Moscow Building Spy Site in Nicaragua

Signals intelligence facility part of deal for 50 Russian tanks

Vladimir Putin, Daniel Ortega

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Nicuraguan President Daniel Ortega attend a welcome ceremony at an airport in Managua, Nicaragua in 2014 / AP

BY:

The Russian government is building an electronic intelligence-gathering facility in Nicaragua as part of Moscow’s efforts to increase military and intelligence activities in the Western Hemisphere.

The signals intelligence site is part of a recent deal between Moscow and Managua involving the sale of 50 T-72 Russian tanks, said defense officials familiar with reports of the arrangement.

The tank deal and spy base have raised concerns among some officials in the Pentagon and nations in the region about a military buildup under leftist Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega.

Disclosure of the Russia-Nicaraguan spy base comes as three U.S. officials were expelled from Nicaragua last week. The three Department of Homeland Security officials were picked up by Nicaraguan authorities, driven to the airport, and sent to the United States without any belongings.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the expulsion took place June 14 and was "unwarranted and inconsistent with the positive and constructive agenda that we seek with the government of Nicaragua."

"Such treatment has the potential to negatively impact U.S. and Nicaraguan bilateral relations, particularly trade," he said.

The action is an indication that President Obama’s recent diplomatic overture to Cuba has not led to better U.S. ties to leftist governments in the region.

State Department officials had no immediate comment on the expulsion.

The action is an indication that President Obama’s recent diplomatic overture to Cuba has not led to better U.S. ties to leftist governments in the region.

Nicaragua’s Ortega has remained close to the communist Castro regime in Cuba and the leftist regime in Venezuela. He was once part of the communist Sandinista dictatorship, and after winning election as president in 2006 has shifted Nicaragua towards socialism.

No details of the intelligence site, such as its location and when it will be completed, could be learned.

However, the site could be disguised as a Russian GLONASS satellite navigation tracking station that is said to be nearing completion. GLONASS is the Russian version of the Global Positioning System network of satellites used for precision navigation and guidance.

The Nicaraguan and Russian governments in August signed an agreement to build the GLONASS station near Laguna de Najapa, north of the capital of Managua, according to Nicaraguan press reports. Other news reports said the site will be located on the Caribbean coast.

Pentagon spokesmen had no immediate comment on the Russian-Nicaraguan military and intelligence cooperation.

A State Department official said, "While any nation has the right to choose its international partners, we have been clear that now is not the time for business as usual with Russia."

Southern Command spokesman Lt. Col. David Olson said the United States respects the right of nations to modernize their defenses.

"We're aware of Russian engagements in our hemisphere," he said. "The nature of Russia's engagements in our hemisphere isn't new and similar to engagements with other nations. We are confident that our partner nations understand our desire to be their security partner of choice, as well as our commitment to work side by side with them in support of our shared interests and democratic values."

A Nicaraguan Embassy spokesman also had no immediate comment.

The tank deal involves the transfer of 50 T-72 tanks, 20 of which are reported to be en route to Nicaragua as part of a first delivery.

Protesters in Managua demonstrated in late April against the Russian tank deal. The European Press Agency reported April 28 that the protest was organized by the opposition National Coalition for Democracy and the Independent Liberal Party. One protester held a sign that read. "We do not want Russian tanks, we want bread, medicine, and peace."

Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez also has criticized the tank sale, telling the La Prenza newspaper: "It is a matter of concern not because of a threat to Costa Rica … but because one country in the Central American region starts an arms race."

Gonzalez said the region needs more healthcare, technology, and infrastructure and not military hardware.

The Nicaraguan parliament on May 3 passed a measure authorizing foreign military personnel to work in the country. The measure was aimed at permitting Russian military personnel to train Nicaraguans on the use of the tanks. It could also permit Russian intelligence personnel to enter the country.

U.S. intelligence agencies reported internally several months ago that repression by the ruling Sandinista government has prompted the reformation of several armed groups in Northern Nicaragua who are opposing the Ortega government. The groups have engaged in small-scale firefights with government troops.

The armed opposition harkens back to the U.S.-supported Contra rebels that were armed during the Reagan administration to oppose the Sandinistas.

The anti-government groups are being revived after what human rights groups have said were several recent murders of former Contra fighters by suspected government agents.

Former Pentagon policymaker Mark Schneider said the deal appears to be part of a Russian strategy to expand weapons sales to create opportunities for military bases and to enhance influence in the region.

"In general, Moscow openly covets new foreign bases in Latin America, the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Balkans, and the Middle East," Schneider said. "Russia is comfortable with Marxist states. Russia will sell arms to just about anyone and will seek to achieve influence and military advantage. There is obviously no relationship between the sale of T-80 tanks reported by Jane’s and drug smuggling."

Jane’s Defence Weekly reported in May that a Nicaraguan congressman, Edwin Castro, said the government plans to use the tanks to combat drug trafficking.

Russia in October 2013 flew two Tu-160 nuclear capable bombers to Nicaragua and conducted a naval task force visit to Venezuela. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Nicaragua in 2014 and set the stage for the increased military and intelligence cooperation.

"The Nicaraguan socialists seem to have pushed the country to the point of economic collapse," Schneider said. "This has to impact what happens with Russia."

Roger Noriega, a former State Department Latin Affairs policymaker, said Managua’s spending on tanks seems like a terrible use of resources for a very poor country.

"Apparently this is part of Ortega's ‘cash-for-clunkers’ program to seal political ties with Russia while engaging in purchases that allow both sides to bury pay-offs on both sides of the deal and have some hardware," Noriega said.

If Nicaragua had an independent legislature, its members would be asking questions about the deal, he added.

"Obviously, this is none of our business," Noriega said. "But it is interesting that other countries in the region need vertical lift and [travel expenses] to carry the fight to narco traffickers, but Ortega has made other arrangements to deal with that phenomenon."

"Too bad the Obama isn't the least bit interested in anything that is happening in Nicaragua—which is fortunate if you're in the drugs or dictatorship business," he noted.

Russia under the Soviet Union operated the largest intelligence facility of its kind in Lourdes, Cuba, until the base was closed in 2002. Reports surfaced two years ago that the facility would be reopened, but Moscow issued a denial that this was the case.

Lourdes once housed more than 1,500 KGB, GRU military, and Cuban intelligence personnel. The facility was said to be capable of intercepting all electronic communications throughout the southeastern United States.

Retired Navy Cdr. Daniel Dolan, writing in the blog USNI News, stated that the cost of the tanks, an estimated $80 million, is $9 million more than the entire Nicaraguan defense budget for 2015.

"The acquisition of tanks is particularly perplexing to many in the region since Nicaragua has relatively good relations with its neighbors, has a growing tourist industry, and can boast in recent years as being the safest country for foreign tourists in all of Central America," Dolan stated. "Additionally, the ruling Sandinista party (FSLN) does not face a serious a challenge in the pending November elections."

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