The Russians are coming? What Moscow could do to make life difficult for the US in Latin America
As the US refuses to halt the march of its NATO military bloc, in Eastern Europe, Moscow could leverage its ties with friendly Latin American states to ruffle Washington’s feathers. But would such a course of action be worth it?
Cuba and Venezuela suddenly made the headlines alongside Ukraine and the Baltics states after Russia made remarks about putting military hardware in Latin America. RT looks at the potential cost of deploying Moscow's forces in what the US counts as its "near abroad," "hemisphere" or "sphere of influence," depending on whom you ask.
As Moscow and Washington negotiated security arrangements in Europe, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov made a statement about Russia’s capabilities on the other side of the pond.Amid strained relations even a very evasive statement from Russia about the prospects of deploying military infrastructure in Cuba or Venezuela was something of a bombshell for some observers.
“I do not want to confirm anything, (...) or rule anything out,” Ryabkov was quoted as saying in an interview with RTVI, a privately owned Russian-language television network, last week. He emphasized that any escalation would be triggered largely by “the actions of our US counterparts," adding that President Vladimir Putin had frequently floated the idea that Moscow would reciprocate, “if provocations against Russia and military pressure continue to mount.”
Later that day, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan made it clear in a press briefing that the topic is not on top of the agenda for President Joe Biden's administration, but that Washington would definitely respond to any attempts by Moscow to ramp up its capabilities in the Americas.
“If Russia were to move in that direction, we would deal with it decisively,” Sullivan said.
Too much effort, too little sense
In conversation with RT, Ilya Kramnik, a researcher at the Center for North American Studies at IMEMO RAS, did not completely rule out the deployment of Russian military assets in Latin America. At the same time, he believes that so far Moscow has no specific plans beyond diplomatic rhetoric.
First of all, Russia would need the go-ahead from the leadership of the countries concerned, which, according to experts questioned by RT, is not a slam dunk.
Mikhail Khodarenok, a military observer and retired reserve colonel, believes that the political leadership of Cuba and Venezuela is enthusiastic about the Russian Foreign Ministry’s hints. However, he fears that the governments in these countries are very unstable.
“Today, Venezuela has a friendly president, Nicolas Maduro, and tomorrow it may be somebody else. Change is slowly brewing in Cuba, too. And with the hypothetical deployment of our troops we might face a predicament in case of a political reshuffle, and our arms could end up in the wrong hands,” he said.
Cuba comes into play again
Following Ryabkov’s statement, the Embassy of Cuba in Moscow immediately came pressure to comment, but didn't reveal anything substantial. Havana's diplomats explained that they had no information about whether or not Russia’s military presence on the island was officially being discussed, according to the news agency RIA Novosti.
Cuba served as one of the key battlegrounds during the Cold War between the erstwhile ideological rivals, the US and the USSR, back in the 20th century. It might even have become the setting for the outbreak of World War III, and the 1962 standoff has gone down in history as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It was the American decision to station 15 medium-range Jupiter missiles in Turkey that prompted the escalation. The deployment came on top of placing 30 US Jupiter IRBMs in Italy and 60 Thor IRBMs in the UK. Moscow responded by launching the covert Operation Anadyr to put troops and ground-based ballistic and tactical missiles in Cuba in June–October 1962.
Washington viewed these actions as a direct threat to its national security and issued an ultimatum: the missiles had to be removed immediately or a military intervention would take place. It is widely acknowledged that the showdown pushed the world to the brink of a nuclear war. It was averted after Soviet and US leaders Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy hammered out a win-win deal: the missiles were withdrawn from both Cuba and Turkey.
Khodarenok says that in 1962, the deployment made sense from both the operational and strategic point of view. In those days, the Soviet Union simply did not boast enough intercontinental missiles in its arsenal.
Yet in 2022, stationing permanent Russian forces in Latin America is no longer militarily or politically expedient, according to Khodarenok.
“At that time the Soviet Union placed R-12 missiles with a range of about 2,000 km in Cuba. It did make sense from a defense perspective. But today all Russian nuclear missiles have a range of 10,000 km,” Khodarenok added.
Start it all over again?
Between 1978 and 2002, Cuba hosted the Lourdes signals intelligence facility, allowing Moscow to eavesdrop on US communications satellites, ground-based telecom cables and the Florida-based NASA command center.
