Two experts, John Feeley, a former US ambassador to Panama, and Roberto Cajina, a Nicaraguan civilian consultant on security and defense issues, maintain that the new authorization for Russian troops to enter Nicaragua does not represent a military threat against the United States. However, they warned about what the Russian army can do in the country, with respect to espionage and intelligence gathering.
The official Gazette of June 7 published Presidential Decree 10-2022, which authorizes the arrival to Nicaraguan territory of military personnel of nine nationalities, including, Central Americans, Cubans, Venezuelans, as well as from the USA and Russia.
The recent comment by Russian television anchorwoman, Olga Skabeeva, who suggested the deployment of “something powerful” near the United States, and the quick response of the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, María Zakharova, explaining that everything is a “routine procedure,” raised the level of the news, and put it on many front pages.
“I think we have to look at the decree and the news in context. It is not the first time that Nicaragua issues a bulletin of this nature in the Gazette. The difference is that this time it is much more detailed about what the Russians are going to do,” the diplomat detailed in an interview for the Esta Semana program, which is only broadcast online, due to the censorship of the regime headed by Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.
“If Russian soldiers are going to arrive in Nicaragua to carry out humanitarian activities, I invite the Nicaraguan people and any observer, to see what Russian soldiers are doing in Ukraine. Without wanting to appear too cynical, I think it is fair to say that Russian troops and the Russian military machine, do not have the slightest idea of what it means to protect human rights or serve humanitarian causes, something that the US Southern Command has demonstrated for more than 30 years after the Cold War, with humanitarian intervention, with hospital ships, with troop deployment to build clinics, etc.,” Feeley detailed.
“I think that the Russian deployments will be low profile, mainly for intelligence purposes, but if we see that there is a humanitarian deployment and many Nicaraguans benefit through the hands of the Russian soldiers, I will be the first to say, welcome,” he said ironically.
Is Ortega a pawn or Putin’s ally?
Instead, both Feeley and Cajina warn that the Russians could come to the country to spy on countries and citizens of the region, even if part of them actually carry out “humanitarian activities.”
Cajina recalls that “the Russians never really left Nicaragua,” in reference to the fact that they stayed in the country throughout the administrations of Violeta Barrios, Arnoldo Alemán, and Enrique Bolanos, to give maintenance to the helicopter fleet, AN-26 aircraft, tanks, and armored vehicles (including T-72B1 obtained in 2016), as well as various artillery weapons, or portable anti-aircraft C2M missiles.
But there are not only technicians and mechanics in the country, Cajina says that the military installation located at the bottom of the Nejapa Lagoon crater “is more important, because the Glonass system is a source of intelligence, where information provided by 24 satellites is received. It was built by Russian workers and is operated by Russian personnel. Nicaragua only provided the land,” he explained.
Feely agrees that “Russian troops will be used to gather intelligence in the region; perhaps to work in that big building they have in Managua —which nobody really knows exactly what they do there, but we have good suspicions— and as always, the intelligence services and the US military, are going to monitor very carefully,” he promised.
The former ambassador also dismissed any comparison with the missile crisis, which erupted when US spy planes detected atomic missiles in Cuba in 1962, which put the world on the brink of a nuclear confrontation. “I do not expect that there will be any surprises, as some in the media have said. I just don’t see it,” he reiterated.
He is referring to the thesis —inspired by anchorwoman Skabeeva’s comment— that Russia should deploy part of its military might in the vicinity of the United States, the same way that the Soviet Union did six decades ago, a conflict that was resolved by using Cuba as a simple bargaining chip between two superpowers.
Although Cajina also rules out that the world will see a new confrontation of this kind, he recognizes that “one should never say never.” The Russian anchorwoman’s comment “is a veiled threat to install missiles in Nicaragua, although our country does not play any role in that,” he emphasized.
The consultant presumes that Ortega found out about the Russian announcement when he saw it in the media or on social networks because it was “the message from one elephant to another, from Russia to Washington, in which Nicaragua had no part.” And, if the president were to open the doors to Putin’s troops —prior to constitutional reform— that “would place us under the elephant’s legs,” he said.
Such a decision would put us in the same pawn role that the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, assigned to Cuba in 1962. “They would solve their problems and our country would remain the same. This also reveals that the Kremlin sees Nicaragua as a pawn, because spokeswoman Zakharora’s message was not for Nicaragua: it was for Washington,” he argued.
Honestly… what are they coming for?
While discarding once again that Moscow is planning an adventure like the one of sixty years ago, saying Russia cannot face two conflicts, as demonstrated by the logistical nightmare and running of the war against Ukraine. Cajina also referred to the capacity of the Russians to operate effectively from Nicaragua against drug trafficking.
He believes that “it is unlikely” that Russian personnel would fight against organized crime, because “the reality of drug trafficking in the West, especially in Central America, is radically different from what they face in their own environment, and they do not know how the cartels in Latin America and the Caribbean work, because that is not their priority.”
In contrast, the United States has a Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South), which depends on the Southern Command and is stationed in Florida, from where they control suspicious flights and watercrafts arriving from the south. On the other hand, he believes that Nicaragua is not so strategically important for maritime or aerial drug transportation, which is the majority, because the amount that moves by land is much smaller.
“The Russians do not have a DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) for Latin America, so I think that they are here for humanitarian and training tasks, without that being an impediment for them to execute “other types” of military activities,” he said, without specifying which ones.
Regardless of what they are going to do in Nicaragua, former ambassador Feeley acknowledges that “the United States always has the need to monitor closely what Russia is doing, not only in our hemisphere but in other parts of the world,” considering that “it is a government with different values than those of many Western democracies.”
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times