Putin’s military moves in Latin America

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said he is seeking to establish a military presence in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. Obama’s weak response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine may act as a stimulus for Putin’s further imperialistic moves.

By Gustavo Coronel | April 2, 2014

Russian spy ship – the Viktor Leonov SS-175 – docked in Havana, Cuba (March 2014)

In September 2003 Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to New York City to inaugurate a LUKOIL gasoline station, one of the first of a chain of over 2,000 stations on the U.S. East Coast. This commercial drive was part of Putin’s campaign for the re-emergence of Russia as a super power. He had become a “national champion” dedicated to restoring Russia’s past grandeur. The first priority had been the European energy sector, where Russia had been able to obtain a dominant position as supplier of natural gas for many of the countries. Putin had started to use this privileged position in a political, carrot and stick, manner, both with clients and with neighboring countries through which Russian gas pipelines ran. In Petrostate: Putin, Power and the New Russia, Marshall I. Goldman said that, thanks to this situation, Russia attained a position “that exceeded the military power and influence it had in the Cold War.”

A similar strategy based on energy resources was not possible into the U.S., a country that did not depend on Russian natural gas or presented a vulnerable flank in this sector. In the U.S., Russian penetration has been modest and slow, certainly subordinate to the influence exerted by U.S. companies in the Russian economy.

Putin also found it difficult ground for his expansionism in Latin America, where a Russian strategy of economic penetration had been largely pre-empted by the determined and aggressive presence of China. Since the early years of this century, China had established a progressively strong presence in Latin America, in particular in the ALBA countries, the members of an ideologically friendly, mostly political alliance made up of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia and some smaller Caribbean states. Ecuador, for example, has received almost $8 billion in loans from China for hydroelectric projects. Venezuela has obtained close to $40 billion in loans. Nicaragua has been entertaining the construction of a new canal with the help of Chinese capital, while Bolivia has received significant financing for petroleum and mining projects, from Beijing.

As a relative late comer to Latin America in this century, Russia has been limited to natural gas ventures in Argentina and some, slow to develop, heavy petroleum projects in Venezuela. In the best of cases, these projects are long in maturing.

Putin was eager to obtain quick results. But how to go about it? In this respect, journalist Andres Oppenheimer wrote in the Fresno Bee on March 25 that “When Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said three weeks ago that Moscow [was] seeking to establish a military presence in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, many of us dismissed it as a private comment by a top official who may have had one vodka too many. But after last week’s Russian annexation of Crimea, with growing speculation that we are returning to the days of the Cold War, and with press reports of the surprise arrival of a Russian spy ship — the Viktor Leonov SS-175 — in Havana, it may be time to take a second look at Shoigu’s remarks”.

In parallel, Russian RIA Novosti news agency has reported that Russia was “planning to expand its permanent military presence outside its borders by placing military bases in a number of foreign countries,” including Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, all three countries are members of ALBA. Candidly, the report adds that this move would be in line with Russia’s new strategy to “expand its global influence”.

What China is doing in Latin America through a long range commercial and cultural strategy Russia seems to be trying to accomplish with an emphasis on strategic military positioning. General James Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee  on March 13 saying, “They’re working the scenes where we can’t work. And they’re doing a pretty good job.” He added, “It has been over three decades since we last saw this type of high-profile Russian military presence.”

Recent Russian moves in Latin America can be explained in several ways:

A response to U.S. encroachment in their own neighborhood

Oppenheimer reports that, in addition to the Russian intelligence ship that was seen at the Port of Havana, on February 27, at least four other Russian Navy ships visited Venezuela last August. He explains these moves as retaliation from Russia. According to Carl Meacham from the Center of Strategic and International Studies, “The Russians feel that the United States is encroaching on their sphere of influence, so their reciprocal response is to become involved in the U.S. sphere of influence.”

Establishing a military presence in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba in order to increase arms sales to these countries

Russia has been very successful at selling weapons to the ALBA countries. About $14 billion in weapons have been sold to these countries in the last 10-12 years. It would seem obvious that they desire to expand the size of this market

An automatic filling of the void generated by the U.S. military withdrawal from the region

The Pentagon indicates it has been forced to cut back on its engagement with military and government officials in Latin America due to budget restrictions. General James Kelly told Congress that the U.S. military had to cancel more than 200 effective engagement activities and multilateral exercises in Latin America last year. In a recent article, Ilan Berman, head of the American Foreign Policy Council says, “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.”

Perhaps all of these reasons simply provide the justification for what is, in essence, Putin’s grand strategy to give Russia, once again, super power status. If this is so, then Obama’s weak response to Russia’s takeover of Crimea might act as stimulus for Putin’s further imperialistic moves. Retired Admiral James A. Lyon wrote in the Washington Times, “Mr. Obama’s weakness will only embolden our enemies. China, Iran, North Korea and Cuba as well as our allies throughout the world, are all carefully analyzing our response to this clear military challenge by Russia. Mr. Putin has spent $750 billion to modernize both its conventional and strategic nuclear forces, but his military has severe problems. It is a declining military force.”

The situation will merit careful monitoring during coming months.

Gustavo Coronel, who served on the board of directors of Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA), has had a long and distinguished career in the international petroleum industry, including in the USA, Europe, Venezuela and Indonesia. He is an author, public policy expert and contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.