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Russia, the U.S. and the Caribbean: A political power play?

As Cold War paranoia replaces post 9/11 politics in the United States, it seems that Putin and the Russian military are not content with remaining a second-rate power. Despite the fact that the presence of Russian Tu-160 strategic bomber warplanes stationed on Venezuela’s Orchila Island gives notice to Washington that Russia is ready for an aggressive projection of power and for a new internationalism in Caribbean waters, many international relations theorists dismiss the move as another of Putin’s Potemkin illusions.

For sure, Russian Tu-160 strategic bomber warplanes stationed on Venezuela’s Orchila Island is the largest posting of Russian military in the Caribbean since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Indisputably, Russian Tu-160 strategic bomber warplanes flying over the Caribbean Sea and a new coalition between a socialist government and the Kremlin in Latin America are reminiscent of Cold War tactics and ambitions, and should anger Washington, as the move is centered in its backyard.

Yet the United States is not overly concerned over Russia’s Orchila Island deployment in the Caribbean.

According to Russian Tass News agency, “A base like this could give the Trump administration all the encouragement it would need to intercede with military force, either at the base or, more likely, against the Maduro regime.”

But U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s response that “the Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is – two corrupt governments squandering public funds and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer”, offers little hope for retaliation.

Compounded to this, U.S. intelligence further confirms that Putin is staging a global silent war against liberal democracy in the Caribbean. Bearing in mind that liberal democracy is Russia’s chief ideological enemy, hereto, Russia’s yearning to offset U.S exceptionalism, also challenges the U.S.’ geo-strategic and military pivot that the Monroe doctrine is at an end, and that the United States is no longer the sole protector of the western hemisphere. In this light, Russia also challenges the dangerous fallacies of post-Cold War thinking of ‘containment’ and ‘détente’ that negated the support of communist administrations while at the same time easing the tensions between the United states and the Soviet Union in Latin America and the Caribbean as well.

And the reverse could also be true.

According to Russian military Colonel Eduard Rodyukov, “Russian Tu-160 strategic bomber warplanes stationed on Venezuela’s Orchila Island, is in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to scrap nuclear treaties.” Maybe, the presence of Russian warships in the Caribbean, may also be a “kind of a signal to the Trump administration, to make him realize that abandoning nuclear disarmament treaties will have a boomerang effect”. Whatever the evidence to these half truisms, it still reinforces the view of critics that Putin’s Russia is built on an oligarchic power structure and massive propaganda machine. Following from this, Putin’s delusional behavior in his showmanship of Russian Tu-160 strategic bomber warplanes on Caribbean soil is an exhibition of popular legitimacy to convince his inner circles that he is invincible.

Unquestionably, Russia’s military profile in the Caribbean fuels many Caribbean governments to create a more plural foreign policy, past the deteriorating partnerships that it presently holds with the United States. The Caribbean now needs a new approach to its foreign policy, but on the other hand, it is in U.S. interest that Russia not create more obstacles to bolster whatever western interest the U.S. may have in Latin America and the Caribbean. Moreover, Russia’s geostrategic position as the world’s largest continental power, its nuclear power arsenal and its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council ensure that it remains a key partner in its power play with the United States. Hence, Russia’s approach on foreign-policy issues should represent a significant alternative in the broadening spectrum of U.S. relationships, especially where the Caribbean is concerned.

Arguably, critics may want to reason that Russia is not the gravest danger facing the national security of the United States, in reference to Latin America and the Caribbean. However, attention must be diverted to the growing flow of drugs from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia that is now generating a justification for growing Russia-Latin America co-operation, especially at a time when the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) refuses to eliminate medical marijuana from its lists of banned substances.

Thus, Russian rendezvous with the Caribbean and Latin America is not in isolation.

Also at a time when both Venezuela and other Caribbean nations are experiencing increased tensions with the U.S. over economic ties and the dissolution of democracy, Russian Tu-160 strategic bomber warplanes stationed on Venezuela’s Orchila Island, highlights Latin America and the Caribbean’s geopolitical relevance on the global stage. Not ignoring the fact that the Trump administration continues to thwart its responsibility of administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance to many Latin American and Caribbean states, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is now on the decline. Intrinsically, many Caribbean states are driven by a fear of economic collapse due to the ravaging effects of climate change and a loss of global economic power.

Still one thing is certain: Russia is making it clear, through its new global naval strategy and recent demonstrations of its naval and air capabilities in the Caribbean, that the needs of the Caribbean traverse post-Cold War marginal beliefs. The Caribbean needs more than only being addressed through cross-cutting themes such as social rights, the environment and tourism. The Caribbean must be more engaged at high level political forums on the international stage and in United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) bilateral meetings.

Consequently, Russian Tu-160 strategic bomber warplanes stationed on Venezuela’s Orchila in the Caribbean mirrors the fact that the long period of western neglect in the Caribbean is now apparent. Russia’s presence in the Caribbean now highlights the need for the United States to enlarge security cooperation, including drug prohibition, intelligence and cybersecurity support for many Latin American and Caribbean states. Russia may be just belching smoke, but, as to whether entities like the Organization of American States (OAS) the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and others will begin to forsake the United States for bilateral aid, and lean heavily on Russia remains to be seen.

• Rebecca Theodore is the director of North American affairs for the Caribbean Israel Coalition a non-profit organization that partners with Israel expertise, technology and investments to bring sustainable development to the Caribbean region. Published with the permission of Caribbean News Now.

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