A hemispheric threat: Russia’s interference in Nicaragua

Last week, the Russian ambassador to Nicaragua falsely claimed a “neo-Nazi Junta” is in power in Kyiv. These false statements around the Russian invasion of Ukraine reveal the sinister objectives of Russia’s relationship with Nicaragua — more than anything, and they are not mere rhetoric.

Now more than ever, Russian President Vladimir Putin would be interested in Latin America, especially in its anti-democratic allies. Russia’s relationship with Nicaragua is firmly rooted in geopolitics, and Russia is demonstrating its global reach, despite U.S. and European efforts. The larger implications — an increased presence in Latin America, among others — threaten democracy, security and regional stability in the Western Hemisphere. For starters, Russian presence is interfering with U.S. and hemisphere interests, namely democracy and regional security. Moreover, Putin’s alliance with dictatorships goes against President Biden’s commitment on democracy. “We do not coddle dictators,” Biden said on the campaign trail, yet here we are. The U.S. will need to act, beyond mere words.

Periodically since 2008, Russia increased its presence in Latin America, especially with the anti-democratic regimes. One of the consequences of this type of relationship is observed in the recent UN General Assembly’s emergency meeting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some Latin American countries chose not to condemn the invasion, among them are those that are allied dictators: Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela. 

Although Moscow no longer leverages socialist ideology to gain closer relations with Latin America, Putin has deepened ties with allies that share its authoritarian style of government and resentment of democratic leadership. Currently, Nicaragua and Russia are strengthening bilateral cooperation, especially on economic and military issues. Last month, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov held a meeting with President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega where he assured Russia’s support for Nicaragua, which can be seen as a challenge to the U.S. in the Americas. 

Putin has developed partnerships with Nicaragua in the shared interest of creating institutions and relationships that are not dominated by the U.S. or Europe. Whether built around arms sales, trade deals or similar political views, the cooperation can translate into physical access for Russian military and security activities. The U.S., in particular, faces potential challenges as Russia could pursue agreements with Nicaragua that would provide it with the option of placing its assets and forces in the U.S.’s backyard. Russia may pursue these relationships outside of the EU and the U.S. out of necessity in the face of current — and future — economic sanctions.  

Nicaragua is Russia’s most steadfast political and military partner in the region. In fact, one cannot ignore that Nicaragua’s Ortega pro-Russian rhetoric and cooperation can be traced back to the Cold War. The relationship is built on years of Soviet support for Ortega’s Sandinista movement. Moscow sent weapons to the Sandinista government as it fought to suppress the U.S.-backed Contras. Moscow also supplied Nicaragua with oil, machinery and food. The ties established provide Moscow with a base of experience and networks it can draw upon today, particularly when negotiating 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 in the wake of the 2008 Georgian war. Nicaragua allowed Russian naval exercises to take place in its territorial waters later in 2008, and, in 2015, the Nicaraguan parliament voted to allow Russian warships to dock in Nicaraguan ports. 

In 2014, Putin visited Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and Nicaragua, reaching several security and economic agreements. In 2015, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela where he met with leaders to discuss potential Russian access to ports and airfields. Access to ports and airfields enables Moscow to deploy military assets to the region, projecting its power and messaging the United States. 

Nicaragua has become reliant on Russian military support. In 2013, both countries signed an agreement for Russia to modernize Nicaragua’s military. Russia has sold and donated equipment to Nicaragua, and it has hosted Nicaraguan forces for training. Russia has supplied 90 percent of Nicaraguan arms imports since 2000. Arm sales not only generate income for Russia but also replace U.S. suppliers. Russia sold Nicaragua two military transport planes in 2018 for search and rescue operations, as well as opening a joint counter-narcotics center in November 2017 from which to train and conduct operations in Nicaragua and later across the broader region. Nicaragua has also agreed to house a GLONASS station on its territory. The greatest military cooperation, however, occurs through donations of discarded tanks.

 Russia can continue its presence in Nicaragua at a low cost, and it can sustain this approach for a long time — over time putting democracy and security at risk. In fact, Russia’s use of Nicaraguan territory as a site for intelligence gathering in the Americas at large constitutes a threat to the Inter-American system and the U.S. 

Worst case scenario: Moscow may view gains in Nicaragua as payback for U.S. and European interference in Ukraine. Make no mistake, what now seems like an isolated trend could allow Moscow to gain control in the Caribbean basin, and the relationships could become a tie breaker in the regional military balance. The U.S. will need to act, beyond mere words. 

Caroline C. Cowen is an international consultant and specialist that has worked on topics relating to development, defense, and democracy with the Inter-American Dialogue, Duco and Freedom House. As a consultant, she has worked with leaders within Nicaraguan civil and political organizations and the Nicaraguan diaspora to convene on issues pertaining to political and democratic reforms. At Freedom House, Cowen works as a senior program associate within the Latin American and Caribbean division.

Tags Caroline C. Cowen Diplomacy Joe Biden Latin America Nicaragua Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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