernize the Nicaraguan army. Russia has sold and donated equipment to Nicaragua, and it has hosted Nicaraguan forces for training. Russia provided 90% of Nicaragua’s arms imports since 2000. Arms sales not only generate revenue for Russia, but also displace US suppliers. Russia sold two military personnel to Nicaragua transport aircraft in 2018 for search and rescue operations, as well as the opening of a joint counter-narcotics center in November 2017 from which to train and conduct operations in Nicaragua and later throughout the region . Nicaragua has also agreed to host a GLONASS station on its territory. The greatest military cooperation, however, is through the donations of discarded tanks.
Russia can maintain its presence in Nicaragua cheaply, and it can sustain this approach for a long time, putting democracy and security at risk over time. In fact, Russia’s use of Nicaraguan territory as a site for intelligence gathering throughout the Americas poses a threat to the inter-American system and the United States
Worst-case scenario: Moscow could see the gains in Nicaragua as a reward for US and European interference in Ukraine. Make no mistake, what now appears to be an isolated trend could allow Moscow to take control of the Caribbean Basin, and the relationship could become a tiebreaker in the regional military balance. The United States will have to act, beyond mere words.
Caroline C. Cowen is an international consultant and scholar who has worked on development, defense and democracy topics with Inter-American Dialogue, Duco and Freedom House. As a consultant, she has worked with leaders of Nicaraguan civic and political organizations and the Nicaraguan diaspora to come together on issues relating to political and democratic reforms. At Freedom House, Cowen works as a senior program associate in the Latin America and Caribbean division.