How Russia Militarizes Authoritarianism in Latin America

July 29, 2022 Topic: Latin America Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: AuthoritarianismVenezuelaCubaNicaraguaRussian Military

How Russia Militarizes Authoritarianism in Latin America

Russia’s multi-dimensional strategy in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba incorporates a broad spectrum of strategic activities to reinforce a geopolitical leverage point.


In January, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov threatened that Russia might send military assets to Cuba and Venezuela if talks with the West to prevent a war in Ukraine failed. Although Russia’s broader military threat may not be credible, it is a real, albeit limited, strategic threat to the western hemisphere. The strategic threat is not just Russia’s presence. Russia is sustaining a triangle of authoritarian regimes while also dismantling democracies and promoting militarized authoritarianism. The Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan government’s support for Russia during its invasion of Ukraine contributes to instability in Latin America. Russia has leveraged a coalition of anti-U.S. regimes in the western hemisphere along with a loose alliance containing Iran, the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA), and China.

Through selective threats, military and commercial activities, and information warfare operations in the region, Moscow is reinforcing the regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua as a geopolitical leverage point. Since Venezuela and Nicaragua are desperate for cash, credit, and continual power, they are relying more on Cuba and Russia for military assistance as they have increased repression. Notably, Russia is one of the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan regime’s main weapon suppliers.


Russia and China in the Western Hemisphere

Russia’s ability to provide military hardware and credit for an extended period is limited. Over the past two decades, however, China has played a bigger role in the region by providing loans, making investments, and buying commodities. For example, China made $62.2 billion in loans to Venezuela from 2007 to 2016. Funding from China has allowed these governments to remain economically and politically stable enough to engage in provocative forms of cooperation with Russia.

In 2005, Russia’s military cooperation with Venezuela grew as a response to U.S. support for Georgia and Ukraine. Similarly, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua have received visits from Russian military officials during moments of tension with the West. Additionally, Russia’s support for national sovereignty resonates with countries in the region. During the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua defended Russia’s military actions in South Ossetia. In 2014, all three countries voted with Russia against United Nations (UN) Resolution 68/262, which expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

In partnering with Russia, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela have consolidated a new regional security triangle, breaking from their commitments with the inter-American security regime, including the Central American Regional Security Initiative. In 2008, Cuba and Venezuela signed several secret military agreements, three of which include strengthening defense cooperation, developing intelligence ties, and providing technical support to the Venezuelan military.

The Nicaraguan, Cuban, and Venezuelan militaries are dependent on their dictators, who militarize authoritarian regimes and allow them to act with impunity and commit human rights violations. As an instrument of repression, the military aids and abets government abuses. Notably, the armies in each of these countries are armed and trained to run repressive police states. As an example of this codependency, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega changed the Constitution of Nicaragua, with support from the military leadership, in which he guaranteed indefinite reelection.

Russia and China are pursuing hybrid warfare by using high-end military intelligence systems and equipment, sometimes giving them private contractors. In Venezuela, Russia helps finance semi-state groups to maintain plausible deniability. In 2019, the Wagner Group (private military contractors or PMCs) was reportedly deployed to Venezuela to provide security to President Nicolas Maduro. Although flight-tracking data showed Russian military transport and cargo aircraft traveling from Russia to Caracas, Russia denied any association with the group.

Russia also has legacy military equipment in the region, creating a basis for Russian engagement that includes fulfilling contracts for maintenance and refurbishment while selling new equipment. For example, there are over 400 Russian military helicopters in Latin America, and 42 percent of new military helicopter sales are Russian.

Several of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy tenets directly influence the western hemisphere. By supporting these regimes, Russia acts as a spoiler force that undercuts U.S. interests and uses peripheral issues, such as Venezuela, to sustain Russia’s role as an arbiter of international security.


In 2008, Cuba and Venezuela signed fifteen secret agreements to transform the Venezuelan military. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez purchased billions of dollars in weapons from Russia, with Cuban mediation. Cuban officers developed doctrines, manuals, and led military training courses. In 2008, one exercise included a tunnel construction course that created bunkers and subterraneous commands mimicking, in the words of a Venezuelan general, “a Vietnam War philosophy.”

Three of the agreements included strengthening defense cooperation, developing and exchanging intelligence—including a radio-electronic investigative unit and radar system—and providing technical support to the Venezuelan military. The plan also included specialized training for Venezuelan troops in Cuba as well as the creation of a Cuban military unit based in Venezuela.

