By Kristina Wong - 03/21/14 06:00 AM EDT
Away from the conflict in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is quietly seeking a foothold in Latin America, military officials warn.
To the alarm of lawmakers and Pentagon officials, Putin has begun sending navy ships and long-range bombers to the region for the first time in years.
“They’re on the march,” Gen. James Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command said at a Senate hearing earlier this month. “They’re working the scenes where we can’t work. And they’re doing a pretty good job.”
Kelly said there has been a “noticeable uptick in Russian power projection and security force personnel” in Latin America.
“It has been over three decades since we last saw this type of high-profile Russian military presence,” Kelly said at the March 13 hearing.
The U.S. military says it has been forced to cut back on its engagement with military and government officials in Latin America due to budget cuts. Kelly said the U.S. military had to cancel more than 200 effective engagement activities and multi-lateral exercises in Latin America last year.
With the American presence waning, officials say rivals such as Russia, China and Iran are quickly filling the void.
Iran has opened up 11 additional embassies and 33 cultural centers in Latin America while supporting the "operational presence" of militant group Lebanese Hezbollah in the region.
“On the military side, I believe they're establishing, if you will, lily pads for future use if they needed to use them,” Kelly said.
China is making a play for Latin America a well, and is now the fastest growing investor in the region, according to experts. Although their activity is mostly economic, they are also increasing military activity through educational exchanges.
The Chinese Navy conducted a goodwill visit in Brazil, Chile and Argentina last year and conducted its first-ever naval exercise with the Argentine Navy.
Meanwhile, the U.S. had to cancel the deployment of its hospital ship USNS Comfort last year.
“Our relationships, our leadership, and our influence in the Western Hemisphere are paying the price,” Kelly said.
Some experts warn against being too alarmist, and say Russia, China and Iran do not have the ability or desire to project military power beyond their borders.
Army War College adjunct professor Gabriel Marcella said Russia's maneuvering is more about posturing than a real threat.
"Latin America is seen as an opportunity to challenge the United States in terms of global presence," he said. "They want to show the flag to assert their presence and say they need to be counted on the world stage."
Other experts said the encroachment of rivals has huge economic implications for the U.S., which has more trade partners in Latin America than in any other region in the world.
“[Russia’s presence] serves to destabilize what has become a more stabilized, middle class continent with an increasing respect for the rule of law. ... Any type of unsettling of that environment will scare off investors,” said Jason Marczak, deputy director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
“Market economies and democracies are fundamental for trade, for jobs, and for stable investment environments," he said.
Marczak noted the instability in Venezuela, which is facing civil unrest from anti-government protestors.
“In Venezuela, a lot of the money that’s been able to prop up President Chavez and now Maduro has been Chinese money,” he said.
So far, 31 protestors have been killed in clashes with government security forces.
“I see a real degradation in what used to pass as Venezuelan democracy. There's less and less of that now,” Kelly said.
And while Chinese investment in Latin America could have positive aspects for the region, it could also make it more difficult for U.S. official to push labor and environmental safeguards that it argues are building blocks for democracy, Marczak said.
Angel Rabasa, a senior political scientist at RAND, said cuts to the defense budget are going to accelerate a long trend of U.S. neglect and disengagement with Latin America.
According to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), there are 10 countries in Latin America that currently have no U.S. ambassador because they either haven’t been nominated yet or confirmed, a sign that the region is seen as a low priority.
“We will be losing the ability to influence developments in a region that is very important to us because of proximity,” Rabasa said.