On the 2nd of March 2022 the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution[i]regarding the crisis in Ukraine. From Latin America, while there were 4 abstentions, none voted against the resolution, and the remaining countries voted in favour. Cuba and Nicaragua abstained from voting and expressed that Russia had the right to defence citing that the expansion of the NATO was the major reason for the crisis to evolve. On the account of unpaid membership fees, Venezuela was disallowed from voting. Cuba explained at the vote that the attempts of the US to extend the reach of the NATO to the Russian borders and export of weapons to Ukraine were unnecessary. Russia has legitimate security concerns that were ignored and the draft resolution was lacking in search of a solution[ii].Nicaragua also issued a statement which explained its position, which called for negotiations to end the crisis. It called out the sanctions imposed on Russia as an impediment to peace, while on the other hand the US and NATO are arming Ukraine and further exacerbating the crisis.
All these three countries are under US sanctions, leading to dependence on Russia for economic and political reasons. Russia turned out to be a lifeline for these countries. However, sanctions on Russia negatively impact them as well as they are devoid of any other alternative to Moscow. This paper seeks to examine the unique position of these three countries vis-à-vis their relations with the US and Russia in the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine.
Russia’s engagement with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba
Prior to the crisis in Ukraine, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov visited Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua on the 16th of February following which the Speaker of the Duma[iii], Vyacheslav Volodin visited Cuba and Nicaragua on the 23rd and 24th of February. Russian military sales to Venezuela are over 11 billion dollars which include SU-30 fighter planes, attack helicopters and S-300 air defence system. Russia held naval exercises with Venezuela possibly as a counter to the earlier US led NATO naval presence[iv] in the Black Sea in 2008. In 2018, two Tupolev-160 nuclear capable bombers were sent for conducting military exercises[v] that drew criticism from Washington.
Russia’s relations with Nicaragua progressed even in the period of the crisis in 2008 in Georgia and in 2014 in Ukraine. After Daniel Ortega’s return to power in 2007, ties have become even stronger with the visit of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, which led to signing of agreements related to naval and military cooperation[vi].Military ties form the basis of bilateral and mutually beneficial engagement. Russia has supplied a munitions disposal facility, a maintenance facility for military vehicles, military helicopters and aircraft. Nicaragua also installed a Ground Station for the Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass)[vii] with the assistance of Russia. Moreover, an agreement was signed according to which Russian armed forces could visit the country and conduct military exercises.
Cuba and Russia have strong bilateral relationship since the Cold War and under President Putin relations have witnessed an upswing. Russia gave a 50 million dollar credit line in 2000, in addition to 38 million Euros for the purchase of military hardware. Recently, it postponed a 2.3 billion dollar loan[viii] repayment from Cuba. In order to circumvent US sanctions, Cuba looks towards Russia for economic, political and military cooperation, thus leading to strong bilateral relations. Recently in the early stages of the Ukraine crisis, Russia considered troop deployment in Cuba in order to pressurise the US. The outreach undertaken in this situation bears similarity with the 2014 Ukraine crisis.
Rationale behind Russian engagement
Russia’s motivation for a renewed outreach with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba is to counter the US as Moscow perceives American and NATO policies in Ukraine to be inimical to its security and interests. In January 2022, in the background of an impending crisis in Ukraine, Russia considered deploying troops[ix] in Venezuela and Cuba signalling a challenge to the US. Moscow believes that the reaction to a strategic foray in Ukraine by the West should be responded in a similar manner. The relations between the US and these countries are traditionally estranged, thus giving Russia more space to manoeuvre. Such outreach particularly during this time is reminiscent of similar crises in 2008 and 2014 however Russia’s outreach seems to be more serious at this point.
US positioning on the challenges
The US is aware of Moscow’s policies towards these three countries and Washington may find it difficult to make an outreach towards Cuba and Nicaragua. There were previous attempts to restore ties with Cuba in 2008 with former President Obama paying a visit in 2016 but under the Trump administration bilateral relations were placed under scrutiny. Ties with Nicaragua are a challenge for the US especially after the re-election of President Daniel Ortega and Washington’s concerns related to human rights and democracy in Nicaragua. With Venezuela though, the US is taking serious steps to make some progress. Although ties have not been warm, the latest visit by Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Juan Gonzalez and Ambassador James Story opened up discussions regarding easing sanctions on Venezuela that were imposed in 2019. Discussions also took place regarding the temporary use of the SWIFT payment system by Venezuela. Sanctions on Russia impact the Venezuelan economy directly which it needs to avoid. Talks were held regarding purchasing of oil from Venezuela keeping in mind the rising oil price due to sanctions on Russia. As a mark of rapprochement, the Maduro administration released two American prisoners and Vice-President Delcy Rodriguez denied the possibility of establishing Russian bases. Venezuela’s interests lie in eking out maximum gains as both the US and Russia competes for influence.
For these three Latin American countries, cooperation with Russia is a way to balance the position of the US, while for Russia; the rationale is to counter the US in its own vicinity so as to nullify its position in Ukraine. The US has offered fresh overtures towards Venezuela in a bid to soften Russia’s influence, it would be important to note if the same can be said regarding US policies towards Cuba and Nicaragua.
*Dr. Arnab Chakrabarty is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[iii]The Duma is the lower house of the Parliament of the Russian Federation.
[iv]Michael Schwirtz (22nd September 2008). Russian Warships sail to Venezuela. Accessed 19th April 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/23/world/europe/23ships.html
[v]Evan Ellis & Ryan Berg (3rd January 2022). Lessons from Russia’s Latin America engagement over Ukraine. Place of Publication? Accessed 5th March 2022. https://thehill.com/opinion/international/596392-lessons-from-russias-latin-america-engagement-over-ukraine.
[vi] Caroline C. Cowen (14th March 2022). A hemispheric threat: Russia’s interference in Nicaragua. Place of Publication? Accessed 21st March 2022. https://thehill.com/opinion/international/598158-a-hemispheric-threat-russias-interference-in-nicaragua.
[vii]The Glonass is an alternative to the Global Positioning System.
[viii]Reuters (22nd February 2022). Russia postpones Cuba debt payments amid warming relations. Accessed 17th March 2022. https://www.reuters.com/markets/europe/russia-postpones-cuba-debt-payments-amid-warming-relations-2022-02-23/.
[ix]Author? NPR (20th February 2022). Russia has been showing diplomatic interest in Latin American countries. Accessed 14th March 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/02/20/1082012392/russia-has-been-showing-diplomatic-interest-in-latin-american-countries.