Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's visit to three countries of Latin America could indicate that the Kremlin plans to extend its presence in the region, despite the economic crisis at home and the escalating Ukraine crisis.

Russia's Defense Minister paying a visit to Havana, Cuba. Photo: RIA Novosti

On the day when the “Normandy Four” held marathon talks in Minsk on a peaceful settlement to the crisis in the Donbas region, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu began a tour of three Latin American countries: Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.

As might be expected, Russian experts were quick to explain the visit as a “response to the actions of the United States,” which, Moscow believes, is moving its military bases closer to Russia’s borders.

“In fact, it represents the implementation of non-nuclear containment, as prescribed in Russia’s military doctrine,” said Leonid Ivashov, a military expert and president of the International Center for Geopolitical Analysis. “What means are set to be deployed there [the countries visited by Shoigu], be it ships, aircraft or radar equipment, are the subject of the agreements.”

Ivashov’s view is supported by Alexei Fenenko of the Institute of International Security under the Russian Academy of Sciences, who believes that Shoigu’s visit to Latin America was intended “to play on Washington’s nerves.”

“Notice how as soon as the States became active in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) , we immediately headed for Latin America,” he says. “After the five-day war with Georgia in 2008, in December of that same year Nicaragua and Russia began discussing cooperation in the field of space exploration, and sales of surface-to-air missiles increased to the region.”

Shoigu’s talks in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba were effectively held behind closed doors. They reportedly touched upon military and military-technical cooperation, but no further details were given. The question remains as to why the Russian defense minister needed this visit at a time when the country’s political and military leadership has its hands full with the conflict in southeastern Ukraine.

Shoigu’s goals in Venezuela

The three countries visited by Shoigu certainly have historical and fairly strong military ties with Russia. In the past five years, Venezuela alone has received delivery of 24 Su-30 fighters, 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, 92 T-72 tanks, helicopters and anti-aircraft weapons from Moscow.

This arsenal requires constant maintenance, which is seen to by Russian experts on the ground in Venezuela. However, there are two caveats: first, the agreements on the supply of such vast firepower were reached under former President Hugo Chavez at a time of high oil prices, and second, most of it was delivered on credit, which has yet to be fully paid.

Now, when oil prices have collapsed, official inflation in Venezuela last year hit 68 percent, and the country’s foreign exchange reserves are sufficient to pay off its external debt for just two years, there can be no talk of new military contracts with Russia. Presumably one of Shoigu’s tasks was to find out if Caracas intended to pay for the weapons already delivered, and if not, what it could offer in return.

What does Russia need in Cuba?

In Cuba, the Russian defense minister’s tasks were more modest. Media leaked curious reports of a visit to a tank division stationed near Havana.

“Many of our hardware specimens are unique,” explained his Cuban counterpart, Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces Leopoldo Cintras Frias.

In fact, the armed division consists of hybrid versions of the Russian T-34 and T-55 tanks. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Moscow cut off the island’s massive subsidies, Cubans were left not only without new hardware, but also spare parts. So they had to be inventive and combine two different types of tank. In a sense, it is reminiscent of the cars that ply the streets of Havana, which are mainly hybrids based on American Cadillac and Chevrolet models of the 1950s.

It goes with saying that Cuba would like Russia to resume deliveries of spare parts for its existing obsolete arsenal. However, such a contract can hardly be considered long-term.

Havana’s focus is now on normalizing relations with the United States, and while the White House is occupied by Barack Obama, who put forward the “historic initiative” to reconcile the two implacable opponents, Cuba intends to secure as many concessions as possible, primarily the lifting of the economic embargo and freer access to the island for U.S. citizens.

In this regard, Shoigu’s visit to Havana can be regarded as routine, devoid of any strategic content.

The main intrigue in Shoigu's visit to Nicaragua

Shoigu’s talks with the Nicaraguan government were slightly more intriguing. As is known, Nicaragua was one of four countries to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia. Perhaps Managua’s “good will” could be of use when it comes to recognizing the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

In addition, it was reported that, during his visit to Nicaragua, Shoigu reached an agreement to facilitate the entry of Russian ships to this Central American country’s ports along the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines. But that’s not all. The trip also saw the opening of a new topographical center set up and equipped by Russia. A Nicaraguan officer showed Shoigu a topographical atlas of the terrain over which the Nicaragua Canal is being built.

This canal is set to duplicate the Panama Canal by connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Preliminary work began last December. The Nicaragua Canal is scheduled to become operational in 2019, and construction is slated to wrap up in full in 2029.

The main contractor is Chinese company HKND Group, which will operate the route for 50 years with the option to extend it for another 50 years thereafter. It will pay Nicaragua $10 million a year for the right.

And what is Russia’s role in this global project? Under the agreement with Nicaragua, Russia has undertaken to secure this new transport artery, including by means of warships and aircraft. In other words, it is obliged to open its military-political umbrella over this new route linking the world’s two greatest oceans.

Until now, Washington has reacted quite coolly to Russia’s military agreements with Latin America. President Obama once said that even supplies of Russian arms to Venezuela “do not disturb” him. But now the situation looks somewhat different. The Nicaragua Canal, a direct competitor to the U.S.-controlled Panama route, could not only swing the balance of power in Central America, but also significantly revise the geopolitical map of the world. That concern has already been expressed by the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua.

“The embassy is concerned about the lack of information and transparency in many important aspects of the project,” as International Business Times quotes the diplomatic statement.

The unease is threefold: the strengthening of Russia’s military presence in the territorial waters of Nicaragua; the increasing rivalry between the U.S. and China in the region, and the establishment of control by U.S. competitors over a new route for the delivery of oil and other strategic raw materials.

Concern has also been expressed by many environmentalists, who believe that the new canal could lead to a global natural disaster, for it threatens to contaminate the water and totally wipe out the fauna of Lake Nicaragua, the largest tropical lake in Latin America.

Renowned columnist Andres Oppenheimer writes in the influential Spanish-language U.S. newspaper El Nuevo Herald that the canal poses a greater threat to the planet than the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

U.S. authorities may be counting on political change in Nicaragua to stymie construction of what is considered to be the pet project of President Daniel Ortega, or on the inability of the Hong Kong-based Chinese contractor (which has a dubious reputation and whose name is linked to a series of major scandals) to fulfill the contract, or even on Russia losing interest in the project because of economic problems back home.

All the same, the Nicaragua Canal seems to have been one of the main reasons for Sergei Shoigu’s visit to the region, echoing the military-political confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine from the opposite side of the globe.