It has only recently become clear to analysts in the United States that Russia is playing a big role in Latin America to destabilize Washington’s alliance system and threaten US interests. Despite the costs involved in sustaining Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, Russia’s three main “proxies” in Latin America, President Vladimir Putin—like his Soviet predecessors—seems willing to bear those expenditures.
The benefits to Moscow come in other forms. For instance, while Moscow has stepped away from pressing Caracas to pay its debts, Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft has been granted ever greater access to Venezuela’s oil and natural gas sector. In exchange for a debt write-off Venezuelan state-run oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) reportedly could be handed over entirely to Rosneft. In addition, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has characterized Venezuela—as well as Cuba and Latin America more generally—as poster children of sorts for his regular fulminations against Washington’s supposed efforts to destabilize the global order. Moreover, there is ample evidence of Moscow at least exploring the idea, if not yet openly intending, to establish a naval and/or airbase in Venezuela, on the island of La Orchila. In late 2018, Venezuela announced that Russia is obtaining a long-term base on the island of La Orchila that had been offered to Moscow a decade earlier by Hugo Chavez. The island is some 160 miles from Caracas and is home to a Venezuelan airfield and navy base.
In this context, statements last March by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that the Russian Armed Forces are now capable of remote combat missions around the world take on a more sinister potential. And subsequent developments only underscore this point.
Specifically, on August 15, the Russian and Venezuelan defense ministers signed an agreement allowing for mutual warship visits. Days later, military expert Vladimir Bogatyrev told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Russian frigates and submarines had all fired Kalibr cruise missiles at “terrorists” in Syria from a distance of over 200 kilometers and pointedly indicated that these ships could perform such missions not only in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans but also in the Caribbean Sea. Moreover, Bogatyrev reiterated what has become a standard argument of the Russian government since the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) arms control regime collapsed due to Moscow’s violations of this 1987 treaty. Namely, according to Bogatryev, “Russia has legal grounds, in response to the emergence of new weapons from the US after leaving the INF Treaty, to deploy its submarines and ships with medium- and shorter-range missiles in relative proximity to US borders.” He also extolled Venezuela’s seaports, where Russian ships and submarines can “regularly enter, replenish supplies, and then perform combat missions off the coast of North America”.
Furthermore, in July, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro that the Russian troops who were previously sent to Venezuela had fulfilled their mission and that Moscow was, therefore, ready to send more troops on new missions. Meanwhile, it also appears that Rosneft has brought Russian paramilitary forces to Venezuela to protect its offices, personnel and installations. Apparently, they may also be there to protect the Maduro government against popular unrest.
Moscow’s military ambitions in Latin America do not end there: Maduro, as many Western analysts and Latin American governments, recognize, has been stirring up trouble with the governments of Ecuador and Colombia, just as his predecessor Hugo Chavez did with Moscow’s assistance a decade ago. Russia has also established a meaningful military presence in Nicaragua, which has notably signed a naval agreement with Russia to provide port access and permission to operate part of Russia’s global satellite system from its territory. Taken together, these steps appear to form at least the rudiments of a network to monitor all US naval operations in the Caribbean and South Atlantic, which would then be under threat from military bases in Venezuela and potentially Nicaragua.
Russia is now intensifying its investments in Cuba and Venezuela, as illustrated by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s recent tour of these two Latin American countries. Medvedev denounced in typical fashion, as did Lavrov in his simultaneous speech, US “meddling” in Latin America. At the same time, Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov was meeting with Maduro in Venezuela. For his part, the embattled Venezuelan leader had just returned from Moscow, where he sought more economic relief. Cuba, too, will receive Russian assistance to “kick-start” its oil and gas development and to build nuclear power plants.
Thus, it is clear that Russia is in Latin America to stay and is expanding its portfolio of instruments of power—not least trying to secure the ability to threaten the US from inside the Western Hemisphere. The disarray in US foreign policy—which includes Latin America—has clearly facilitated these developments. Given the present chaos in Washington, it will probably be a long time before the US can launch a coordinated strategy to mitigate if not overturn those threats. When John Kerry, as Secretary of State, said that the Monroe Doctrine was dead, it is not likely that he envisaged this outcome. But Latin America is now becoming a real, rather than notional, theater of potential military operations for Russia thanks to US neglect and misconceived policies.