What is Russia up to in the Western Hemisphere? That's a question increasingly on the minds of Latin America watchers, who have noticed signs that Moscow is again setting up shop south of the U.S. border.
The country getting most of the Kremlin's attention today appears to be Nicaragua. It's a nation of six million that ranks as the second-poorest in the hemisphere. But it also has Daniel Ortega and his leftist Sandinista party—a historic ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. After 15 years of anticommunist politics beginning in 1990 under Presidents Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Aleman and Enrique Bolanos, Mr. Ortega and the Sandinistas were back in the saddle again by 2006.
Russia did not waste any time capitalizing on its partner's return to power. In mid-2008, Russian Ambassador to Nicaragua Igor Kondrashev began the process of reviving relations when he announced that his government was willing to help modernize Nicaragua's aging military arsenal. Later that year, in a concrete show of the Kremlin's sincerity, three Russian warships docked in Nicaragua's southern port of Bluefields—the first such visit since the fall of the Soviet Union.
In the years since, Moscow has worked diligently to solidify and expand its strategic bonds to the Ortega government. It has funded a number of high-profile, military-related projects in the country, including a military training center in the capital of Managua, as well as a munitions disposal plant located outside the city.
Russia has also assumed a growing role in Nicaragua's counternarcotics effort. This spring, a joint antidrug effort by the two countries netted some 1.2 tons of cocaine and broke up a Central American gang linked to Mexico's notorious Los Zetas cartel. And in March, Russia's drug czar, Viktor Ivanov, personally inaugurated construction of a regional counternarcotics training facility based in Managua.
The importance that Moscow attaches to its burgeoning beachhead in Managua was on display in late April, when Russian General Staff Chief Col. Gen. Valery Gerasimov visited the country on an official three-day visit. It was an honor far outside the norm for a nation of Nicaragua's modest military capabilities and mediocre political stature.
The rationale for Russia's investments is still far from clear. Its foreign policy initiatives in recent years have focused on four major areas: its "near abroad" of Central Asia and the Caucasus; the Middle East; the Asia-Pacific; and the Arctic. Latin America as a whole remains far outside Russia's known areas of core interest.
Still, some working theories about Moscow's motivations have begun to emerge. The first relates to the drug trade. Russia's chronic problems with drug addiction and illicit trafficking have prompted the Kremlin to look abroad for partners in counternarcotics cooperation.
This spring, the Russian government announced that it plans to partner with several countries in Latin America on joint antidrug operations. Nicaragua, where the majority of Russian resources has been allocated so far, appears to be the crown jewel in that effort.
Moscow's interest may likewise have been piqued by the Ortega government's ambitious plans for a Nicaraguan counterpart to the Panama Canal—a massive, $40 billion project to build a 50-mile passageway for maritime transit between the Pacific and Atlantic. Russia has long coveted such a passageway as a politically-preferential cargo route for oil and commercial goods. In 2008, Russia's government even briefly flirted with the idea of building Nicaragua's canal itself, before scrapping it as too expensive. But the project seems alive and well. In early June, Nicaragua granted a 100-year concession to a Chinese consortium to build and then administer the waterway.
Russia, which has significantly expanded its foreign espionage in recent years, may be using Nicaragua to bolster its intelligence collection capabilities in the region. Or it could simply be leveraging its inroads with Mr. Ortega's sympathetic regime to stick a finger in the eye of the U.S.
Whatever the reasons, Russia's involvement in Nicaragua today is worth watching, and it is growing. As it does, it will inevitably raise questions about Moscow's larger strategic objectives in the Americas, and whether they might someday pose a threat to the U.S. and its interests.