Is Cold War Two coming to Latin America?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

This October will mark the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The famous 13-day crisis saw the world come closer to nuclear war than ever before or since. As Dean Rusk, the United States Secretary of State, said at the time: “We’re eyeball to eyeball … and I think the other fellow just blinked.” Since October 1962, the crisis has been the subject of countless books and even a few decent films. The negotiating strategies and styles of the United States and Soviet leaders, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, have been endlessly analysed and the crisis has been taught around the world as a textbook example of high-stakes negotiation skills and clever backchannel diplomacy. Officials sent off on crisis management or strategic communication courses know that October 1962 will come up well before the courses are concluded, and usually feature in the case studies as well.

Yet whatever the strategic lessons of October 1962, the immediate trigger of the Cuban Missile Crisis was the desire of the Soviet Union, and particularly Khrushchev, to gain a foothold in Latin America that was close enough to the coastline of Miami to be in Uncle Sam’s backyard, and therefore to unsettle and intimidate Washington. For the Soviets, persuading the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, to accept the deployment of Soviet SS-4 nuclear missiles on his territory, just 100 miles from the US, was a form of payback for the humiliations that Moscow felt it had endured at the hands of the US, namely: the refusal to abandon West Berlin, which forced the construction of the Berlin Wall by East Germany; the US overflights of the Soviet Union by U-2 spy planes; and the US deployment of Thor intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Turkey.

By threatening a blockade of Cuba and pre-emptive strikes on the Soviet missiles, Kennedy was able to compel Khrushchev to back down and withdraw his missiles, but under the proviso that the US would not attempt to depose Castro via an invasion of Cuba, thereby leaving Cuba as a Soviet proxy. Kennedy also agreed secretly with Khrushchev that the US would withdraw its Thor missiles from Turkey the following year.

The Cuban Missile Crisis thus established a pattern in US-Soviet relations during the Cold War: Moscow would try to prevent the US from encroaching on its own imperium in eastern Europe by supporting anti-American, left-wing regimes in Latin America and threatening to build up Soviet bases and military resources in the region. Thus, in addition to Castro’s Cuba, Moscow supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in their battle against the pro-US forces of the former Somoza regime, who were trying to stage a comeback. Soviet weapons, training and cheap credit arrangements kept these regimes afloat while Moscow supported other Marxist liberation movements elsewhere.

In Cuba, poverty levels increased rapidly during what Cubans refer to today as the ‘Special Period’

The Cubans repaid the Soviet Union in kind by sending their forces to Africa to help Marxist-inspired insurgencies in Angola and Mozambique. Soviet influence throughout Latin America obliged Washington to commit considerable resources to propping up often corrupt and repressive right-wing governments, undermining the claims that the US stood for democracy and human rights in the process. The Reagan administration in the 1980s got itself into deep trouble when it was discovered that it was secretly selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to fund the US-backed Contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Consequently, for a modest investment of money and diplomacy, Moscow was able to use its allies and clients in Latin America to poke Washington in the eye; or “squeeze Uncle Sam’s testicles”, as Khrushchev colourfully put it, and prevent Washington from gaining full control of hemispheric politics as foreseen in the Monroe Doctrine, dating back to the 1820s.

Yet the nuisance that was the Soviet presence in Latin America, as seen from Washington, did not survive the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Plunged into economic meltdown, Russia could no longer send Cuba subsidised oil or buy its sugar cane at above market prices. Russian leaders, such as Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, were too focused on rebuilding the authority of the state at home and cracking down on separatist movements in places like Chechnya to worry about the fate of proxy regimes far away in Latin America. Punta Huete, the airfield in Nicaragua that the Sandinistas built to house Soviet Russian Aircraft Corporation (MiG) and Sukhoi fighter jets, fell into disrepair.

Two decades ago, Putin closed the last Soviet listening post in Cuba that the Russians had kept to spy on US military communications in the Caribbean and at the nearby US facility in Guantanamo Bay. Faced with enduring US sanctions, left-wing regimes such as those of Castro in Cuba, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua or, later on, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela had to learn to survive by themselves. In Cuba, poverty levels increased rapidly during what Cubans refer to today as the ‘Special Period’.

