In a move that has already raised hackles in Washington, Nicaragua’s government has renewed a decade-long military partnership with Russia.
From July 1, forces belonging to Russia as well as seven Latin American countries, including Venezuela, Bolivia, Mexico and Cuba, will be able to participate in what Nicaragua’s Sardinista government describes as “joint training exercises” and “military operations.” The main objectives of these exercises, according to Managua, is to provide humanitarian aid or combat terrorist groups and organized crime outfits.
The measure allows for the presence of up to 230 Russian soldiers in the country from July 1 to December 31, empowering them to patrol Nicaragua’s Pacific and Caribbean coasts alongside the Nicaraguan military. At the same time, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has authorized the departure to Russia of 50 Nicaraguan soldiers to participate in joint instruction and training exercises.
According to a number of Western media outlets, including Spain’s El País and The National Interest, a Washington-based bimonthly international relations magazine, it is unclear how Nicaragua stands to benefit from renewing its military partnership with Russia at such a contentious time. Despite Washington’s escalating sanctions against Nicaragua, the US is still its biggest trading partner, providing 22% of Nicaragua’s imports and buying just under 50% of its exports in 2020. By contrast, China accounted for just 9% of all imports and 3% of exports, while Russia doesn’t even feature among Nicaragua’s top ten trading partners.
One thing that is clear is that the move will piss off Washington no end. The Biden Administration has already warned Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega not to cooperate with Russia since its recent invasion of Ukraine.
Per The National Interest:
Brian Nichols, an official at the U.S. Department of State, described Ortega’s move as a “provocation” during the Summit of the Americas.
The United States’ relationship with Ortega has long been antagonistic. The Nicaraguan leader initially ascended to power in 1979 following the successful overthrow of longtime dictator Anastasio Somoza by the Soviet-aligned Sandinista National Liberation Front, ruling the country for much of the next decade. During that time, the United States supported right-wing rebel groups opposed to Ortega’s leadership, many of which were later tied to extensive drug smuggling and war crimes.
While US power over Latin America may have diminished over the last couple of decades, Washington has not fully abandoned the Monroe Doctrine, a foreign policy position formulated in 1823 by President James Monroe that essentially holds that any intervention in the political affairs of the Americas by foreign powers is a potentially hostile act against the US. As Noam Chomsky argues, the Monroe Doctrine has been deployed by Washington as a declaration of hegemony and a right of unilateral intervention over the Americas.
For Russia the military cooperation agreement with Nicaragua has already served as a propaganda coup. Russian state television presenter Olga Skabeeva gave extensive coverage to Ortega’s order a couple of weeks ago, stating at one point (presumably in a purely personal capacity): “If US missile systems can almost reach Moscow, it is high time that Russia deployed something powerful closer to American cities.”
The Moscow-funded Sputnik news site published a report titled: “Nicaragua: Military Cooperation with Russia Responds to National Security Principles.” The Kremlin later tried to tone down its own messaging. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described sending the military to the tropics of Central America as merely a “routine procedure.”
Roberto Cajina, a Nicaraguan security and defense analyst, told El País that it is quite normal for foreign military personnel to enter Nicaragua to take part in training and support exercises with the Nicaraguan army. The Ortega government has at times even extended an invitation to the US to participate. But what Cajina says is striking about Managua’s latest invitation to Russian forces is that it takes place at a time when Russia has lost “international support” over its invasion of Ukraine — meaning it has lost the support of NATO members and other US-aligned countries.
Latin America, as a whole, has struck a neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Only four out of 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries — Cuba, El Salvador, Bolivia and Nicaragua — abstained in the vote to condemn Russia’s invasion during the emergency meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. A similarly small number of governments have publicly endorsed the West’s economic sanctions against Russia, including Ecuador, Chile and Guatemala.
Most governments in Latin America have stayed firmly on the fence over the issue of imposing sanctions against Russia, including the region’s two heavyweight economies, Brazil and Mexico. But two key dignitaries from the region, Brazil’s former, and quite possibly future, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Pope Francis, have both heavily criticized NATO’s role in stoking the conflict in Ukraine.
The renewal of Russia’s military partnership with Nicaragua comes just weeks after Washington’s announcement, at the end of May, that it would send long-range missiles to Kiev. That act of escalation prompted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to accuse the US of “intentionally adding fuel to the fire” in Ukraine. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the move risked dragging a “third party” into the conflict.
It also comes as relations between Washington and Managua have soured to the point of curdling. As readers may recall, Nicaragua was, together with Venezuela and Cuba, one of three American countries that Washington refused to invite to the recent Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. It was a decision that ended up backfiring, as a number of other heads of state, including Mexico’s Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, decided to skip the event in protest at Washington’s cack-handed diplomacy.
The US has also imposed a fresh round of sanctions against Nicaragua in the past month, including visa restrictions on almost 100 government officials whom Washington has accused of “undermining democracy” by facilitating Ortega’s “illegitimate” reelection in November.
“We remain committed to applying a range of diplomatic and economic tools to support the restoration of democracy and respect for human rights in Nicaragua,” said US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on June 13. “To that end, the Department of State is taking further steps to impose visa restrictions on an additional 93 individuals believed to have undermined democracy following Daniel Ortega’s illegitimate November 2021 reelection, including judges, prosecutors, National Assembly Members, and Interior Ministry officials.”
