Russia agreed to provide military training for three leftist regimes in Latin America and increase military visits and exercises following a visit last week to the region by Moscow’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, Pentagon officials said.
Shoygu met with defense and military leaders in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua and signed several agreements on warship visits and military training during the visit, which ran from Feb. 11 to 14. It is not clear whether any new arms deals were completed during the visit.
Defense officials said the Russian leader is seeking bases in the region for strategic bomber flights that Shoygu recently promised would include flights over the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.
U.S. intelligence agencies closely monitored the visit but a Pentagon spokeswoman played down the Russian military encroachment.
"Just as we have bilateral and multilateral relationships around the world, so do other nations," Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen M. Lainez told the Washington Free Beacon. "All nations are free to choose their associations as they see fit."
The U.S. Southern Command, the command responsible for maintaining security in the region, also played down the visit.
"We respect the sovereign right of nations in the region to seek constructive relationships with the international community," said Col. Lisa Garcia, a command spokeswoman.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), a member of the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee, said "the Russian bear is out of hibernation from Damascus, to Donetsk, and from Pyongyang to Peru."
"Putin and his coterie of ‘former' communists smell weakness," Pompeo said. "Their window to expand Russian influence is now and they are acting with great vigor and with nearly zero resistance from America and the West. Russian military expansion into Latin America is simply one more manifestation of their resolve and American inaction."
Defense officials familiar with intelligence reports said Shoygu discussed future arms sales and signed military training and joint exercises accords during his four days of meetings.
All three Latin states are members of the 11-member Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, known as ALBA, a leftist alliance set up by Cuba and Venezuela in 2004 as an anti-U.S. grouping of states.
The Russian news site Pravda reported that the defense minister’s visit appeared to set the stage for a future visit to the region by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian leader is under growing isolation as the result of diplomatic and financial pressure from U.S. and European states that U.S. officials have said are beginning to cause serious economic problems for Russia.
The Shoygu visit also comes amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over Moscow’s military annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and continuing Russian military destabilization—despite a recent ceasefire accord—in eastern Ukraine.
The Obama administration has remained largely silent on Russian military encroachment in the western hemisphere. Russian Tu-95 Bear H bomber flights have increased sharply near U.S. coasts in recent months, with one recent air defense zone incursion simulating a practice nuclear cruise missile strike on the United States from northeastern Canada.
British jets on Thursday intercepted Russian bombers flying along the coast near Cornwall, in southwest England.
In Nicaragua, Shoygu signed an agreement aimed at simplifying procedures for Russian warships to make port calls. A second accord was reached that will increase military training in Russia for Nicaraguan military personnel.
Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista President Daniel Ortega announced last year that he plans to build up the armed forces with Moscow’s assistance.
Russia also agreed previously to supply naval gunboats to Nicaragua beginning in 2016.
Venezuela also is a major recipient of Russian weapons, including an estimated $12 billion in arms, including Su-30 jets, Mi-17, Mi-26 and Mi-35 helicopters, T-72 tanks, Smerch multiple launch rocket launchers, S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, and artillery.
Venezuela also agreed during the Shoygu visit to increase visits by Russian warships, and Caracas will hold joint military exercises with the Russians. Joint Russian-Venezuelan air defense training also was discussed, and Russian warship visits will take place in the future.
"We will most certainly take part in your air defense and artillery drills," Shoygu was quoted by state-run Sputnik news agency as saying in Caracas.
Pravda reported Russian air force aircraft may make use of Venezuelan bases in the future.
In November, Shoygu announced that Russian strategic nuclear bombers would conduct long-range training flights over the Gulf of Mexico. "In the current situation we have to maintain military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico."
Marine Corps. Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, confirmed the likelihood of future Russian bomber flights during testimony earlier this month before the House Armed Services Committee.
"Moscow has made significant progress in modernizing its nuclear and conventional forces, improving its training and joint operational proficiency, modernizing its military doctrine to integrate new methods of warfare and developing long range precision strike capabilities," Stewart said.
Stewart said Russian military forces, including Tu-95 bombers, conducted "record numbers" of out of area air and naval deployments.
"We expect this to continue this year to include greater activity in the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas," he said.
In an article published Tuesday, Pravda quoted Putin as saying Russia would not permit the United States to achieve military superiority, and Moscow will continue to bolster its nuclear forces, space weapons, navy, and long-range aviation.
The newspaper also said Moscow lacks a system of bases to achieve its objectives.
In Cuba, Shoygu met Cuban dictator Raul Castro and noted that military relations continued to "develop constructively." The Russian leader also thanks the Cuban communist regime for hosting port visits by Russian naval vessels, including the intelligence-gathering ship Victor Leonov, which made a port call in Havana in January—coinciding with the Obama administration’s diplomatic initiative to seek normalized relations with the regime.
Cuba also agreed to send military personnel to Russia for training.
U.S. defense officials said the Leonov was anchored some 25 miles off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida, last week—where it is suspected of conducting surveillance of U.S. nuclear missile submarines based at nearby Kings Bay, Georgia.
"This long-term strategy imposes obligations on Russia to supply its allies in Latin America with advanced weapons, including air defense systems, aircraft, and warships," Pravda stated.
Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton said the Russians appear to be filling a power vacuum in the region by the lack of focus from the Obama administration.
"Russia's perception of American weakness under Obama has fueled their new adventurism in this hemisphere," Bolton said. "Since I see no chance of Obama waking up to the potential threat, I am very worried about the situation a new president will face in January 2017."
Dan Goure, a Russia expert with the Lexington Institute, said Russia's current moves into Latin America "are like a page Xeroxed from the Soviet political-military playbook."
"Now, like then, the Kremlin is attempting to counter what it perceives as western encirclement by operating in America' backyard," Goure said.
"The U.S. deploys missile defenses in Eastern Europe and sends warships into the Black Sea so the Russian military is attempting a riposte by orchestrating naval visits to Venezuela and seeking to reopen its intelligence facility in Cuba."
Goure said Moscow is seeking to encourage anti-American sentiment in the region "much the same way as it perceives the U.S. has done to Russia in the so-called color revolutions."