Is Russia moving in on Latin America?

With global attention focused on Russian moves in the Crimean peninsula—and, at this moment, just across the eastern Ukrainian border—it may seem difficult, at times, to set these developments in the broader context. But it is critical to understand these moves for what they are: the latest in a series of guided plays that span Russia’s relationship with Iran, Syria, and the provision of safe haven to former National Security Administration (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden.

And the latest of these moves may be playing out right here in the Western Hemisphere. Even as Russia continues pursuits in its own immediate vicinity—all while mocking U.S. attempts to check Russian expansionism, the former Cold War behemoth is simultaneously testing the proverbial waters on the other side of the globe, revisiting an old neighborhood: Latin America.

Though Russia has not been entirely absent from the region in recent years, recent statements from the Russian Defense Ministry bring that involvement to a new level. Late last month, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Russian plans to build military bases in Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela, marking Russia’s most forward endeavors in the region since the end of the Cold War.

These may well be little more simply symbolic and temporary retaliations in response to U.S. involvement in Ukraine and the recently levied sanctions against high-ranking Russian officials—or they could prove to be real power moves in the direction of a larger global strategic shift. But either way, it is imperative to recognize the context in which this all will play out—particularly the nature of Russian-Latin American relations since the end of the Cold War—so that we might better understand the potential implications for U.S. interests in the region.

Q1: What have Russian-Latin American relations been like since the end of the Cold War?

During the Cold War, much of the Soviet Union’s relations with its counterparts in Latin America was, unsurprisingly, driven principally by ideological parity. And through its involvement in conflicts in Central America and its momentous financial and military involvement in Cuba during that period, the Soviet Union’s activities in the Western Hemisphere were significant, to say the least.

But when the Cold War came to a close, much of Russia’s influence in the region—and the lion’s share of its military endeavors and investment—ended in kind, with the exception of a surveillance base in Cuba that remained operational until 2002.

The past decade has seen a new and revived tenor to Russian involvement in Latin America, focusing primarily on establishing its place in the region through general commercial trade but particularly the weapons trade —though progress on these fronts was sluggish at best, and only decelerated in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis.

By and large, the Russian government’s closest “new friendship” in Latin America has been with Venezuela—particularly under the late president Hugo Chavez. That relationship, dominated by arms sales and military contracts, has largely defined Russia’s presence and influence in the region over the past decade.

Q2: What is Russia’s role in Latin America today?

In recent years, the vast majority of Russian efforts in the region have focused on nurturing the country’s close ideological and economic ties to Venezuela, with a strong focus on arms contracts.

And it seems that the Russian attention afforded to Venezuela may have been the first step in a larger effort to expand Russia’s role in the region.

Last year, Russia and Brazil finalized a five-year deal originally signed in 2008, netting the South American giant 12 military-grade helicopters worth about US$150 million. And just six months ago, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu returned to Brazil in hopes of arranging another deal, promoting the US$1 billion sale of missile systems that could considerably improve Brazil’s defensive capabilities.

As part of that same October trip, Shoigu also visited Peru, promoting yet another deal that aimed to establish a Russia-Peru military contract for armored personnel carriers and tanks, to the tune of about US$700 million.

Even these contracts, however, pale in comparison to the recent plans announced last month. According to Shoigu’s statements, Russia is working out agreements to establish actual Russian military bases in at least three countries—the most ambitious engagement in the region in the past 25 years. These deals have yet to be finalized.

Q3: How might we interpret Russia’s apparently renewed interest in the region?

Despite its relatively low profile since the end of the Cold War, Russia has certainly garnered much of the world’s attention in the past several months—first in Syria, and now in Ukraine. And with Russian troops effectively annexing the Crimean peninsula and making their presence deeply felt throughout Eastern Europe, it is important that we ask if the country’s renewed interest in Latin America might be a cause for real concern.

And, at this moment, it may be too early to make that call. The deals remain unfinalized, with Defense Minister Shoigu’s statements still the only definitive information on the issue. And Shoigu’s explanation for the move is based on Russia’s need for refueling locations in the Western Hemisphere—a right that the United States, given its numerous installments near Russia, would be hard-pressed to challenge.

There is, in addition, the real possibility that the announcement amounts to little more than political bluster—another symbolic move aimed to ward off further U.S. intervention in what Russia perceives to be its own sphere of influence. But the rapid deterioration of the situation in the Ukraine makes the potential of a legitimate threat impossible to rule out entirely.

Conclusion: There’s no doubt that what we are witnessing right now could be the beginning of another conflict between the United States and Russia, as the former hegemon works to once more establish itself as a viable world power.

As Russia grasps for influence, it is taking advantage of the perception that the United States is steadily losing the kind of sway it once enjoyed in Latin America. And as the Obama administration has had to slash budgets and de-prioritize Latin America in its own foreign policy agenda, it is, perhaps, no great surprise that much of the region is steadily more skeptical of looking north for guidance and leadership.

Shoigu’s announcements are certainly making waves—and rightly so. As Russia-U.S. tensions develop, they are bound to “bump-heads.”  And though refueling bases could prove entirely nonthreatening, there is little the U.S. government can do in the way of crafting a direct response to Shoigu’s announcement of intent, shy of keeping a watchful eye over the plans as they develop—particularly given the reshuffling they could generate in our own neighborhood.

So, then, perhaps it’s high time to develop closer ties with key neighbors in Latin America?

Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ian Kowalski, intern scholar, and Jillian Rafferty, program coordinator, both with the CSIS Americas Program, provided research assistance.

Critical Questions
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Carl Meacham