One year after the annexation of Crimea, Russia is looking ever more like an expansionist state. Aside from its maneuvers to control Central and Eastern Europe, Russia has started to expand its influence in countries that have traditionally belonged to the United States’ sphere of influence, and thus has managed to gain footing in the United States’ “backyard” via Nicaragua. Russia’s move to set up military bases and satellites in Nicaragua as well as arming the Central American country’s military with fighter jets currently represents the first active Russian presence in the Americas since Russia’s failed 13 day standoff with the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. To this day Russia has negotiated new arms sales and security cooperation agreements including joint police and military drills with Nicaragua.
Earlier this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visited Nicaragua to further discuss the prospects for bilateral cooperation where the topics discussed included Russia’s assistance to Nicaragua’s military, specifically the acquisition of Russian fighting jets, and the setup of a Russian military base and satellites in the country. This visit was one of many by high-ranking Russian officials including President Vladimir Putin, who in his visit to the country on July 2014 proposed the establishment of a Russian naval base in Nicaraguan territory, and hailed Nicaragua as a “very important ally for Russia in Latin America.”
The acquisition of Russian offensive weapons, supposedly a squadron of MIG-29 fighter jets, has the ability to shift the power dynamics in Central America. This fear lead Costa Rican officials to seek a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, to voice their concerns that the Nicaraguan armament might lead to an arms race in the region. The national Assembly Deputy of Nicaragua Jacinto Suárez, defended the possible acquisition of the fighter planes by stating that “everyone has the right to defend their national sovereignty. Why should anyone feel threatened by this?” However, in the case of military confrontation having Nicaragua as part of Russia’s sphere of influence will allow Russia to counterattack any potential threat from the west more effectively, due to the striking capabilities, the proximity allows. In other words, Nicaragua has presented Russia with the chance to strategically place its military bases and offensive capabilities within close proximity to the United States, something Russia has been trying to achieve since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Additionally, on April 24 2015, Daniel Ortega the President of Nicaragua issued an urgent letter to the National Assembly, instructing the immediate approval of Russian GLONASS satellites for ‘supposed’ non-military use but that can also be used as espionage tools against the U.S and Canada. To the dismay of Nicaraguan opposition leaders, who doubt the agreement with Russia will be a peaceful one the 21 Russian satellites were approved two days later on April 28, 2015. In a game of geopolitical strategies, Nicaragua seems to be permanently stuck in the role of the jester; juggling more than it can possibly handle in an effort to please foreign governments.
Despite the efforts of the Nicaraguan government to allow Russian military bases in the country it is important to note that the Nicaragua’s constitution states that no foreign government is allowed to have military bases in Nicaraguan territory, which makes the setting of Russian military naval bases a direct violation of Nicaragua’s sovereignty. However, Russia, no stranger to disregarding the supreme sovereignty, and territorial integrity of other nation-states has met its partner in President Ortega, who is no stranger to sabotaging the constitution to meet his own aims. The setting of Russian military bases and satellites in Nicaragua would provide Russia with possible pull over the United States and Ortega is glad to provide the platform for such taunting.
Given the proposal made this year by the United States to set up battle tanks, troops and heavy weapons in Eastern European countries, concerns have arisen about the possible implications of such a geopolitically charged move and its potential cataclysmic effects. The possibility that Russia might see the prepositioning of such weapons as a first step towards actual conflict were established when the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement stating that the prepositioning of weapons in Eastern Europe might herald the start of a competitive arms buildup. The wildcard in this situation lies in the fact that if such claims were to be true, Russia seems to already have the upper hand with a yearlong negotiation with Nicaragua and incredible leeway to do as they please. Former admiral and NATO commander, James Stavridis, was quoted stating, “I don’t think we are in the Cold War again-yet. I can kind of see it from here.”
The fact that the Nicaraguan government is hostile towards the United States offers a great opportunity for Russia to exercise and solidify its military and political power in the American continent. The appraisal of U.S Secretary of Defense announcement to pre-position American heavy weaponry in Central and Eastern Europe merely represents the United States support for its allies however Russia’s demonstration of support to Nicaragua embody greater strategic benefits for the Kremlin. If the United States’ future armament of Eastern Europe is about demonstrating its commitment to its Baltic allies in case of a Russian attack; then Russia’s satellite and possible naval bases in Nicaragua is about demonstrating that they too subscribe to such a deterrence policy and as such are already establishing their foothold in Nicaragua.
Valeria Gomez Palacios is a native of Nicaragua with a Bachelors degree in Diplomacy and International Relations and Modern Languages from Seton Hall University. Fluent in German, French, Spanish and Italian, Valeria volunteers as an independent translator for various NGOs and has experience serving in nonprofit and governmental organizations including: the United Nations offices in Vienna, the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry and the European Union Delegation to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama where she contributed to the efforts of the E.U to promote rule of law and sustainable development. Her current research interests lie in human rights law, conflict resolution and peace and security.
Cover Image: United Nations Photo under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license