Note: This article originally appeared in The Institute For Statecraft. It is republished here with permission.
Russia’s partial rearmament of Nicaragua is occurring in parallel to broader efforts by the government of Vladimir Putin to build up Russia’s presence beyond the post-Soviet space, recovering old alliances and opening new spheres of influence in the West.
The history of the Russian military activity in Nicaragua goes back to the Sandinista Revolution. During the 1980s, the Central American nation became the most militarized in Latin America, in relative terms, even though its naval and air forces (without combat planes) were of limited capacity. In 1986, the Sandinista Popular Army came to have almost 140,000 troops at its disposal, including reserves. Its air force boasted several dozen Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters. The transition to democracy and the peace accords reduced the size of the Nicaraguan armed forces, which fell to 13,000 troops in 1992.
But the Russians never left completely. Following the Sandinistas’ electoral defeat and the change in government, there remained in Nicaragua a Russian Techno-Military Mission, with headquarters in the Air Force and Mechanized Infantry Brigade installations. The Russian military presence in Nicaragua was made official towards the end of Arnoldo Aleman’s administration, with the Techno-Military Cooperation Accord of October 2000 aimed at maintaining equipment provided by Moscow during the Sandinista period.
In 2002 and 2007, Generals Javier Carrión and Omar Halleslevens, army chiefs during the Alemán y Ortega administrations, respectively, devised with their Russian counterparts the ranges of military cooperation between the two countries. In September 2008, the Russian ambassador, Igor Kondrashev, announced that the priority would be economic collaboration and, in the military sphere, the maintenance and modernization of existing equipment. In 2008, Nicaragua was one of the few countries around the world that openly supported Russia in its posture of recognizing the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, following their declaration of independence from Georgia.
Toward the end of 2009, General Halleslevens and the Russian Minister of Civil Defense and Emergency, Sergey Shoigu, signed a two-year Convention of Collaboration for $6.5 million, to exchange security information and acquire equipment and Russian personnel for rapid disaster response. Two Mi-17V-5 helicopters arrived that year. In 2011, the two countries signed another accord on the same subject for $26 million, strengthening the Civil Defense and the Army’s rescue units. The following year the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations provided the Army with six field hospitals.
In August-September 2012, Russian Armed Forces chief Alexander Postnikov announced that Nicaraguan military personnel would be trained in Russian academies and that bilateral techno-military cooperation would be strengthened. That year saw the delivery of GAZ-2330 Tigr armored vehicles. In April 2013, another Russian delegation arrived in Nicaragua—this time headed by Valery Gerasimov, Head of State, Major General of the Armed Forces, and First Deputy of the Minister of Defense. The delegation announced support for Nicaraguan forces fighting drug trafficking. That year, the Georgy Zhukov Training Center opened in Nicaragua, where, as of 2016, Russian officers had begun training their local counterparts.
Until July 2014, Russian military aid to Nicaragua had been non-lethal: emergency hospitals and operating rooms, more than 40 lorries to reinforce the firefighter corps, and 23 heavy machines and an engineering module for highway repair. The Nicaraguan armed forces defense budgets have prioritized civil defense expenditures, such as the military hospital built for the care of military members and their families, which is covered by the Institute for Military Social Security.
It was in 2014 that funding for weaponry returned, with 12 modernized ZSU-23-2 anti-aircraft units, as well as a simulation complex for helicopter pilots and paratroopers, together costing $15 million. In 2016, the Russian News Agency RIA Novosti announced the arrival of a first lot of modernized T-72B1 tanks, in a contract for 50 vehicles at $80 million, although it was revealed later that they were actually donated by Moscow. Those tanks allow for greater inter-operability with allies of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA); Venezuela operates the same vehicle, and Cuba possesses the T62M, a modernized version of the original tank. Nicaraguan tank crew members have taken part in biathlons of combat vehicles organized by Russia at the industrial park in Kazan.
In 2016 it was also confirmed that, since 2013, Nicaragua had ordered four Project 14310 Mirazh patrol boats, two Project 1241.8 Molnia2 missile boats and four Yak-130 planes from Moscow. The donation of Russian equipment does come with a non-monetary price: the access allowed by Managua to Nicaraguan ports for the establishment, in 2017, of a Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS). Though the station was declared to be for “purely civil ends,” it has the capability of performing electronic intelligence and cyber operations.
On February 24, 2018, Russia donated two AN-26 aircraft during an official ceremony at the Augusto C. Sandino International Airport, with Russian naval aviator Igor Kozhin and Julio Avilés, chief of the Nicaraguan army, in attendance. These machines reinforce the capacity for troop mobilization, including deployment of special forces and paratroopers, throughout the entire Nicaraguan territory—an ability that would become important as anti-government protests hit the country in the following months.
On April 25, the Russian chancellery called for a policy of non-interference in Nicaragua’s internal affairs amidst criticisms of the Ortega government over the violent repression of protests. Russia’s Ministry of the Exterior stated that “what is happening in that Central American nation is a purely internal matter, and we warn against destructive intents to interfere [in the situation].” On May 8, Sergey Riabkov, the Russian vice chancellor, and Alba Torres Mejía, minister-counsellor of the Nicaraguan embassy in Russia, signed the “Memorandum of Intent on Matters of Consultative Cooperation.” According to Riabkov, the document “signifies a new step in the strengthening of our political dialogue, of the perfection of its forms,” establishing cooperation in “matters of international security,” qualifying Managua as “an important ally for us, not only in Latin America, but at a much higher level,” especially appreciating the “support on issues such as Crimea, Donbass, the Caucasus.” Mejía described Russia as “a trustworthy friend and partner, from afar, of the Republic of Nicaragua.”
As protests against the Ortega regime raged throughout 2018, the well-documented use of a diverse array of Russian-made armaments, including AK automatic weapons and Dragunov sharpshooters, by national police and government-aligned special forces pointed to an increasingly close relationship between Managua and Moscow.
Today, Russia’s collaboration with Nicaragua is at its highest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union, extending itself as much into the civil sector as that of security and mutual diplomatic support. The defense ties between the two nations—armament delivery, training, and temporary access to Nicaraguan ports—means Russia has a key ally in a strategic area, near the Panama Canal and the Caribbean Sea. The ongoing internal crisis in Nicaragua, the escalation of the dispute with the U.S. on the part of nations allied with ALBA (especially Venezuela), and the global repositioning of Russia suggests that these ties be reinforced in the near future; as the Ortega regime continues to hunker down, look for with new high-level visits, continuation of bilateral cooperation, and mutual support within international entities such as the United Nations.
Armando Chaguaceda is a political scientist and historian. He teaches at the University of Guanajuato. The author thanks the expert Roberto Cajina for the development of this article and Alicia Barraqué Ellison, MA-LIS, for her help with translation.