One agreement created the Cuban Liaison and Cooperation Group (GRUCE), a unit of Cuban officers permanently stationed in Venezuela tasked with providing assistance in the assimilation, operation, repair, modernization, and tactical use of war material available to the Venezuelan forces. In 2017, the GRUCE led Venezuelan troops during a nationwide training exercise, citing “hostility” from neighboring nations. Thousands of Cuban intelligence personnel are also stationed in Venezuela.


From 2010 to 2019, Russian state-owned companies put $9 billion into Venezuela’s economy, propping up Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA and diluting the impact of U.S. sanctions. Although the energy sector is the centerpiece of Venezuela’s relationship with Russia, the military relationship has the potential to further militarize the authoritarian regime in Caracas.

Along with other members of ALBA, Chávez offered Russia the use of a Venezuelan military base in La Orchila, an island in the Caribbean. Russia has sold Venezuela billions in military equipment, including tanks, fighter jets, and small arms and Venezuela owes Russia at least $10 billion for fighter jets it purchased between 2009 and 2014. The two countries also reportedly established a factory in Venezuela to produce Kalashnikov rifles, as well as a facility to train Venezuelan pilots to fly Russian-made helicopters.

Since 1999, Venezuela has borrowed billions of dollars from Russia to finance the buildup of its military arsenal. Venezuela has purchased S-300 anti-aircraft systems, Igla-S man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), and multi-use aircraft, helicopters, and T-72 tanks. Throughout 2019, Russia continued to send maintenance specialists and technicians to service equipment even after Rostec, a Russian state-owned military-industrial corporation, withdrew its defense advisors from Venezuela.

In 2008, Russia first deployed Tu-160 nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela, followed by four warships. This served as a response to U.S. support for Ukraine and Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO during Moscow’s war on Georgia. Russia sent its Tu-160 bombers to the region again in 2013 as the United States and European Union (EU) pressured it over its support for separatist forces in Ukraine.

Since 2009, Russia has sold nearly $9 billion in military equipment to Venezuela, including combat aircraft, tanks, and surface-to-air-missile systems (SAMS). In 2017, the Maduro regime was estimated to have at least 5,000 Russian-made surface-to-air missiles. These systems could leave the regime’s hands and be used by irregular armed groups, such as the National Liberation Army, and dissident groups of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

In 2018, Russia sent two TU-160 bombers in range of the United States. As Maduro’s regime weakened in 2019, Putin sent S-300 systems to help deter U.S. military intervention on behalf of its preferred presidential alternative, Juan Guaidó. Moreover, the S-300s arrived with Russian “experts,” who could provide security for Maduro.


Just last month, the Nicaraguan government authorized Russian personnel, ships, and aircraft to enter Nicaragua from July 1 to December 31, 2022, and participate in humanitarian and military exercises and operations in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

Nicaragua has been one of Russia’s key partners in the region since Ortega’s return to power in 2007. Notably, Nicaragua’s arms acquisitions between 2010 and 2021 are almost as large as those of the three countries from the Northern Triangle.

From 2007 to 2016, Russia’s support to Nicaragua included Mi-17 helicopters, Yak-130 fighter trainers, An-26 medium transport aircraft, TIGR armored cars, T-72 tanks, ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns, armored vehicles, patrol craft, and missile boats. In 2017, Russia established a downlink facility for the GLONASS satellite system, and a regional training facility in Managua for the Russian counterdrug organization FSKN, which offers Russian operatives the opportunity to interact with police officials from across Central America.

In 2016, Russia sent Nicaragua an initial batch of twenty (out of fifty authorized) T-72B war tanks, costing $80 million dollars, within the framework of their joint “military-technical cooperation” agreement. The Nicaraguan military justified the purchase of the tanks as part of a plan to modernize equipment. Nicaragua’s orders to Russia also include four patrol boats worth $45 million.

When he returned to power, one of Ortega’s first actions was to change the role of the Ministry of Defense from being a link between military and civilians to a direct relationship between Ortega and army leaders and the police commissioners. Effectively, Ortega assumed the functions of the political, military, and civilian chief of the armed forces and used this apparatus to suppress dissent. This shaped the role that the Nicaraguan military would play in perpetuating state violence carried out against protestors in 2018. Notably, the Dragunov, a Russian semi-automatic rifle, was used by paramilitary forces to target and shoot innocent civilians during the protests.