With all eyes on Ukraine, where Russia’s neo-imperial efforts have raised the specter of a new Cold War between Moscow and the West, another alarming facet of the Kremlin’s contemporary foreign policy has gone largely unnoticed; namely, its growing military presence in, and strategic designs on, the Western Hemisphere.
On Feb. 26, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu formally announced his government’s plan to expand its overseas military presence. Russia, Mr. Shoigu outlined, intends to establish new military bases in eight foreign countries. The candidates include five Asian nations and three Latin American ones: Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Negotiations are underway to allow port visits to each, and to open refueling sites there for Russian long-range aircraft.
Just one day later, in a throwback to Cold War military cooperation between the Soviet Union and client state Cuba, a Russian warship docked in Havana. As of yet, neither Moscow nor Havana has issued a formal explanation as to why the Viktor Leonov, a Meridian-class intelligence vessel, was dispatched to the Latin American state. However, the visit tracks with a growing Russian strategic footprint in the region.
Over the past several years, Moscow has devoted considerable diplomatic and political attention to the Americas. Consistent with its pursuit of a multipolar world and its efforts to re-establish itself as a great power, this engagement has prioritized contacts with ideological regimes that share a common anti-American worldview.
In Cuba, Russia has worked diligently over the past half-decade to rebuild its once-robust Cold War-era ties. This has entailed top-level diplomatic visits by Russian officials to Havana (most prominent among them a November 2008 visit to the Cuban capital by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev), as well as new military agreements and revived cooperation on topics such as energy and nuclear cooperation.
With Venezuela, Russia has succeeded in forging a robust military partnership, exploiting the radical ideology and expansionist tendencies of the Chavez regime in Caracas. Between 2001 and 2013, Venezuela is estimated to have purchased more than three-quarters of the $14.5 billion in arms sales carried out by Russia in the region.
More recently, the Kremlin also has made concerted efforts to strengthen its relations with the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Since Mr. Ortega’s return to power in 2007, Russia has emerged as a major investor in Nicaragua’s military modernization, erecting a new military training facility in Managua and a munitions-disposal plant outside of the Nicaraguan capital.
Russia has also thrown open its warfare schools to the Ortega regime, with 25 Nicaraguan officers now reportedly being trained annually in Moscow.
What drives Russian policy toward Latin America? Most recently, Moscow has focused on the region as part of stepped up efforts at international counternarcotics cooperation.
Pursuant to a March 2013 plan unveiled by the Kremlin’s anti-drug czar, Viktor Ivanov, Russia is now working to expand anti-drug operations with Latin American states.
Russia’s interest in the Americas extends far beyond counternarcotics, though. Moscow maintains significant economic equities in the region, although the volume of its trade (estimated at less than $14 billion annually) is still comparatively small.
However, Russia appears eager to position itself to exploit new economic opportunities, such as those that would result from the Nicaraguan government’s ambitious plans to host a counterpart to the Panama Canal. It may also be using compliant Latin American states to bolster its intelligence-collection capabilities in the region, which are said to have grown significantly in recent years.
More than anything else, however, Russia’s activities are strategic — and opportunistic. Last fall, Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced with great fanfare that the “era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” effectively serving notice to foreign powers that the United States has no plans to contest or compete with their growing influence south of our border.
Moscow apparently was listening, and its recent moves suggest that the Kremlin is taking full advantage of America’s retraction from the region to improve its own position there in both economic and strategic terms.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, based in Washington. This article is adapted from his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 25.