MIAMI — It was a classic Russian power play with echoes of Cold War gamesmanship.
Shortly after entering into service in 2019, Russia’s most advanced warship made a goodwill tour of the Caribbean, armed with cruise missiles, air defense systems and other weapons.
But when the Admiral Gorshkov sailed into the port of Havana, it was closely tailed by a Russian rescue tugboat — a sign to many that Moscow doubted the vessel’s reliability and the visit was nothing more than a feeble effort to project power.
Russia is once again rattling its saber amid rising tensions over Ukraine, hinting that the U.S. refusal to heed its demands could spur closer military cooperation with allies in Latin America. In recent days, several senior Russian officials have warned Moscow could deploy troops or military assets to Cuba and Venezuela if the U.S. and NATO insist on meddling on Russia’s doorstep.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan quickly dismissed Russia’s tit-for-tat threats. On the heels of its massive troop buildup on its border with Ukraine, Russia’s ability to mobilize troops in the Western Hemisphere, thousands of miles away, is limited at best, experts contend.
“This is pure misdirection and it’s not fooling anyone,” said Kevin Whitaker, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia who also served as a diplomat in Venezuela, Nicaragua and as head of the Office of Cuban Affairs in Washington. “It’s not real power projection. It’s a showpiece and nothing more.”
But even if talk of troop deployments is mostly bluster, Russia’s strategic buildup in Latin America is real, posing national security threats in what generations of U.S. policy makers have referred to as “Washington’s backyard.”
In the past decade, as the U.S. influence in the region has waned, Moscow — and to a lesser extent other far-flung adversaries like China and Iran — have quietly cemented ties with authoritarian governments in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela through a mix of weapons sales, financing deals and intense diplomatic engagement.
Moscow helped Venezuela design a cryptocurrency, forgave a $35 billion Cuba debt and runs a high-tech anti-narcotics compound in Nicaragua that many believe is a covert beachhead for spying across the region.
Time and again, Russia has shown a willingness to leverage its sizable military whenever it has felt threatened by the U.S.
In 2008, Moscow sent a pair of Tu-160 nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela amid tensions with the U.S. over Russia’s brief war with Georgia, a deployment followed that year by the arrival of the “Peter the Great” warship.
Russia sent more Tu-160s in 2018 as relations with the West plunged to post-Cold War lows over Ukraine, and the military even hinted it was considering setting up an air base on tiny La Orchilla Island, so small that landing military aircraft there would have been nearly impossible.
Even in countries friendlier to the U.S., like Mexico and Colombia, Russia has been accused of spying or engaging in disinformation campaigns to shape elections. A senior Colombian military official recently traveled to Washington to brief U.S. officials on Russian attempts to penetrate the communications of the country’s top military command, a person familiar with the visit told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
On social media, the Spanish-language arm of the Russian state-controlled RT television network has more than 18 million followers on Facebook, 10 times as many as the Spanish-language affiliate of Voice of America, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a think tank that tracks the rise of authoritarianism around the world. It also outperforms most other Spanish-language media on the platform, though it’s still dwarfed by CNN en Espanol.
It’s all a far cry from the height of the Cold War, when Nikita Khrushchev in 1962 briefly placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, the Kremlin maintained a listening post less than 100 miles from Florida and the Sandinista government that was fighting a U.S.-backed right-wing insurgency in Nicaragua was building an air base to accommodate Soviet fighter jets.
Nicaragua’s Punta Huete airfield is today semi-abandoned and President Vladimir Putin closed the spy station in Cuba two decades ago. With the collapse of its communist sponsor in the early 1990s, Cuba spiraled into a depression marked by widespread hunger known as the “Special Period.”
But Russia’s more limited support has bought it friends. Recently Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega named a consul in the Crimean peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. It’s also allowed Putin to restore some of Russia’s former glory in a region that has long resented Washington’s far longer history of meddling.
As Putin now looks to repel NATO from what he calls Russia’s “near abroad” in Ukraine, he’s likely to take at least a symbolic poke at the U.S. in its own sphere of influence, said Evan Ellis, a researcher at the U.S. Army War College who specializes in Russian and Chinese influence in Latin America.
“I’m sure Putin will do something to project toughness on the cheap as he always does,” Ellis said. “But he’s not going to do anything that costs him a lot of money or get him into deeper trouble down the line like deploying nukes. He knows there are limits.”
Russia’s closest ally is Venezuela, which has spent billions over the past two decades of socialist rule building up its air defense with Russia’s help — everything from Sukhoi fighter jets and attack helicopters to sophisticated radar and shoulder-mounted rocket launchers.
Such an arsenal gives Nicolás Maduro an ability to inflict serious damage in the event of any conflict with neighboring Colombia, the top U.S. ally in the region, said Gen. Manuel Cristopher Figuera, who was the Venezuelan president’s spy chief until fleeing to the U.S. in 2019 after a failed putsch against his former boss.
“It’s not an ideological relationship. It’s a commercial one, but it provides Maduro with a certain amount of protection,” said Figuera, who received training in Cuba and from Putin ally Belarus.
As the U.S. and its allies have taken steps to isolate the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela — what Donald Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton called the “troika of tyranny”— Putin has tried to fill the void.
In recent days, he’s spoken to Maduro, Ortega and Cuba’s Miguel Díaz Canel to explore ways to deepen strategic cooperation. He’s also sent a planeload of medical supplies to Cuba to help it fight the coronavirus pandemic.
But the leaders, although expressing gratitude for Russia’s continued aid, have so far remained silent on Ukraine — a sign they may be reluctant to be drawn into another geopolitical tussle.
“One of the fundamental legacies for Latin America from the Cold War is that they don’t want to be treated as a pawn in someone else’s game,” said Whitaker, the former ambassador to Colombia. “What Russia is doing shows enormous disrespect for the sovereignty of governments that are supposedly their allies.”
It’s something even Putin loyalists are starting to acknowledge.
“Cuba and Venezuela are the countries that are close to us, they are our partners,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said in an interview with Russian media.
“But we can’t just deploy things there,” added Medvedev, who served as Russian president in 2008-2012 when Putin had to shift into the premier’s post because of term limits. “There can’t be any talk about setting up a base there as happened during the Soviet times.”