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

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