Monday, October 20, 2008
Russia and Friends in Latin America:
By Simon Saradzhyan and Sam
As Russia courts Latin America, some observers say the relationship is more symbolic than hostile and is Moscow's attempt
to warn Washington to proceed cautiously in the Russian backyard.
More than two decades after the Kremlin rolled back its
program to support ideologically friendly regimes worldwide, Russian is again making inroads into what leaders in Washington
thought might be its backwater in the aftermath of the Cold War.
For some Latin American countries, Russia's return to the continent is a welcome development that limits US dominance.
But for others, it bodes ill as they fear deliveries of Russian arms to the region may tilt the military balance, if not lead
to a Cold War on the continent.
"Of course we missed the times when we could always tell the US that we would turn to the Russians if something
didn't work out," one Latin American diplomat told ISN Security Watch in a recent interview. The diplomat - who asked not
to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press on the issue - said Russia's ability to project influence
in the region was a far cry from the Soviet days, but "still it is good to have more serious external players to interact
Russia's chief expert on Latin America and director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Latin America Institute,
Vladimir Davydov, concurred in a recent op/ed published by Russia's Kommersant daily newspaper. "It is evident that our country
has ... strengthened its potential and this factor is becoming all the more important as Latin Americans look to abandon an
orientation towards one player and are interested in alternative partners."
And Russian authorities do not make
any secret of their intention to stage a comeback in Latin America. "We need to reestablish our positions in Cuba and in other
countries," Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in 2001, ordering the closure of Russia's Cuban electronic reconnaissance base,
known as the Lourdes listening post.
Venezuela is clearly Russia's closest ally in the region. Not a year goes by without Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez - who shares Russian leadership's discontent with Washington's unilateralism - visiting Moscow to sign new deals. Last
month saw the Russian leadership warmly welcome Chavez with a promise of US$1 billion in loans to purchase Russian anti-aircraft
missile systems, among other hardware.
According to a statement issued by the Kremlin press service ahead of Chavez's visit, the two countries signed
12 arms deals worth a total of US$4.4 billion in 2005-2007.
Chavez said he would likely spend most of the loan on Tor-M1 air defense equipment, mostly to protect Venezuela's
new Su-30 MK2 jet fighters. Chavez also said Latin America should embrace Russia, that the region needs Russia for "economic
and social development, support and peace."
Venezuela's purchases catalyze a climate in the Western Hemisphere where its neighbors have begun to seriously
question such a rapid military build-up. On 4 October, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Santos said Russia's presence could
lead to a new Cold War in the region. Days later, he was pressured to change his statement, saying he was only citing world
opinion. However, he did state that the upcoming naval exercises in the Caribbean between Russia and Venezuela could "affect
the balance of power in the region and its stability."
Andy Webb-Vidal, a Jane's Intelligence Review correspondent based in Colombia, told ISN Security Watch he believed
that Russians were selling arms to Latin American countries in order to show Washington that Moscow was capable of making
inroads into the US neighborhood as well.
"Obviously the problems in Georgia over South Ossetia have multiplied the tension between Washington and Moscow,"
Webb-Vidal said, explaining, "so from [the Russians'] point of view, they want to poke Washington in the eye because they've
seen Washington pull strings in Georgia."
Roman Ortiz, director of Security and Post-Conflict Studies with the Bogota-based Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP),
agrees. "Moscow is trying to erode the US presence in Latin America as retaliation to the development of increasingly strong
links between the US and Western Europe and some key former Soviet Republics such as Ukraine and Georgia," he told ISN Security
"For this strategy, Russia has found a perfect partner in the Venezuelan Bolivarian regime," he added.
Ortiz and many other analysts in the region argue that the sale of Russian military equipment to Caracas is now
something more than business. These arms transfers are just one part of a much larger strategic effort to project Moscow's
influence in Latin America with a focus on tipping the balance of power in an important area for US security.
Looking ahead, Ortiz sees a possible greater threat in the Andean region.
"The alliance between Russia and Venezuela promises to have critical strategic consequences for Andean security.
Russian support will give Caracas a decisive strategic advantage. Venezuela will get not only privileged access to Russian-made
high-tech weapons but also will be able to count on Moscow's support to deter any possible US military action against the
Bolivarian regime. Under these circumstances, President Chavez could feel confident enough to prosecute a more aggressive
strategy to export the revolution to the neighboring countries," he said.
Apart from Venezuela, Russia has also been forging closer ties with Cuba and Nicaragua. Nicaragua's veteran leader
and Chavez's ally Daniel Ortega on 5 September became the first state leader to recognize the independence of Georgia's separatist
provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It was seen as definitive support for Moscow's position.
