The Kremlin’s Caribbean Gambit: A Great Power Competition Spillover?

Remote Visualization

On June 12, the Russian guided missile frigate Admiral Gorshkov and the Yasen-class nuclear-powered submarine Kazan made a momentous arrival in Cuba’s capital, Havana. Accompanied by the tanker Akademik Pashin and the rescue tug Nikolay Chiker, they were met on the Malecón, Havana’s long esplanade along the coastline, by high-level Cuban officials and a large gathering of common Cubans who came to salute the Russian navy. 

The reemergence of Russia in the Caribbean is not just a mere coincidence. It sets a dangerous precedent for the strategic spillover of great power competition, especially as it relates to Russia’s war in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s decision to position ships and submarines in the Caribbean can be seen as a calculated response to the recent announcement by NATO countries that Ukraine can use Western military weaponry to attack targets on Russian soil, as well as a response to signals from countries like France, which has not ruled out the possibility of sending troops to aid Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion.

Recently, the U.S. Congress approved a substantial $61 billion aid package to enhance humanitarian, economic, and military support for Ukraine. Furthermore, the first Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland saw the participation of over 90 countries, including 12 Latin American countries, some of which were new to the scene, like President Javier Milei’s Argentina; Milei is seeking to make his country the second Latin American NATO Global Partner. However, the international response to the Ukraine conflict is not uniform. For example, not all countries have signed the Joint Communiqué or endorsed Ukraine’s Peace Formula. Notable exceptions are Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, along with India, Indonesia, South Africa, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates. From this perspective, Russia is hoping to continue challenging Western efforts not only in Europe but also in other regions.

Russia’s Symbolic Reciprocity Strategy

Russia’s actions in the Caribbean are a form of symbolic engagement with allies that typically challenges U.S. leadership in the region, potentially signaling a shift in global power dynamics. To be precise, Russia’s display of military muscle in the Caribbean is part of a “symbolic reciprocity” approach to its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean. Contemporary Russian elites view the world as divided into two parts. One is the “near abroad,” the territories of the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, Belarus, three Caucasian republics, and Central Asian countries. Because of its historical, economic, and cultural legacy, Russia believes that it has “natural” rights to these territories and that any extra-regional power must acknowledge this before engaging there. The rest of the world is the “far abroad,” where Russia may have interests but with limited specific engagement.

Using a similar lens, Russia considers Latin America, especially the Caribbean, as the United States’ “near abroad.” It seeks to engage these countries as a reciprocal action in response to U.S. support for Ukraine and other territories in Russia’s “near abroad.” However, in contrast to the United States’ tangible support for Ukraine, Russian actions have been primarily symbolic, demonstrating Moscow’s capacity to engage countries close to U.S. territory and highlighting Washington’s failure to isolate Russia globally. Yet, it also indicates that Moscow is comfortable operating in the Western Hemisphere, underscoring the potential for escalation.

The Shadow of the Soviet Legacy

During the early twentieth century, the newly formed Soviet Union aimed primarily to spread Communist ideology in Latin America. Moscow hoped that the growth of leftist movements in the region would ignite Communist revolutions similar to the October 1917 revolution in Russia. As a result, the covert support of leftist forces throughout Latin America antagonized powerful regional political and economic elites.

During World War II, many Latin American and Caribbean nations supported the Allies. This enabled Moscow to establish diplomatic relations and pursue economic engagement opportunities. However, this trend was short lived, and most of the Soviet presence dissipated with the onset of the Cold War. Despite this, Latin America remained a significant arena for the Soviet Union in the global contest of a bipolar world. Apart from Castro’s Cuba, which became heavily dependent on Soviet aid for its survival, Moscow continually sought opportunities to engage militarily, economically, and ideologically in the region to challenge U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere.

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 revealed Washington’s red lines to Moscow. As political scientist Graham Allison wrote, the world was saved by a miracle. The Soviet Union then chose a more cautious and measured approach, eventually abandoning its ambition to challenge U.S. dominance in Latin America and the Caribbean. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of the Soviet military presence from Cuba marked the end of an era. Additionally, the end of Soviet support plunged Castro’s regime into a catastrophic situation, signaling to many Latin Americans the strategic failure of Russia.

Against the above background, it is unsurprising that the resurgence of Moscow’s interests in the region is often viewed through a Cold War lens. However, directly comparing today’s strategies and methods to those of the Soviet Union is misleading. Putin’s Russia has different objectives and tools of engagement. Unlike the Soviet Union, contemporary Russia is not prepared to invest significant resources, such as substantial economic aid, as it did with Cuba in the latter half of the twentieth century, in exchange for allowing Moscow to engage in full-scale geopolitical maneuvers near the U.S. homeland. Nowadays, Russia follows a different path.

Russia’s Contemporary Engagement in Latin America

Today’s Russian military presence in the Western Hemisphere is shaped by its reaction to the U.S.-led response to its actions in Ukraine and its ongoing military engagements there. Beyond displays of hard power, Russia employs a limited but multifaceted policy toolkit. This includes military, political, and economic relations, as well as information space.

On several occasions, Russia’s involvement in Latin American affairs has been more than that of a mere observer. For instance, in 2019, when the United States and around 60 other democratic nations backed Juan Guaidó in Venezuela, attempts to oust the authoritarian rule of Nicolás Maduro failed. One contributing factor to this failure was Russia’s support for Caracas, which included diplomatic backing for Maduro and assistance in circumventing sanctions by facilitating oil trade through Rosneft’s office in Panama.

