Russian Strategic Arms Sales in Latin America

Russian influence in the western hemisphere has grown steadily over the past decade. By returning to Cold War posture, Vladimir Putin has been able to secure arms deals with many of Latin America’s largest economies, as well as fledgling democracies. Earlier this month, General John F. Kelly, United States Marine Corp Commander for Southcom, presented to the Senate Armed Service Committee characterized the level of Russian interference in the hemisphere.

A clear example of Vladimir Putin’s vision for Latin America came during his trip to the region last year. While in Argentina, Putin was able to secure two major strategic deals with Argentine President Cristina Kirchner.

The two countries first struck a highly publicized deal that involved sharing nuclear know-how between their respective energy sectors. Following the nuclear agreement, the two nations agreed to a weapons arrangement that culminated in sending 12 Russian long-range bombers to Argentina.

This however, is not the only example of the Russians bankrolling strategic arms sales to the region.

Take Venezuela for instance. Since Hugo Chavez took power, Russian economic ties to the country have grown dramatically. In 2007, Venezuela purchased 100 thousand AK-103s – modern versions of the famous AK-47s. Then in 2009 Russia loaned Chavez’ regime $2 billion for arms purchases, which in turn was used to purchase tanks and anti-aircraft weapons from various Russian weapon manufactures.

Then came Nicolas Maduro’s initiation of nationwide military drills last week. The 100,000-strong Venezuelan armed forces began drills showcasing the vast arsenal that Venezuela has acquired from Russia. While this can be chalked up as saber rattling, it paints a clear image of Russian influence in Venezuelan affairs.

Last month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was able to trade Russian MiG-29 fighter jets to Nicaragua; in return, the Russians gained vital simplified port entry into Nicaraguan harbors. This set off alarm bells in the region.

Some experts believe that this could possibly be the beginning of a new arms race in Latin America. Reports now show that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will be visiting various Central American nations, including Nicaragua, this week to conduct high-level talks with the region’s governments. If history is any indication of Russia’s plans, it is safe to assume that some sort of weapons deal with one or more countries be struck during this trip.

Not only is Russia selling arms to nations that historically have challenged American hegemony in the region, but has now began deals with our allies. Prior to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev struck a deal with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to sell Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries.

While the United States does not see this intrusion as a cause for alarm, others in the Western world are taking action to protect their assets in the region.

British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon declared on Tuesday that the UK would be increasing their military presence on the Falkland Islands due to the “very live threat” posed by the Argentine military.

This threat is comprised of two factors. First, is the devastating cuts to the British defense budget that have weakened the United Kingdom’s ability to fight a conventional war. The second factor comes from Argentina’s increased military assistance from the Russian president.

These actions may not signify the final minute on the dooms day clock, but they do highlight the fact that Putin knows the United States will not react. Simply, Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of weak leadership in the hemisphere to establish strategically significant alliances.