Four days later, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Nicaragua’s state-owned mining company Eniminas, with two ostensible ends: first, to reduce the income the Daniel Ortega government derives from gold exports; and second, in retaliation for the close ties it has forged with Russia since the outbreak of war in Ukraine.
“As the Ortega-Murillo regime increasingly engages Russia and continues lining its coffers with significant revenue exploited from the Nicaraguan gold sector, the regime has turned its back on the Nicaraguan people, neglecting their livelihoods for regime gains,” said US Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson. “The United States continues to stand with the Nicaraguan people against the unjust imprisonment of political opponents and the sustained assault on Nicaragua’s democracy by the Ortega-Murillo regime.”
Nicaragua’s close ties with Russia date back decades. When the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) came to power after finally toppling the Somoza dictatorship in the late seventies, it aligned itself with the Soviet Union, which in return provided military aid. Since his return to power in 2007, Ortega has gradually strengthened Nicaragua’s relations with Putin. In 2008, he supported Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, in response to Georgia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2014, he supported Crimea’s referendum vote to join the Russian Federation.
In response Moscow has financed a military training center to help Nicaragua fight against drug trafficking. It has also provided $26 million dollars to help the country deal with natural disasters. In 2016, Russia officially announced it was sending Nicaragua 20 T-72B tanks, worth $80 million dollars. The Kremlin has also supplied the Central American country with 12 ZU-23-2 air defense systems, two Mi-17V-5 helicopters, as well as “a batch” of armored vehicles. Moscow has also offered support with wheat and buses to improve urban transport in the capital.
Much Ado About Not Much At All?
Nicaragua’s renewal of its military partnership with Russia may have heightened tensions with Washington. However, the actual content of the agreement signed with the Kremlin is fairly nondescript, though as Cajina says, there is very little transparency regarding the actual results of Nicaragua’s joint military exercises. Nicaragua’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Denis Moncada has tried to dampen concerns that Russia might begin build military bases in Nicaragua by pointing out that the country’s constitution effectively bans foreign militaries from building bases in Nicaragua.
But Russia has already installed a terrestrial satellite station known as Glonass (the Russian equivalent to the Global Positioning System (GPS)) on the banks of Nejapa Lagoon, in Managua. The location is certainly advantageous: on the opposite side of the lagoon is the US Embassy’s premises in Nicaragua.
At its inauguration in 2017, Nicaragua’s Vice President (and wife of Daniel Ortega) Rosario Murillo said the satellite system would help to “strengthen disaster management and prevention work, obtain more accurate weather information, support forecasting of crop cycles and support the entire agricultural sector of Nicaragua.” It is also meant to help combat drug trafficking. But some are convinced its real role is to spy on the US.
Now, the prospect of Russian soldiers, sailors and pilots returning to Nicaragua, albeit in small numbers, has set off alarm bells in certain corners of Central America. The new President of Costa Rica (and former World Bank economist) Rodrigo Chaves, who has already had to contend with a nationwide cyber attack in his first two months in office, said in a recent interview with Voice of America:
“Right now, we have serious concerns about Nicaragua. There is news that President Daniel Ortega has invited the Russian army to send troops and equipment to Nicaragua. We have not had a standing army since 1949. Imagine how we feel: worried, with good reason.”*
The move has also put the US on alert in its own direct neighborhood. For the past four months Washington has been able to watch the conflict in Ukraine gradually unfold from a relatively safe distance (nukes excepted) of around 5,000 miles. The costs of war have largely been borne by Ukraine and the US’ European “allies”, whose ratcheting sanctions against Russia have done little but harm their own economic interests, while US energy companies have benefited quite handsomely from Europe’s pivot to US natural gas supplies.
Now, the US must keep a closer eye on its own “backyard,” especially given the possibility that Nicaragua may not be the only Latin America country interested in forging closer military ties with Russia. Any complaints Washington makes about Russian encroachments into its direct neighborhood will merely serve to underscore its own flagrant hypocrisy: If Russia has no grounds to criticise or oppose Ukraine joining NATO, how can the US possibly complain about Nicaragua’s limited military cooperation with Russia?
Next Up: Venezuela?
In the days leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Caracas, Moscow’s closest strategic ally in Latin America, announced plans to strengthen its military cooperation with Russian forces. On February 17, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro unveiled plans to forge “a powerful military cooperation” between Russia and Venezuela, saying: “We are going to increase all preparation, training and cooperation plans with a world military power such as Russia. Our ties are deep and historical.”
In the past week, Maduro has signed a 20-year cooperation agreement with Iran. He is also in the process of deepening Venezuela’s cooperation with Russia in the administration of ports and the fight against drug trafficking and drug smuggling.
At the same time, Venezuela finds itself in the rather surreal position of being courted by the US. After all, Maduro is still a wanted man in Washington, with a $15 million price on his head. Nonetheless, a US delegation quietly visited Caracas on Monday (July 27) to discuss a “bilateral agenda,” which may well include the lifting of sanctions on Venezuelan oil. As AP reports, the US is keen to rebuild relations with the South American oil giant as both the US and its European allies struggle to find alternative energy supplies after embargoing Russian oil.
* As NC reader Jacob Hatch pointed out in a previous article, Costa Rica may not have a disciplined standing army but it does pre-stage equipment for US Southern Command, it’s real army. Also, almost 2,600 Costa Rican police officers were trained at the notorious School of the Americas between 1946 and 2007.