In other instances, such as following the onset of the invasion of Ukraine, Brazil and five other Latin American nations were compelled to request the exclusion of Russian-produced fertilizers from sanctions lists and adopted a more nuanced stance toward the conflict in Ukraine. This was due to their heavy reliance on Russian fertilizer supplies, the disruption of which would severely impact the region’s agricultural sector. Another recent example is Russia’s leverage over Ecuador’s banana export industry, which coerced Quito into reconsidering its decision to transfer Soviet and Russian-made weapons that could potentially be used in the Ukrainian war effort.

In the information space, RT Actualidad, Sputnik Mundo, and affiliated media outlets controlled by the Russian government have been successful in spreading disinformation in the region for years.

At the same time, Russia’s display of military power in the Caribbean Sea (and the Atlantic) is not new since it is a key part of the symbolic reciprocity strategy. After a post–Cold War hiatus, their presence systematically increased as U.S./NATO-Russia relations deteriorated following the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. Back then, Moscow sent a fleet to Venezuela, including the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great, the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko, and two Tu-160 nuclear-capable strategic bombers. In 2013, the missile cruiser Moskva visited Cuba and Nicaragua.

Following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia’s Latin American diplomacy became more assertive. In 2018, high-level visits by Russian leadership were accompanied by the deployment of another two Tu-160 bombers, sparking severe discussions about a base access agreement at the La Orchila base in Venezuela. Additionally, the guided missile frigate Admiral Gorshkov visited the Caribbean in 2019. As Moscow became more assertive in the post-Soviet space, its foothold in the Americas focused increasingly on traditional anti-U.S. allies, namely Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

Hence, the current deployment and global context differ significantly from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. However, although the Kremlin has not yet crossed any of Washington’s red lines in the Caribbean, Moscow is again showcasing its naval projection capabilities overseas. This includes deploying advanced missile technology, such as the 3M22 Zircon hypersonic cruise missile on the Admiral Gorshkov frigate and the well-known Kalibr and Oniks cruise missiles. These missiles, which have been systematically used in Syria and Ukraine, are also equipped on the Kazan, a Yasen-class nuclear-powered submarine.

Containing Rivalry and Reciprocity in the Americas

Beyond the current U.S.-Russia military tensions in Eastern Europe, the Russian naval deployment in the Caribbean signals Moscow’s disapproval of NATO’s military buildup in Ukraine and the expansion of the Atlantic alliance. It also demonstrates Russia’s capacity and willingness to create disruptions in a region traditionally viewed by the Kremlin as the geographic area within Washington’s sphere of influence. This move signifies Moscow’s strategic intent to project power and challenge U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere, thus challenging Washington’s grand strategy of strategic denial in the region.

Besides U.S. strategic interests in Latin America and the Caribbean, the local perspective should be considered. From a historical angle, Latin America has been a zone of peace, relatively isolated from the intense great power competition seen in other parts of the world that has made the region less geopolitically relevant. Additionally, there has not been a state-to-state challenge to U.S. hegemony except for the projection of the Soviet Union in the Cold War through Cuba and Nicaragua and the indirect support for revolutionary movements through its ideological partners.

Despite the increasing affinity between Russia and its traditional allies in the region—Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—the current situation is, at least for now, less dramatic since these countries have shown limited eagerness to engage in great power politics with either Russia or China, at least in more sensitive military matters such as agreement on access to or construction of foreign military bases, authorization for the deployment of strategic weaponry, and hosting foreign military personnel.

Nonetheless, there is a display of “gray military cooperation” in which these countries have increasingly engaged with Moscow on sensitive topics such as weaponry acquisition, cooperation on counter-narcotics, Russian space infrastructure and naval visits, and mimicking coercive attitudes such as Venezuela’s approach toward Guyana. This gray cooperation can quickly transform the regional geopolitical chessboard into a new scenario of great power competition despite limited Russian overseas projection capabilities.

Another regional concern pertains to the deployment of nuclear assets in the region. While the most recent Russian naval visit to the Caribbean appears not to involve nuclear devices, the presence of a nuclear-powered submarine of an extra-regional power, along with a vessel carrying hypersonic cruise missiles for the first time in the Americas, raises concerns about potential strategic instability.

Back in 1967, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, Latin America and the Caribbean established a nuclear weapon–free zone with the signing of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (known as the Treaty of Tlatelolco), underscoring the importance of regional and global strategic stability. The treaty prohibits regional parties from testing, using, manufacturing, or acquiring nuclear weapons, as well as deploying any weapons from non-regional states. Another concern is hypersonic missile technology, which was previously focused on China’s space facilities in the Southern Cone. The deployment of Russian weaponry poses an additional challenge for both Washington and regional countries seeking to mitigate risks.

Russia’s actions indicate a readiness to escalate tensions by showcasing its military capabilities near U.S. territory, so it requires a careful but firm diplomatic response from regional actors. They will need to limit future disruptive military activities while aiming to uphold long-term strategic stability in the region. Hence, regional players must also contend with the symbolic message behind Russia’s actions.

By showing a military presence in the Caribbean, Moscow is not only responding to NATO’s activities in Ukraine but also asserting its influence in the United States’ “near abroad.” This strategic maneuver requires Latin American nations to balance their diplomatic and security policies wisely beyond active nonalignment due to the stakes of the game. Regional cooperation and dialogue will be crucial in addressing the challenges posed by extra-hemispheric powers and ensuring that Latin America and the Caribbean are prepared to protect their interests in the context of the rapidly changing international security environment.

Ariel González Levaggi is a non-resident affiliate with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is also the director of the Center for International Studies, Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina (UCA). Vladimir Rouvinski teaches at Icesi University in Colombia and is the director of the Politics and International Relations Lab (PoInt).

Vladimir Rouvinski

Director, Politics and International Relations Lab (PoInt)