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International Politics

Tango a lo Ruso: Putin’s Opportunity in South America

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A recent article in Pravda’s English version indicated that the Russians were ‘returning’ to Latin America. “We will not allow the West to gain military superiority over us,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Mr. Shoigu spoke after visiting the region between 11 and 14 February, with stops in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela. Lamenting the collapse of the alliances that had provided the Soviet Union with bases in the Caribbean during the height of the Cold War, the Defense Minister suggested that arms sales and advisors might soon return, leading off with the announcement of a sale of gunboats to the Nicaraguan Navy.

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Well and good. Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are all members of ALBA, an alliance of left-leaning states whose main purpose is to deprecate American Imperialism. However, the situation has changed radically since the early days of the anti-American alliance. It’s principal architect, Hugo Chavez, is dead; his successor, Nicolas Maduro lacks the charisma and prestige of the deceased strongman. Additionally, Venezuela is mired in civil strife, led by the marginalized ultraconservative elites that used to run the country and beset by plunging oil prices that undermine the country’s already tenous fiscal situation. Without oil money, Venezuela will find it difficult to fund its extremely generous social programs, without which, support from the majority poor demographic will fade as they blame Maduro’s bungling and corruption.

Cuba is also unlikely to welcome the Russian’s back wholeheartedly. The cagey Castro brothers will undoubtedly maintain friendly relations with their former patron, but this is likely to be a show of continued independence and leverage during negotiations with the Yanquis to the North. The fact remains that if the diplomatic thaw between Washington and Havana continues, Cuba will increasingly enter the US orbit. The Obama Administration has already authorized travel and some commerce between the two neighbors; the Castros are not likely to risk further progress with the United States over Russian bases on the island. Personnel exchanges, port and airport visits are likely all that the Russians can hope for besides effusive praise from their fraternal socialist allies in Cuba.

Nicaragua, back under the Sandinista regime of long-time anti-American Daniel Ortega, looks to be the best bet of the three. Certainly there is no love lost between Mr. Ortega and whoever is occupying the White House. Nicaragua could provide the Russian’s with important basing facilities at Bluefields on the Caribbean coast, which are close enough to the Panama Canal to pose a serious threat to shipping there. Additionally, the Nicaraguans continue to dream of their own canal to compete with that of the Panamanians, a canal which is technically feasible. All that is lacking is money: scads of it. One estimate by the Hong Kong Nicaraguan Canal Development Investment Company puts the cost of building it at $50 billion with a building time of 5 years. That is certainly within Russia’s capabilities, given their reserve fund of $380 billion; but it is very doubtful that Moscow would be willing to finance so large an operation so very far away and so very close to the center of US power. The Russian’s are looking for leverage on the cheap, not huge prestige projects.

The rest of Latin America may present some opportunity, with anti-Americanism always present and popular to some degree or other, but there are no obvious allies awaiting the Russians. Chile, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico are firmly pro-American (or at least too closely tied economically to be interested in upsetting relations); Peru has a left-wing government under Ollanta Humala, but there is an FTA in operation with the US since 2009; Brazil might buy Russian equipment (and has) but it is too big and independent to become a Russian stoolie; even Bolivia and Ecuador, once key allies of Chavez in the Bolivarian revolutionary movment, have recently been quietly improving relations with the Obama Administration.

Go South Vladimir

There is a large and important South American nation that just might share enough common interests with Russia for the two to tango. Cristina Fernandez’s Argentina has needs that Vladimir Putin’s Russia might be happy to fulfill; the couple would even look good together.

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First of all, the Argentina government has been considering increasing its investment in its neglected military. Ever since the return of civilian government in the calamitous wake of the Falklands/Malvinas War, the military has been seriously underfunded. Losses in equipment from the war have not been made good; in fact, the Argetine Air Force (FAA) continues to fly the same Super Etendards and Skyhawks that it used 30 years ago against the Royal Navy. The Army has received a bit more money, but mostly because Argetina has participated in a number of UN and OAS deployments. This underfunding has been deliberate: the civilian politicians were determined to show the generals who was in charge and to avoid a well-funded military from ever getting new ideas about coups and juntas.

