Russian roar over Ukraine rings hollow for Latin American allies

MIAMI — It was a classic Russian power play with echoes of the Cold War spirit of play.

Shortly after commissioning in 2019, Russia’s most advanced warship made a goodwill tour of the Caribbean, armed with cruise missiles, air defense systems and other weapons.

But when Admiral Gorshkov sailed into the port of Havana, he was closely followed by a Russian salvage tug – a sign for many that Moscow doubted the reliability of the ship and that the visit was nothing more little effort to project power.

Russia is once again waving its saber amid growing tensions over Ukraine, hinting that a US refusal to heed its demands could spur closer military cooperation with allies in Latin America. In recent days, several senior Russian officials have warned that Moscow may deploy troops or military assets to Cuba and Venezuela if the United States and NATO insist on interfering on Russia’s doorstep.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was quick to dismiss Russia’s tit-for-tat threats. In the wake of its massive troop buildup on its border with Ukraine, Russia’s ability to mobilize troops in the Western Hemisphere, thousands of miles away, is limited at best, experts say.

“It’s a pure mistake and it doesn’t fool anyone,” said Kevin Whitaker, former US ambassador to Colombia, who has also served as a diplomat in Venezuela, Nicaragua and head of the Office of Cuban Affairs in Washington. “It’s not a real power projection. It is a centerpiece and nothing more.

But even if talk of troop deployments is mostly bluster, Russia’s strategic buildup in Latin America is real, posing national security threats in what generations of American policymakers have called “the rear.” Washington court.

Over the past decade, as American influence in the region has waned, Moscow – and to a lesser extent other distant adversaries like China and Iran – have quietly cemented their ties with the authoritarian governments of Nicaragua, of Cuba and Venezuela with a mixture of weapons. sales, financing agreements and intense diplomatic engagement.

Moscow has helped Venezuela design a cryptocurrency, canceled $35 billion in Cuban debt, and runs a high-tech anti-narcotics complex in Nicaragua, which many see as a secret beachhead for espionage in the region.

Time and again, Russia has shown its willingness to take advantage of its large military whenever it feels threatened by the United States.

In 2008, Moscow sent a pair of nuclear-capable Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela amid tensions with the United States over Russia’s brief war with Georgia, a deployment followed that year by the arrival of the warship “Peter the Great”.

Russia sent more Tu-160s in 2018 as relations with the West plunged to post-Cold War lows over Ukraine, and the military even hinted it was considering to create an air base on the tiny island of La Orchilla, so small that landing military aircraft there would have been nearly impossible.

Even in countries more friendly to the United States, such as Mexico and Colombia, Russia has been accused of spying or engaging in disinformation campaigns to shape elections. A senior Colombian military official recently traveled to Washington to brief US officials on Russian attempts to penetrate the communications of the country’s military high command, a person close to the visit told The Associated Press, speaking undercover anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

On social media, the Spanish-speaking branch of the Russian state-controlled TV channel RT has more than 18 million followers on Facebook, 10 times more than the Spanish-speaking branch of Voice of America, according to the Alliance. for Securing Democracy, a think tank that tracks the rise of authoritarianism around the world. It also outperforms most other Spanish language media on the platform, although it is still eclipsed by CNN en Espanol.

All of this is a far cry from the height of the Cold War, when Nikita Khrushchev in 1962 briefly planted nuclear missiles in Cuba, the Kremlin maintained a listening post within 100 miles of Florida and the Sandinista government which fought a right supported by the United States. the Wing’s insurgency in Nicaragua was building an air base to accommodate Soviet fighter aircraft.

The Punta Huete airfield in Nicaragua is now semi-derelict and President Vladimir Putin shut down the spy station in Cuba two decades ago. With the collapse of its Communist sponsor in the early 1990s, Cuba sank into a depression marked by widespread famine known as the “Special Period”.

But Russia’s more limited support has bought him friends. Recently, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega appointed a consul to the Crimean peninsula which Russia annexed to Ukraine in 2014. This also allowed Putin to restore some of Russia’s former glory to an area that Washington’s much longer history of interference has long resented it.

As Putin now seeks to push NATO back from what he calls Russia’s ‘near abroad’ in Ukraine, he is likely to take at least a symbolic jab at the United States in his own sphere of influence. , said Evan Ellis, a researcher at the US Army War College. specialist in Russian and Chinese influence in Latin America.

“I’m sure Putin will do something to project toughness on the cheap like he always does,” Ellis said. “But he’s not going to do anything that costs him a lot of money or causes him deeper problems like deploying nuclear bombs. He knows there are limits.”

Russia’s closest ally is Venezuela, which has spent billions over the past two decades of socialist rule building up its air defenses with Russian help – Sukhoi fighter jets and helicopters. attack with sophisticated radars and shoulder-mounted rocket launchers.

Such an arsenal gives Nicolás Maduro the ability to inflict serious damage in the event of a conflict with neighboring Colombia, the United States’ main ally in the region, said General Manuel Cristopher Figuera, who was the chief of the spies of the Venezuelan president until his flight to the United States in 2019 after a failed putsch against his former boss.

“It’s not an ideological relationship. It’s commercial, but it offers Maduro some protection,” said Figuera, who received training in Cuba and Belarus, an ally of Putin.

While the United States and its allies have moved to isolate the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela – what Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, called the “Troika of tyranny,” Putin tried to fill the void.

In recent days, he has spoken with Maduro, Ortega and Cuban Miguel Díaz Canel to explore ways to deepen strategic cooperation. He also sent a plane loaded with medical supplies to Cuba to help it fight the coronavirus pandemic.

But the leaders, while expressing gratitude for Russia’s continued help, have so far remained silent on Ukraine – a sign they may be reluctant to be drawn into another geopolitical tussle. .

“One of the fundamental legacies for Latin America from the Cold War is that they don’t want to be treated like a pawn in someone else’s game,” said Whitaker, the former ambassador to Colombia. . “What Russia is doing shows a huge disrespect for the sovereignty of the governments that are supposedly their allies.”

This is something that even Putin supporters are beginning to recognize.

“Cuba and Venezuela are the countries that are close to us, they are our partners,” said Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council, in an interview with Russian media.

“But we can’t just deploy things there,” added Medvedev, who served as Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012 when Putin had to move on to prime minister due to term limits. “There can be no question of setting up a base there as happened in Soviet times.”

AP writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Andrea Rodriguez in Havana and Frank Bajak in Boston contributed to this report.

Follow Goodman: @APJoshGoodman

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Tagline: This story was first published on January 27, 2022. It was updated on January 29, 2022 to correct the amount of a Cuban debt canceled by Moscow. It’s $35 billion, not $35 million.