Russia is rekindling its once-strong ties to Nicaragua, possibly including providing the Central American nation with jet fighters, stoking unease as far away as the Andes in South America.
Later this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will arrive in Nicaragua as part of a swing through four Latin American nations, the culmination to a series of high-level Russian visits to this Central American nation in the past year. Last month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu paid a two-day visit, and in January the head of Russia’s upper house of Parliament arrived. Russian leader Vladimir Putin visited in June.
The rumored provision of the Russian jet fighters to Nicaragua has spawned fears of an arms race in Central America and once again made Nicaragua a bit player in the geopolitical to-and-fro between Washington and Moscow.
The chief spokesman for the Sandinista Front on international matters, National Assembly Deputy Jacinto Suárez, defended the possible acquisition of the fighter planes on Thursday and said Nicaragua’s relations with Russia have taken “a qualitative leap.”
“Everyone has the right to defend their national sovereignty. Why should anyone feel threatened by this?” Suárez said at a news conference, declining to confirm whether Nicaragua would obtain the aircraft and adding that they might come as a donation rather than a purchase.
The former Soviet Union was a patron of the Sandinista Front when it toppled a U.S.-backed dictatorship in 1979 and remained in power until 1990. During that period, Moscow provided Antonov AN-26 and AN-32 light transport aircraft and Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters.
Former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega won elections and returned to power in 2007. He was re-elected in 2011. While strongly anti-U.S. in his political rhetoric, aimed at his domestic and regional supporters, Ortega has been pragmatic on matters key to Washington, such as immigration and counter-drug efforts.
Word of the possible acquisition of the jet fighters came Feb. 10 when Adolfo Zepeda Martínez, the Nicaraguan army’s inspector general, acknowledged that the nation had “taken a few steps to obtain interceptor fighters” to catch drug flights. He described the fighters as “completely defensive, not attack aircraft.”
Zepeda didn’t mention the type of jet fighter, but both Nicaraguan and Russian media reported it might be the MiG-29 aircraft, a fighter developed in the 1970s and worth about $29 million each.
Nicaragua’s neighbors recoiled.
“One doesn’t combat drug trafficking with that kind of heavy military equipment for fighting wars,” Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González said in late February after bringing up the matter with Secretary of State John Kerry.
A former armed forces commander in Honduras, Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, told media there that Nicaragua’s possible acquisition would create “an imbalance for the region.”
Colombia has been more muted, but its air force contains aged C-7 Kfir fighters from Israel and Cessna A-37 Dragonfly light strike jets, neither of which are a match for the MiG-29s. Colombia maintains a dispute with Nicaragua over maritime territory, following a 2012 ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague that expanded Nicaragua’s sea boundaries to the detriment of Colombia.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, relations between Nicaragua and Russia cooled. But in 2008, when Russia sponsored the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after an armed conflict with Georgia, Nicaragua became one of only four countries to recognize the two rump states.
Some analysts see the dust-up over the jet fighters as part of a global chess game between the United States and Russia, which has been under U.S. and European Union sanctions since its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine a year ago. Nicaragua supported the annexation.
“Because of the U.S. presence in countries abutting Russia, Russia may be looking to do the same in our region,” said Carlos Rivera Bianchini, president of the Foundation for Peace and Democracy in San José, Costa Rica.
Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Americas after Haiti, spends far less on defense than its neighbors to the north, partly because of its success at fending off organized crime and drug trafficking.
Rivera said it would be “irresponsible” of Nicaragua to buy jet fighters when so much of its population lives in poverty.
“The maintenance of these planes – even if they are donated – is extremely high,” Rivera said.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order not to interfere in bilateral relations, said speedy jet fighters are not so useful in identifying and intercepting drug-laden aircraft.
“For narcotics work, what you need are spotter planes,” the official said.
The official noted that Nicaragua’s military often doesn’t “have the funding for the basics” and voiced surprise at the suggestion that Russia might donate the aircraft to Nicaragua.
“In my time, I haven’t seen a whole lot of free military equipment, but anything is possible,” the official said.
Since Ortega’s return to power, Russia has boosted aid, providing 100,000 tons of wheat each year since 2011 and turning over 520 Russian-made public buses. In 2013, Russia agreed to offer patrol gunboats to Nicaragua.
As part of the Russian defense minister’s visit in February, Nicaragua agreed to ease rules to allow Russian warships to enter Nicaraguan ports.
In addition, Russia’s top counter-drug official, Viktor Ivanov, visited Managua last September, announcing the construction of a Russian-financed training center to fight narcotics trafficking.
More than 45 military cadets and officers left Nicaragua last September for extended training in Russia.
Other Central American nations have sought to expand and fortify their military capacity in recent years, creating frictions in the region.
In 2013, El Salvador paid $8.5 million to buy 10 used A-37 Dragonfly aircraft from Chile, a move that drew protests from neighboring Honduras, which has traditionally wielded the strongest air force in the region.
Last year, Honduras bought two Super Tucano turboprop combat planes from Brazil’s Embraer and received aircraft worth $36 million from Taiwan, including four U.S.-built helicopters.