Mrs. Fernandez de Kirchner had other ideas. For one thing, she has decided to renew the lapsed though never wholly abandoned dispute with Great Britain over the Falklands. She has undoubtedly been spurred by an increase in prospecting for oil and gas around those islands, or by a desire to distract her population with the old cry of nationalism and rallying against the perfidious Albion. After all, she won almost universal acclaim from all Argentines when she pushed through the renationalization of YPF from the Spanish oil company Repsol.

Recognizing that Argentina’s antiquated forces were incapable of providing her with any leverage over the British, she hoped to modernize her air forces by purchasing Swedish-made Gripen fighters. Unfortunately, there are parts of the Gripen that are manufactured by BAe, a British company; and due to an agreement with Saab and the Swedish government, Great Britain has a veto over export customers for the high-tech fighter. You can imagine that it took Whitehall only a few nanoseconds to exercise that veto, leaving Argentina to wonder where it might be able to buy a high performance aircraft that neither the British nor the Americans could embargo.

The MiG 29 and Su-27 are Russian 4th generation multi-role fighters. Although perhaps not a match for the newest generation of air superiority aircraft, like the F-22, F-35 and Eurofighter, they are nevertheless outstanding platforms that would give Argentina a highly credible air threat, especially given the paucity of Typhoons Britain has based in Port Stanley. Both models are far superior to anything the FAA currently fields. Russia is in the process of replacing its fleet of MiG-29’s and Su-27’s with the 5th generation Sukhoi PAK FN. Indeed, Russia has offered nations it is interested in cultivating secondhand MiG’s in the past, including a proposed gift of 10 MiG’s to Lebanon in 2010 that never materialized.

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In addition to aircraft, Argentina could be interested in Russian air defense systems. Russian SAM’s are feared even by American pilots and the Argentine Army would need air denial capabilities if it were ever to contemplate a second go at the Falklands/Malvinas. During the ground phase of the last war, the various Argentine garrisons were immobilized in their defensive positions, while the British were able to use helicopters with caution to ferry troops and equipment. Brazil has purchased SA-22 Greyhound mobile AA systems, and the Russians have sold their S300 and S400 systems to China and Iran: there is no reason to suspect that they would not be willing to do so to Argentina.

Another area where the Russians and Argentines could cooperate is in naval vessels. Argentina would need a credible amphibious assault capability to threaten the British, something it lacks. Russia has two Mistral-class helicopter carriers moored to French docks that it can’t get hold of; and France would very much like to sell those ships and get them out of France. Would it be possible to sell them to Argentina? The Argentine Navy takes both ships and then, in a year or two, quietly “resells” one of them to the Russians. A bit blatant, yes; but no more so than some other international shenanigans like selling arms to the Iranians via third parties in the 1980’s and perhaps just enough cover for the French. The Argentines would acquire a significant and credible amphibious capability while the Russians would get at least one of their two ships; which is better than not having either of them.

All of these are reasons for the Argentines to approach the Russians; but why would the Russians be interested? One good reason is money: Argentina is sitting atop one of the world’s largest natural gas fields and YPF will need both capital and know-how to fully exploit the Vaca Muerta field. Russia has both. Since the Russian government owns a majority stake in Gazprom, any deal the latter might ink with YPF would provide profits for Moscow. Profits enough to pay for a two dozen or so MiGs. Argentina is also very keen on exploring and exploiting the offshore oil and gas deposits of the South Atlantic, an important reason for the revival of the dispute with Britain. Gazprom has a great deal of experience in working under the harshest conditions of the planet including Siberia and the Arctic Sea.

Money, a major oil and gas deal, strategic access to Cape Horn and the still important South Atlantic passage, a new customer for Russian arms, and a thorn in the side of both the Americans and the British: these too are reasons for Mr. Putin to dance with Mrs. Fernandez. Argentina is today the best opportunity for Russia to gain a serious foothold in the Western Hemisphere.

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