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Nicaragua

An '80s Flashback? Russia's New Military Presence In Nicaragua

Faced with Colombia's military strength and apparent resolve not to hand over a disputed swathe of the Caribbean, Nicaragua is inviting friendly Russia into the area.

Stormy weather over the disputed island of San Andres in the Caribbean Sea
Stormy weather over the disputed island of San Andres in the Caribbean Sea
Daniel Salgar

BOGOTA — Since the International Court at The Hague issued its November 2012 ruling that delineated the new maritime frontier between Nicaragua and Colombia, the longstanding dispute between the Caribbean neighbors has festered into a diplomatic impasse that is increasingly taking on a military tenor.

The Nicaraguans have announced that in 2014 they will allow U.S. and Russian military forces to enter the section of the Caribbean that the Hague Court gave them — which Colombia has so far refused to abandon or hand over. Nicaragua has said the forces would participate in joint counter-narcotics operations, but Colombia is increasingly on edge about other actions Nicaragua may have planned with the two large foreign powers.

Weapons expert Carlos Ardila, a former adviser to the United Nations regional disarmament agency UNLIREC, says Colombia is worried that Nicaragua's announcement could provoke a clash of interests not just with Nicaragua and Russia, but also with the United States. Still, he says there is no "standoff" yet, as "Nicaragua lacks sufficient naval power to dissuade, it has no ships with ballistic capacity or submarines." He said Nicaragua's navy basically consists of small ships or patrol boats, with no combat helicopters to speak of.

Colombia is not so much concerned about a possible confrontation as with Nicaragua's rapprochement to Russia - successor state to Nicaragua's erstwhile ally the Soviet Union. Ties were maintained and Nicaragua retained some Soviet armament, even if in "bad repair," says Ardila, while Russia has increased its presence here recently, especially to fight drug trafficking.

The head of Russia's counter-narcotics agency Victor Ivanov visited Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba and Panama in February 2012 to propose the formation of police training centers with Russian counterparts. It is also selling more and more arms in the region.

Following the Hague ruling, Nicaragua's top naval officials Julio César Avilés said his country must buy weaponry to guards its "new seas." Soon after Nicaragua was reported to have spent $45 million on four Russian ships with 76 mm guns and missile launchers.

Colombian concern turned to alarm in recent weeks after two Russian bombers violated its airspace, while flying between Caracas and Managua. A Russian deputy-foreign minister was visiting Caracas at the time. Then two Russian officials declared that Moscow would back Nicaragua in any conflict with Colombia. Russian and US forces were also reported to be planning counter-narcotics patrol operations in "Nicaraguan waters."

Making your point

Security analyst Carlos Martínez says it remains unclear whether the recent incident of Russian planes violated Colombian airspace intentionally, but "the point was made, that if Colombia insists on not implementing the Hague ruling and using its military superiority to defend its sovereignty, and orders the militarization of the zone," the Nicaraguans could resort to similar tactics with the help of Russia and Venezuela.

"Nicaragua is considerably weaker in military terms but shows it is not alone," adds Martínez. "What other reactions could we expect from Managua?"

Yet analysts note that Russia's current interest in the region is firmly "pragmatic" and commercial, not military or ideological. Russia's arms export chief Anatoly Isaikin recently said that Russia had sold $14.5 billion worth of arms to the region, $11 billion of that to Venezuela, as of May 2013.

Russia is also interested in the canal Nicaragua is planning to build, to link its Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Ardila says the Russians want an alternative to the Panama canal because they do not have many warm waters and a great part of their fleet is in port during the winter. "This canal would allow (their fleet) to wield influence over" the two oceans.

Meanwhile, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was in Washington on Dec. 2 to consolidate the alliance with the United States and boost anti-drug collaboration. But paradoxically, the U.S. security strategy in the region has opened some doors to the Russians in recent years, for example when setting conditions to arms sales.

"In the case of Colombia they sold arms but demanded a counter-narcotics policy, establishing military bases and reactivating the Fourth Fleet," notes Carlos Martínez. This allows them to watch over security in the North Atlantic, he adds "but also in the South Atlantic, just in front of Brazil in the zone where oil has been found."

When the U.S. refused to sell Venezuela parts for its F-16 fighters, Caracas quickly turned to Russia to purchase Sukhoi fighters. Ultimately, says Martínez, blocking countries' supplies will not help. "Russia's entry is in part a response of countries that have been unable to find supplies," he says.

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