Yet, as Russia recovered and regained the means and political ambition for a more assertive foreign policy during Putin’s second stint in the presidency, so too did its interest in re-establishing former Soviet footholds around the world increase. This has been the case in the Middle East with the Russian intervention in Syria, and in Africa with Russia dispatching its Wagner Group mercenaries to Libya, as well as the Central African Republic and most recently Mali. Latin America is now the latest to fall into this category of renewed interest.

Chávez and his successor, the equally repressive Victor Maduro, have together signed over 200 agreements with Moscow

In 2019, soon after entering into service, Russia’s most advanced warship, the Admiral Gorshkov, armed with air defence systems, cruise missiles and other weapons, made a goodwill visit to the Caribbean. However, Western military observers could not help noticing that it was escorted into Havana harbour by a Russian rescue tugboat, as if the Russian Navy feared that the Admiral Gorshkov might break down at any moment. On three occasions since 2008, Russia has sent two Tupolev Tu-160 nuclear-capable strategic bombers to Venezuela. These flights have coincided with periods of tension in US-Russia relations, namely the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 and tensions over Ukraine and the Donbas region in 2018. These deployments each lasted about a week, and on two occasions the bombers crossed into Columbian airspace. Russia also deployed its Peter the Great warship to Venezuela. The Russian military is said to be considering setting up an airbase on the tiny island of La Orchila off the Venezuelan coast although Western observers believe that the airfield would be too small to be of much military utility to Moscow.

Beyond the military sabre-rattling, Russia has used other tactics to increase its profile and influence in Latin America. Russian planes filled with COVID-19 vaccines and medical supplies have landed in Cuba. Moscow has helped Venezuela to design its own cryptocurrency, forgiven a $35mn Cuban debt, and established a regional counter-narcotics military and police training centre at a compound in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. Western observers have assessed this centre to be a front for Russian intelligence gathering throughout the region. The Russians have also been trying to build their influence through the media. The Spanish language arm of the Russian RT channel has 18mn followers on Facebook, which is 10 times the number of the Spanish-language affiliate of the US government broadcaster, Voice of America, according to data collected by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a think tank that monitors authoritarian regimes. RT outperforms most other Spanish-language media on Facebook, although CNN en Español continues to be the market leader by far. Moscow is also seen as conducting the intelligence and disinformation operations that it has long used in central and eastern Europe. Columbia andMexico have reported on Russian interference in their elections and recently a senior Columbian military officer visited Washington to brief the Pentagon and CIA on Russian hybrid warfare activities in Columbia, including efforts to tap into the communications of the country’s military high command.

As in the Cold War days, Russia is happy to receive a quid pro quo for the diplomatic support, military training and assistance, and modest economic help that it gives to what former US national security advisor, John Bolton, has called the “troika of tyranny”, referring to Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The Nicaraguan leader, Daniel Ortega, has opened a consulate in Crimea, whose illegal annexation is recognised as Russian territory by virtually no one in the international community.

Venezuela has been a major buyer of Russian arms. The former leader, Hugo Chávez, used the country’s oil revenues to spend an estimated $6bn on 24 Sukhoi fighter planes, 50 helicopters, tanks, anti-aircraft missiles and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles. Chávez and his successor, the equally repressive Victor Maduro, have together signed over 200 agreements with Moscow. Maduro probably wants these Russian arms to deter an attack from his neighbour, Columbia, given the frictions between the two countries over the major flows of illegal migrants over the border following the collapse of the Venezuelan economy and Maduro’s crackdown on the opposition led by Juan Guaidó, the speaker of the legislature. Yet the US has imposed harsh sanctions on Venezuela in the wake of the fraudulent election organised by Maduro in 2018. Former US president Trump toyed with a US invasion of Venezuela to install Guaidó as the rightful election winner in power. Putin then sent 100 Russian military advisors to Venezuela to help Maduro to maintain his missile defence systems, develop drone warfare capabilities and generally deter the US through their mere presence and the prospect of further Russian involvement. The Russian advisors are still there. Venezuelan soldiers have also received training in Belarus and Cuba.

