As American and European officials work together to impose more strict sanctions on Russia following Sunday’s referendum in Crimea, Moscow expanded its domestic rhetoric into the Western Hemisphere. On February 26, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia would seek military bases in foreign nations, including Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. If successful, this would lead to Russia’s second foreign base after the one in Tartus, Syria, whose uncertainty remains given the outgoing civil war.
Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are not the friendliest nations towards the United States. In fact, these are the leading governments against Washington. The strained relations with these three nations give Russia a chance of obtaining military bases in the Latin America, a step that would certainly be met with vigilance from the United States.
Russia’s presence in the Western Hemisphere is not new – its first arrangement goes back to 1962, when the then Soviet Union installed nuclear warheads in Cuba. Although these missiles would later been withdrawn, the USSR (and later Russia) maintained the Lourdes SIGINT intelligence station until its closure in 2002. In 2008, Russian ships held naval exercises with Venezuelan vessels in the Caribbean Sea, and later that year two Tupolev Tu-160 intercontinental bombers (NATO reporting name “blackjack”) landed in the South American country. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua stated that while Venezuela will ensure its military facilities can accommodate the Russians, it cannot allow foreign military bases as it is prohibited by the Constitution. In November of last year, Russian troops visited Nicaragua for a six-month training program despite the fact that the establishment of foreign military bases in the country is unconstitutional. This is all without counting Russia’s sale of military equipment to the region, which according to Russian media, became the largest arms supplier last year.
These gestures, as well as the nations named, suggest that Russia’s announcement is sincere. Having Russian ships in Latin America would provide Moscow with a global military reach not seen since the Soviet Union, and given President Vladimir Putin’s regret of the collapse of the USSR, it would seem as if a new Cold War is at hand.
However, nothing is further from the truth. While the idea seems original, this is not the first time Russia has announced plans of gaining access to Latin American bases. Furthermore, this is more likely to be a show of muscle by Putin for domestic purposes – to show his supporters inside Russia that Moscow will stand against American hegemony and intrusion of its sphere of influence.
In fact, Russian actions in Venezuela came just a few months after Moscow’s conflict with Georgia. The conflict, which saw Georgian and Russian forces fight for five days during the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, invoked strong reactions by the United States and the European Union. Similarly, given Washington’s and Brussels’ stance on Ukraine, the announcement of military bases in Latin America is another reaction by Moscow against the Western power’s position on Ukraine.
Thus, while some would call on the government to take proper steps to ensure Russian troops are not in the Western Hemisphere, the United States can be sure that this is merely Putin’s rhetoric for domestic consumption and that it is unlikely to materialize. Instead, the United States should focus its efforts in ensuring that Russian troops withdraw from Crimea and that Russia does not invade Eastern Ukraine.