A new agreement between Russia and Nicaragua to provide Russian troops for and in Nicaragua represents what Thomas Jefferson called a “fire bell in the night.” But while he was referring to the struggle over slavery, this agreement marks the first step in a series of converging and unprecedented threats to Latin American and U.S. security.
The parties’ joint announcement of this accord, timed to coincide with the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, signifies a joint attempt to counter and disrupt that summit, whose aim was to strengthen democratic regimes throughout the Americas. Nicaragua, run by a deeply dictatorial regime, was excluded from this summit, and undoubtedly it and Russia sought to strike back.
But the importance of this agreement goes much further. It marks the first significant appearance of Russian forces in Central America, an appearance that promises to be important because it has the potential to serve as the basis for a more enduring Russian military presence in Nicaragua and beyond.
The agreement calls for the dispatch of Russian forces to Nicaragua for training, law enforcement and emergency response to humanitarian disasters. Russia will send forces semi-annually to Nicaragua to develop cooperation in these areas, including organized crime and drug trafficking.
Nicaragua will also allow naval and air vessels from Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, El Salvador and the United States to visit its ports. This last point is noteworthy. It is unlikely that Washington will avail itself of this invitation, but Cuba and Venezuela, if not the others, probably will — marking the first potential step towards a regular military association among Moscow’s clients and friends there.
Based on Russia’s regular practice, we could also see a subsequent agreement to host Russian ships on an ongoing basis, a practice that has already led to the Russian acquisition of naval bases in Syria and Sudan. Myanmar is another example of this process by which an agreement to host vessels, as Nicaragua has already done, turns into an agreement for a base. Venezuela has already offered Moscow an air base for its bombers on the island of La Orchila.
Beyond the danger of Russian bases and forces in Latin America, the supplying of more Russian forces and trainers to local despots intensifies the authoritarian axis’s campaign against democracy in Latin America. For example, Colombia’s minister of defense recently accused Russia and Iran of providing Venezuela with military assistance that is being used to support FARC guerillas in Colombia. At the same time, Russian military penetration allows Moscow to convert Nicaragua or other similarly targeted states into intelligence-gathering centers.
We should also be skeptical that Russia is actively helping Nicaragua pursue counter-drug activities. Both Presidents Trump and now Biden have officially proclaimed Nicaragua to be a major drug producing or drug transit state. So, we should not be surprised that Russian forces and officials may be involved in the drug business. In 2020 Russian diplomats and officers in Argentina were caught using official planes to smuggle drugs from there to Russia, apparently for the use of members of the Duma and Russia’s Federation Council.
Finally, as suggested above, the pattern of Russia gaining leverage and influence with developing world governments, whether they be in Asia, Africa or Latin America, appears to be remarkably similar and replicable.
Using energy deals, support for embattled authoritarian dictators, providing information warfare and electoral services, arms sales and trainers, not to mention private global mercenary companies like the Wagner Group, Moscow has established a strategic and multi-domain concept for power projection abroad. Biden’s Indo-Pacific framework reflects new attitudes on free trade The nature of trade has changed — US trade policy must change too
Russia has been able to forge this strategy despite its economic constraints because we have not paid sufficient attention to developments in these countries. The difficulties encountered by the Biden administration in mounting a successful Summit of the Americas, juxtaposed to the Russo-Nicaraguan deal, underscore why that deal should be a fire bell in the night.
And the sound of that fire bell should concentrate our attention on rethinking our policies in these increasingly important and contested areas of the great power struggle.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is a former professor of Russian national security studies and national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.