Few American security experts believe that Putin would seek to challenge and provoke the US

This does not mean that everything always goes smoothly in relations between Russia and its Latin American friends. Russian grants to build local factories, such as one announced back in 2006 to manufacture Kalashnikovs in Venezuela, have disappeared into thin air – an indication of the rampant corruption that pervades both Russian and local business practices. Rosneft, the Russian oil giant, pulled out of its investments in Venezuelan oilfields in 2020 to avoid US sanctions against Caracas. Its assets in Venezuela were transferred to the Russian government. Moreover, despite frequent phone calls between Putin and Maduro, Ortega and Cuba’s post-Castro leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, the three Latin American allies of Moscow have kept a low profile during the current tensions between the US and Russia over Ukraine.

Having gone through one Cold War as pawns and bargaining chips in the rivalry between Moscow and Washington, they seem reluctant to be dragged into another, particularly at a time when the US, focusing on China, Iran and Russia in eastern Europe, is treating Latin America with a degree of neglect apart from the never-ending saga of illegal migration across the Rio Grande. They also understand that Putin’s strategy outside of his priority area of the former Czarist empire is to inflict maximum nuisance value on the West at minimal cost to the Russian economy. Putin prefers interventions on the cheap that certainly do not extend to the rebuilding of infrastructure, industry or the functioning of institutions of good governance. As the former Russian president and now Deputy Head of the Security Council, Dimitri Medvedev, has put it (quoted by The Associated Press): “We can’t just deploy things there … There can’t be any talk about setting up a base there as happened during the Soviet times.”

It is against this background of low-key Russian involvement in Latin America that the recent escalation by the Kremlin is all the more surprising. Just a few days back, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, suddenly responded to the US refusal to grant Russia a sphere of influence in Ukraine and eastern Europe with a threat that Moscow would increase its military presence in Latin America. He even evoked the spectre of a repetition of the Cuban Missile Crisis, without saying explicitly that Russia would deploy new nuclear weapons on the continent. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan dismissed Ryabkov’s threats as “bluster”. Indeed, few American security experts believe that Putin would seek to challenge and provoke the US in this way when it is aware of the crippling economic sanctions that Washington is already preparing to use against it in response to the Ukraine crisis.

Yet the Ryabkov threat, bluster or otherwise, reminds us of the second major challenge that Putin’s Kremlin poses to the international liberal order. It is not just Russia’s refusal to accept the statehood of Ukraine, the legitimacy of NATO and its process of enlargement, as well as the post-1990 European security order. Equally disturbing is the Kremlin’s determination to act as the international spoiler by inserting itself into regional conflicts to frustrate Western efforts, and thus muddying the diplomatic waters and turning local regimes into corrupt cronies.

Keep the spotlight on human rights abuses

We have seen this, firstly, in the Kremlin’s support for General Haftar and his unsuccessful insurrection against the UN-recognised transitional government in Libya, secondly in its backing for the murderous Assad regime in Libya whose war crimes have been well documented, and thirdly in the deployment of its Wagner Group mercenaries across West Africa to protect military juntas in return for shares in mining and natural resources. The recent welcome that the military regime in Mali has shown to a small squad of Wagner Group mercenaries has led it to turn its back on France and the other European countries that have contributed over eight years to counterterrorism and governance in the Sahel, a contribution more substantial in both military and economic terms than Russia will ever commit to. The same spoiler playbook is now unfolding in Latin America as Russia seeks to establish itself as a world power by propping up autocracies and replacing the West’s attempts at democratisation and better governance with arms, corrupt networks and clientelism.