Putin made the decision to shut down the listening station in 2001, citing high expenses. However, analysts point to the fact that relations between the US and Russia were much warmer back then, and abandoning this remnant of the Cold War could have been perceived as yet another step to promote better ties. Twenty years later, Moscow entertains no illusions, and the signal of the potential return to Cuba could be seen as quite a plausible plan.
In an interview with RT, Dmitry Stefanovich of the Center for International Security at IMEMO RAS explained that there wasn’t much left of the previous spy post. “Russia may indeed set up an intelligence facility there. But what’s the point? We have enough spy sites across Russia. If there is really a strong need for it, then you may do it. But so far it does not really make too much sense. Just to see a big Russian flag flying there? No one ever said Russia’s defense capabilities were dented after it was shut down in 2002. What is certain, though, is that it was high maintenance,” Stefanovich said.
Russia was known to supply Cuba with $200 million worth of timber, fuel, defense components, and hardware spare parts for the Cuban Army in exchange for the lease on the facility. Military expert Kramnik also said that it would be easier to build a new facility in Cuba rather than restore the Lourdes base.
Is it worth it
On top of that, Russia could pay an unreasonably high price should it try to establish a permanent military threat to the US within arm’s length of its borders, said Stefanovich, adding, “We simply do not have the resources to deploy anything that would be of real consequence. Say we deploy an anti-aircraft regiment equipped with S-400 [advanced missile] systems – and then what? We could also send a brigade of Iskander missile systems over – but they are objectively more useful to Russia in the European part of the country. Deploying strategic missile systems in America doesn’t make much sense either.”
Kramnik shares this point of view. “Unfortunately, Russia has very few ways of ensuring a long-term presence in, say, Venezuela. This has more to do with our military capabilities rather than with the costs. Sure, we could send over a handful of ships carrying Zircon hypersonic cruise missiles – but only as a one-off mission. We simply don’t have enough resources to maintain a permanent presence there,” he said.
That said, experts agree that deploying short- and medium-range missiles in Latin America could be the most promising solution should the US and Russia fail to reach an agreement on security issues. Stefanovich, for instance, says that Russia could use the ground-launched type of the Kalibr medium-range missile system.
Vasily Kashin, head of the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies at Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics, noted that these missiles could be delivered to Latin America by diesel-electric submarines or near-shore ships.
“They could get there on their own, or be towed. This way, we could keep the Americans on their toes and make them spend additional resources. There is a second scenario – regular visits to our strategic bomber bases in the region,” he says.
Khodarenok believes that Cuba and Venezuela could hypothetically host missile systems (Iskander-M), as well as units and squadrons of long-range tactical aviation. Havana could also serve as a naval base, as it can station surface ships and different types of submarines.
“All of this, however, would require an enormous amount of financial and material resources. For example, landing two Tupolev Tu-160 bombers at one of Venezuela’s airfields seems more or less realistic. But to station a long-range aviation unit there on a permanent basis would be a challenging proposition. To do that, we’d have to construct additional taxiways, build several dozen parking lots for bombers, and create infrastructure for storing munitions and fuel,” argued the former Russian serviceman.
What are you going to do about it?
However, in this case Moscow would have to deal with a number of other issues, especially when it comes to security.
“Say we do that, then the question arises: how do we ensure proper protection of these systems? They would require cover both from the sea and from the air. That would put too much of a strain on all types of resources: manpower, equipment, money. And, most importantly, the operation would be extremely vulnerable to outside interference. Take the Khmeimim airfield in Syria, for example – it can become vulnerable in the event of a serious conflict with, say, NATO or Turkey, even though Russia has been developing military infrastructure there for years, maintaining air defenses and deploying coastal missile systems. And yet, the base remains vulnerable nonetheless. Imagine what would happen should we attempt the same across an ocean? It would be even more complicated,” explained Stefanovich.
Should Russia actually decide to deploy intermediate- and short-range missiles in Cuba or Venezuela, the experts agree that the world could possibly face a new stalemate similar to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Stefanovich has identified at least three ways in which America could respond. The first and the least expensive option is to contain Russia using US allies that share borders with it.
“Obviously, the Americans would still have a lot of convincing to do in order to get their allies to oppose Russia. After all, these are reasonable people: they realize they are being used as pawns to deter a major adversary of the United States,” he said.
“In addition, the US could use diplomatic channels to put economic pressure on countries where Russia deploys its missiles. It’s really hard to make the crisis in Cuba and Venezuela worse than it already is, but the Americans could do it if they wanted to,” Stefanovich noted, somewhat sarcastically.
