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Ivan Kentros: Nicaragua is Russia’s Entry Point into Central America

The specialist in Russian foreign policy notes: “Managua, and Moscow appreciate each other as strategic partners.”

To Ivan Ulises Kentros Klyszcz, a doctoral student in Estonia and specialist on Russian foreign policy, Nicaragua’s principal contribution in its relationship with Russia is to “provide a point of entry” into Central America. It offers this benefit to Russia that “hasn’t managed to consolidate a large presence in Latin America, beyond long-time allies Cuba and Venezuela.”

Nicaragua, and the Ortega regime in particular, contribute to a consolidation of Moscow’s diplomatic presence in Latin America,” assures Kentros. The expert spoke during an interview with the Nicaragua news program Esta Noche, transmitted online due to the ongoing television censorship in Nicaragua.

The analyst stressed the essential nature of the “political aspect” of the bond. He felt this was perhaps the central factor in the Russian-Nicaraguan relationship. By associating itself with Russia, Nicaragua is trying to “reach a balance with the United States.”

In mid-July, a Nicaraguan government delegation made an official visit to Russia, headed by foreign minister Denis Moncada. It also included two of the presidential couple’s sons, Rafael and Laureano. During their tour, Moncada signed a cooperation agreement with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to “guarantee the security of international information.”

Below are some excerpts from Ivan Kentros’ analysis of those events:

On July 19th, while Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua was accusing the US of conspiring against Nicaraguan stability, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was discussing cooperation with his Nicaraguan counterpart and two of President Ortega’s sons. What’s your view of relations between the Ortega regime and the Putin government?

In general, relations between Nicaragua and Russia are strategically advantageous for both countries. Managua and Moscow appreciate one another’s value as strategic partners. For Nicaragua, Russia is a large power from which it can receive cooperation in matters of national security and other areas. 

Meanwhile, to Russia, Nicaragua represents an essential partner in the Caribbean. Moscow hasn’t managed to consolidate a large presence in Latin America, beyond its long-term partners like Cuba and Venezuela. Hence, Nicaragua, and the Ortega regime in particular, contributes to consolidating Moscow’s diplomatic presence in Latin America.

What advantages or benefits does Nicaragua receive from their relationship with Russia?

The most essential benefits are in matters of security. Russia and Nicaragua have signed a number of accords and cooperation agreements for the fight against crime, the struggle against drug trafficking, and agreements about sharing intelligence. At the same time, Russia is an important investor in Nicaragua, although it doesn’t reach the level of most important investor.

What is Nicaragua providing to Putin’s Russia?

Nicaragua provides an entry point into Central America that Russia hasn’t had with any of the other countries of the zone. Nicaragua is its longest-term partner in Central America, and they’ve shared a deep relationship that can’t be compared with any other of the Central American countries. It’s not only important in terms of economic, cultural, commercial and business exchanges, but also on security matters. That’s the only thing that Moscow hasn’t succeeded in [reproducing] in the rest of the zone. Nicaragua functions as the seat of several Russian initiatives in the region.

Aspects of the relationship

What’s the predominant element in this relationship – is it economic, political, military or on matters of security?

The economic aspect is important in the cooperation between Russia and Nicaragua, but what stands out most is the military cooperation, especially arms sales. Nicaragua is the only Central American country that purchases a large part of its arsenal from Russia. 

The political aspect is also essential, and may be the most important of all. To Nicaragua, Russia is a great power with which Nicaragua associates itself, and that helps them establish an equilibrium or balance with the United States.

What holds more weight in this balance? Is it the economic and military advantage, or is it more of a symbolic political relationship?

The symbolic aspect is very important, since it’s a close strategic tie with a power that’s commonly seen as on the rise. Russia is frequently perceived as gaining power and relevance in the world. As such, several countries and political forces see it as a partner for the future, who will allow them to attain a privileged position in the multi-polar world that’s coming.

Ivan Ulises Kentros Klyszcz, expert in Russian foreign policy. Courtesy photo.

What’s the scope of the security and intelligence agreements between Nicaragua and Russia?

It’s hard to determine precisely the real scope of the security cooperation. What I’ve managed to discover, through sources that are open for researchers, is that they focus above all on the issue of crime, the fight against drug trafficking, and against organized crime. There are reports that the Russian mafia is active in Central America, so that’s seen as a cause and a justification for this intelligence cooperation in matters of justice.

The Renacer Act

The U.S. Congress is currently discussing the Renacer Act. This new bill speaks of drawing up reports on the activities of the Russian government in Nicaragua: for example, Russia’s sales to the Nicaraguan military. How could that impact the Nica – Russian relationship?

Increased US scrutiny of the cooperation between these two countries could have several effects. When dealing with sensitive matters of intelligence, security and military cooperation, the bilateral relationship could acquire a less official aspect. I’m not saying that such talks would necessarily be held in secret, but it’s possible we would see a greater participation of private companies, instead of Russian state enterprises or those close to the Russian state.

I don’t know how this mechanism the US Senate is considering would work. But at the same time, I don’t doubt that in the end the Nicaraguan government and the government in Moscow can find ways to protect those exchanges that they see as most sensitive, employing more discretion or finding ways to avoid having them attract undesired attention. 

What role has Nicaragua played in the relations that Russia has been cultivating lately in Central America?

Nicaragua has facilitated the Russian presence in Central America. Russia’s International Cooperation Agency is headquartered in Nicaragua. At the same time, the exchange of security information between Russia and Central America has frequently been carried out via Russian installations in Nicaragua.

Are Russia’s closer ties with Central America the result of an aggressive diplomatic approach on the part of Russia, or of US negligence?

I’d say both. On the one hand, it reflects the U.S. negligence that was especially visible during the administration of Donald Trump. We should recall the humanitarian aid that the United States had historically granted to the countries in the Northern Triangle, and stopped granting or greatly cut back during the Trump administration. On the other hand, Russia has been seeking a greater diplomatic presence in Latin America, to solidify its prospects of becoming a great world power with a global reach. Further, there’s the importance that Central America and the Caribbean region has for Russia, as a mirror of the situation in Eastern Europe.

In the international arena, how is the Russian-Nicaraguan relationship perceived?

It’s frequently viewed through the lens of the Cold War, as an attempt to reproduce the relationship that Moscow and Cuba have had in the past. When Mike Pompeo was US Secretary of State, he saw Nicaragua as one of the Russian partners, on the same level as Cuba and Venezuela. So, in the international arena, Nicaragua is seen as a partner similar to those other two countries.

Nicaragua has recognized Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the Crimea. What importance does this hold for Putin?

It’s of very great importance. Nicaragua is one of the few countries in the world that shares – at least on this symbolic level – a vision of the world order that’s compatible with Russia’s. Since very few countries in the world have recognized the annexation of Crimea, or the so-called independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, every country that declares their sympathy for this Russian view of the world order is worth a great deal to Moscow. Even though it’s only a diplomatic gesture, in some ways it goes beyond just symbolic value and represents a very important component of Russia’s diplomatic vision.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff

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