IN COLD WAR ECHO, RUSSIA RETURNS TO U.S.’S BACKYARD
Moscow steadily rebuilds ties in Caribbean and Latin America; ‘an attempt to challenge U.S. leadership’
Russia is solidifying its footing close to U.S. shores, in the Caribbean, a region Moscow abandoned after the Cold War and has gradually returned to with investment, diplomacy and military hardware.
In recent months Russia has developed a multidimensional relationship with the tiny nation of Grenada, whose name has resonated with many Americans since President Ronald Reagan invaded in 1983 rather than see another leftist-revolutionary government follow Cuba and mature in the Caribbean.
Russia’s presence in the Caribbean is now “stronger than at any time since the end of the Cold War,” said the Caribbean Council, a London consulting firm.
The stakes in a regional U.S.-Russia rivalry are small compared with the Cold War era, with its Cuban Missile Crisis and fears of nuclear war. But that hasn’t halted a competition for influence in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Gen. John Kelly, who is now White House chief of staff and was then in charge of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, said in 2015 that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia was challenging the U.S. in the region.
Gen. Kelly’s successor, Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, echoed that view last year: Russia, he said, “uses soft power tools in an attempt to challenge U.S. leadership in the Western Hemisphere.”
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves Thursday for Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica, an opportunity for Washington to nurture regional relationships.
Russia has been pursuing its own avenues. Grenada opened an embassy in Moscow last summer, installing a Soviet-born dual U.S.-Grenadian citizen, Oleg Firer, as ambassador. In September, Grenada — population 111,000 — and Russia (140 million) granted each other’s citizens visafree travel.
For Grenada, it is all about investment, trade and tourism.
“Russia is a gateway to Eurasia for us,” said Mr. Firer, who was born in Ukraine and has championed the expanded relationship with Moscow. “We see it as a huge market.”
The two governments are working on deals in agriculture, energy, real estate, and technology. Global Petroleum Group, a subsidiary of the Moscow-based conglomerate Sistema , discovered natural gas in Grenadian waters in the fall.
“We’re not going to start purchasing arms,” said Nickolas Steele, Grenada’s minister of health, social security, and international business. “We went the way, during the last Cold War, in aligning ourselves with one doctrine in particular, one nation in particular, and finding turmoil at our own expense. At this point, our relationships are based purely on economic benefit.”
Arms sales wouldn’t be unusual for Russia. In the fall, Moscow said it was preparing to sign a military cooperation agreement with Suriname, on the northeastern Atlantic coast of South America. Russian officials didn’t respond to requests for comment about the agreement.
Niermala Badrising, Suriname’s ambassador to the U.S., said Suriname is also pursuing engagement with Russia in trade, technology and tourism. “As a small country, in terms of geopolitical and geostrategic cooperation, I think it makes sense to forge stronger relations in many areas with different countries,” he said.
In January, U.S. Navy officials said they spotted a Russian spy ship in the Caribbean, heading toward the Florida coast. Last year, the U.S. spotted the same ship, the Viktor Leonov, off Connecticut and Georgia.
Some experts regard Russian maneuvers as a calculated challenge to American leadership in the region, a response to what Russian officials see as an encroachment in Eastern Europe by the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“Russia was looking for a way to send a strategic message to the U.S.…‘If you muck around with us, we can muck around in your backyard also,’ ’’ said Evan Ellis, an associate professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.
The U.S. Southern Command, which administers a naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, oversees approximately 7,000 soldiers in the Caribbean and in Central and South America.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union provided aid to Cuba, propping up a communist ally in the Western Hemisphere as a counterweight to NATO’s European operations.
Russian interest in Latin America dwindled in the 1990s, but revived following the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, when Daniel Ortega, an erstwhile Soviet ally who had regained the Nicaraguan presidency, recognized the Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign states.
Soon, Mr. Ortega was accepting shipment of Russian transport helicopters. Also in 2008, Russia conducted Caribbean maneuvers with the Venezuelan Navy.
For the next six years Russia’s armsexport agency, Rosoboronexport, was cutting weapons deals with a handful of Latin American countries.
Russia sold Latin America $14.5 billion in arms between 2001 and 2013, roughly 40% of arms imports to the region, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Most of those deals were with Venezuela.
At the outset of the Ukrainian crisis of 2013 and 2014, Russia redoubled its efforts to strengthen ties in the Western Hemisphere. Mr. Putin visited Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
Among the Russian projects to emerge since then were a 2015 agreement with Nicaragua to let Russian warships access its ports; natural gas exploration and nuclear research in Bolivia; a hydroelectric facility in Ecuador; and bauxite mines in Jamaica and Guyana operated by United Co. Rusal PLC, the aluminum producer whose CEO, Oleg Deripaska, has been involved in business deals central to Kremlin interests.
Russian companies and state agencies also maintain auto-manufacturing, powergeneration, and oil operations in Cuba, and Russian oil giant Rosneft is closely linked to Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela SA.
While Russia continues its push, a drop in U.S. import levels could encourage Caribbean countries to seek trade relationships elsewhere. In 2016, U.S. imports from the 17 countries of the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act declined for a fifth consecutive year to $5.3 billion, from $11.9 billion in 2012, according to the Department of Commerce.
Among Caribbean countries that have perceived the potential of building ties with Russia, Jamaica appointed a consul to Russia in 2016. Antigua and Barbuda also has a Moscow-based consul, as does Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
“We maintain our traditional relationships, but we are seeking new relationships at the same time,” said Mr. Steele, the Grenadian government minister. “One cannot expect an island nation to develop on its own.”
This article first appeared in the February 1, 2018, print edition of the Wall Street Journal as ‘Russia Returns to America’s Backyard.’
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Grenada’s Ambassador to Russia Oleg Firer engage in a diplomatic ceremony at the Kremlin in October 2017
Members of a U.S. congressional delegation to Grenada view captured Soviet ammunition in Grenada in November, 1983. (AP Photo/John Duricka) Photo: John Duricka/Associated Press
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) and Grenada’s Foreign Minister Elvin Nimrod sign an agreement on visa-free travel in September. Photo: Shcherbak Alexander/Tass/Zuma Press