“The US will certainly use threats to fight the risk of Russian missiles being deployed close to its borders. This could feel like the Cuban Missile Crisis all over again – though perhaps not on the same scale. Even back then, Operation Anadyr did not go as smoothly as the Soviet Union had hoped: the USSR was able to deploy far fewer missile systems than it planned. Given the current state of the Russian Navy (including Russia’s merchant fleet) and the level of precision provided by modern reconnaissance systems, it is impossible to carry out such a deployment covertly – and if attempted, it could have disastrous consequences for Russia. The US Navy and Aviation could easily prevent Russia’s landing craft from reaching Cuba. An operation like this would be dangerous, and it would increase the risks of an escalation. There will be no positive outcome,” warned Stefanovich.
According to Kashin, the Russian flag will guarantee the security of potential locations in Cuba and Venezuela.
“Attacking a Russian military base could escalate the situation to a level where it can no longer be contained. Defense could be reinforced to make sure that these bases are not destroyed by various proxy groups. A number of guards and some air defense would do the trick. However, let’s not kid ourselves – if the enemy decides to destroy this base, they will do it. The question is – would they dare provoke a nuclear power?”
You always need the Navy
On top of all the considerations listed above, Russia still has a major problem with its Navy. Its current capacities are not sufficient to deliver sufficient military backup for political orders to operate on the American continent.
According to Kramnik, Russian military experts seem to disagree whether the country really needs a Navy overhaul. There are those who don’t see any use in upgrading the Navy’s capacities unless it serves an important mission. Others, however, including Kramnik, believe that Russia needs to keep upgrading its Navy anyway, and the present case proves that beyond doubt.
“Every now and then Russia finds itself in a situation where it does need to have a strong Navy to support its political moves, even hypothetical ones, like this Latin American presence scenario. However, Russia’s Navy is currently not up to the task and won’t be able to support a permanent mission there. It takes decades to build enough capacity, which is why Russia has to plan long-term in order to have the Navy it can rely on in case of need,” argued Kramnik.
On the other hand, Colonel Khodarenok pointed out that the price for deploying a permanent Navy mission to Latin America would be steep, as the continent has no ready-to-use infrastructure available for maintaining a considerable fleet.“We have to consider the capacities and whether they can serve the goals. Sending one ship over on a diplomatic mission is one thing. Sending over a whole naval division is something else entirely. Let’s not forget that such a mission would involve transporting all the material support across the ocean too. This alone will make such a mission extremely expensive,” he concluded.
Kashin disagrees. He insists that Russia doesn’t have a strong enough navy presence in the oceans or the resources to invest in its development right now. However, he believes that it is still possible for Russia to achieve its goals. According to the expert, a logistics support base in Latin America could be set up with limited investments.
“It would be enough for Russia to have a small base like the one in Tartus, Syria, used to be before Russian troops came there in 2015. It was just a fenced off space that had a pier, several depots and warehouses, and a diesel generator, with several technical specialists on site. The perimeter was guarded by the local military. A similar, but slightly more sophisticated base could be set up in Cuba or Venezuela, allowing Russian diesel-electric submarines to stock up on provisions there and for the crew to have some rest. Then they would be able to continue with their mission for a longer period of time,” he believes.
Kashin thinks that in such a case, the US would have to waste a lot of resources on monitoring Russia’s activities with the help of their nuclear submarines, big surface ships or smaller LCS vessels. Even the latter option would mean spending huge sums on maintenance, not to mention that these 3,000-ton ships might prove to be ineffective against submarines.
“Russia’s goal is not to create a similar kind of threat to the US that it has created for Russia in Europe. Moscow’s resources are too limited for that, so that would be impossible. What Russia is trying to do is put pressure on the US, force it to increase its spending, and reduce the military threat that the US poses to Russia’s partners in the region, while at the same time training their armed forces. This would inconvenience the US enough for it to reconsider aggravating the situation further,” says the analyst.
It’s unclear whether Moscow is willing to invest this much in pursuing its goals in the US sphere of interest, even taking into account that it could prove to be a major hindrance to Washington. If Russia once again opts for Cold War tactics, it will inevitably have to face all the challenges that the experts are warning about – an escalation in Ukraine, an even worse standoff in the international arena and trade wars. And it’s up to Moscow to decide whether or not it’s worth it.