Soon after the recognition, Russia's ambassador to Nicaragua, Igor Kondrashev, announced Moscow would modernize
the Nicaraguan army's aging military arsenal, and possibly the Central American country's man portable air defense systems
(MANPAD). Kondrashev said a group of Russian experts would visit Nicaragua in November to identify other potential joint projects,
including petroleum exploration in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean and the construction of roads and bridges, AP reported.
Awash with tax revenues after several consecutive years of economic growth, the Russian government has also been mulling
over whether to expand ties with Moscow's one-time strongest
ally in the region - Cuba. In July, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Deputy Premier Igor Sechin
led a large delegation to Havana to meet with both defense and economic officials.
Following the visit, the Russian Security Council issued a statement announcing that Russia and Cuba planned "consistent
work to restore traditional relations in all areas of cooperation," the Washington Post reported. Also following the trip, Russia's daily Izvestia reported that Russia intended to deploy nuclear
capable Tu-160 and Tu-95 bombers in Cuba.
The Russian Defense Ministry dismissed the report, but soon afterwards Moscow did send two Tu-160 long-range bombers
of the strategic air command to Latin America. The two bombers landed in Venezuela where they flew sorties in what became
the first demonstration of Russia's military might in that area since the end of the Cold War.
In addition, in early October, the flagship of Russia's Northern Fleet - the atomic-powered Pyotr Velikii - departed
with other warships for Venezuelan waters. The cruiser, which is designed to destroy aircraft carriers, will arrive at Venezuela
in November to participate in what will become the first such naval maneuvers since the collapse of the Soviet empire. Neither
the cruiser nor the bombers carried the nuclear arms of which they are capable, according to Russian diplomats.
Earlier this week also saw Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev meet with the defense minister, prime minister,
intelligence chief and foreign minister of Argentina, in Buenos Aires.
Patrushev discussed the possibility "of cooperation in all spheres," according to the Russian side. According to
an Argentinean Defense Ministry spokesman, the ministry's officials discussed the possibility of buying heavy-lift helicopters
and training Argentinean air force pilots in Russia for space flights. The two sides have also agreed to form a joint commission
on military-technical cooperation. The Argentinean president is to visit Russia in December while Patrushev is to visit Ecuador
and Venezuela upon completing the Argentinean leg of his Latin America tour, according to Russian news agencies.
Yet one veteran observer, Michael Shifter, vice-president of policy with the Inter-American Dialogue, sees less
to worry about. "For the moment, Russia's influence in Latin America is heavy on political symbolism and light on real substance,"
Shifter told ISN Security Watch.
"The Russians want to make it clear they have the capacity to operate freely in the US backyard, just as the US
operates in theirs, and are using their alliance with Venezuela for that purpose," Shifter said. "The Russians will be careful
and will not want to risk a serious confrontation with the US - they simply want to make a political point."
From Washington, Shifter keeps in mind the US position. "The US is surely watching developments closely - particularly
in light of new geopolitical realities following the Georgia crisis - but would be wise to respond calmly and with restraint.
There is no need for alarm; this is part of the new hemispheric landscape," he said. "An overreaction could turn any frightening
scenario into a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Global strategic balance
Indeed, while unnerving some policymakers in Latin America, Russia's inroads into the continent today are driven
by different motivations than they were during the days of the Soviet Union. Back then, Moscow was pouring billions in aid
and arms into socialist or anti-American regimes in Latin America as it was locked in a global rivalry with the US. Today
those inroads vary in scale and interest, and, as Russian experts would argue, are largely economic in nature.
The need for Russian energy giants to expand abroad, as well as the need for more orders for the Russian defense
industry, tops the list, although saber-rattling does factor in as Moscow seeks to deter expansion of western influence in
the former Soviet Union. Russia's chief Latin America expert put economy first when opining on why some Latin American countries
are tilting towards Russia.
"For them Russia is a serious option as it has a big and dynamically growing market which has technologies that countries
of the region lack," director Davydov of the Latin America Institute wrote in his opinion piece. "Is the global strategic
balance affected? No."
This article, by Simon Saradzhyan and Sam Logan in Moscow and Rio
de Janeiro, was originally published at ISN Security Watch (10/16/08).
The International Relations and Security Network (ISN) is a free public service that provides a wide range of high-quality
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Simon Saradzhyan is a security and foreign policy analyst based in Moscow. He works as a consultant for the Belfer Center
for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University. Saradzhyan is the author of several papers on terrorism and security,
including most recently "Russia: Grasping Reality of Nuclear Terror," published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political
and Social Science in September 2006.
Sam Logan is an investigative journalist who has reported on security,
energy, politics, economics, organized crime, terrorism and black markets in Latin America since 1999. He is a senior writer
for ISN Security Watch, and he has a book on organized crime and immigration forthcoming from Hyperion in spring
Reprinted with permission from ISN