Once the crisis in Ukraine is neutralised, and speculation over the future of the European security system is over, the Western democracies will need to turn their attention to how they will deal with the Kremlin’s spoiler strategy and the means that it employs: non-transparent business deals, corrupt investments, murky arms sales beyond reasonable security needs, and advisors and mercenaries designed to protect beleaguered, illegitimate regimes rather than vulnerable populations. A counter-strategy will not be easy. Yet there are elements to build on.

Firstly, regional organisations must place sanctions on corrupt, repressive regimes and call out fraudulent elections and demand re-runs, according to fixed timetables. It is better if these pressures come from regional neighbours rather than always from the US, the EU and Western-dominated institutions. The 15-nation grouping, ECOWAS, in West Africa has led the way by pushing the new military regime in Burkina Faso to restore the country’s constitution, refusing the demands of the military junta in Mali to postpone elections by five years, as well as imposing flight bans and economic penalties. The EU has adopted a similar package of sanctions but it is more effective when it complements the efforts of local actors to uphold the rule of law and democratic standards within their own communities. In Latin America, the Organization of American States (OAS) or Mercosur could take a leaf out of the ECOWAS book and get tougher on their backsliding, authoritarian members and neighbours.

A second step is to keep the spotlight on human rights abuses. Last week, Cuba admitted something that it had denied for weeks: that it had organised a mass trial of 700 protesters demanding the release of political prisoners. The protesters on trial included some as young as 16 years old. Nicaragua has one of the nastiest police states in Latin America, with Ortega trying to outdo Castro or Robert Mugabe in leader longevity. Maduro’s record in harassing and beating up his political opponents and muzzling the press is not far behind. So, the US and its allies in Latin America need to keep the spotlight on human rights abuses and illegal activity. Indictments and travel bans on government officials and oligarchs can help to undermine support for the regimes at home, reveal corruption and profiteering, and make it harder for these regimes to find partners abroad.

Providing an alternative is paramount in the context of Russia’s general practice of playing the spoiler

Thirdly, the US and its allies have to step up their communication efforts in the region and fight back against fake news and disinformation, not just by Russia, but also by China and Iran, which are trying to raise their profile in Latin America too. The human rights abuses that the Wagner Group mercenaries are reported to have committed in Libya and the Central African Republic would be a useful topic to focus on and serve as a warning to Latin American countries that might be tempted to hire Wagner too. These communication efforts would undoubtedly be more effective if the US, Canada and the EU step up their presence in Latin America and launch more cooperation initiatives with the region in fields such as green technologies, agriculture, education, anti-corruption, police reform and rule of law. Support for independent media and freedom of the press is also key here.

Finally, the US and the EU can crack down on corrupt trade and business practices that benefit regimes and oligarchs rather than the average citizen. A start has already been made in countering the illegal trade in blood diamonds through the Kimberley Process. The cheap sell-off of mining and resource exploitation concessions, which have minimal transparency and democratic controls, is something that the US and the EU can seek to hinder by introducing new reporting requirements and norms in the WTO and pressing regional organisations to adopt their own transparency and reporting rules with better tracking of illicit financial flows. A rule to disclose the main beneficiaries of business transactions and ultimate ownership of companies, in order to avoid a myriad of confusing shell companies, is also badly needed. Certainly, this is an initiative for the G7 under German chairmanship or the G20 under Indonesian leadership to take up in 2022, and which the OAS and Mercosur could adopt at a later stage.

So, we are fortunately not heading yet towards a replay of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world close to ‘one minute to midnight’. Yet, Russia’s activities in Latin America are on the rise, carrying negative implications for the Biden administration’s agenda to uphold democracy and offer a viable Western alternative to the authoritarian strongman model. Providing an alternative is paramount in the context of Russia’s general practice of playing the spoiler in the Middle East and Africa. Coming up with a viable strategy to frustrate Russian moves may not be quite the existential challenge as preventing nuclear war was 60 years ago; and it will certainly take more than Kennedy’s 13 days. Yet making it harder for corrupt regimes to export their corrupt models to fragile states elsewhere is now a vital challenge if the concept of Western democracy and the rule of law are to have any meaning in the 21st century.

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