BY DAVID JESSOP — Over the last five years, Russian interest in the Caribbean has been growing steadily so that today Moscow’s diplomatic profile and its economic presence in a number of Caribbean nations is now stronger than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
Russia also appears to see the region as possessing a similar world view, one in which it can demonstrate its desire to counterbalance what it regards as US exceptionalism; where the restoration of its special relationship with a changing Cuba will be strategically significant; and where interesting numerical possibilities exist for voting at the UN and in other international fora.
Although Russia’s interest in the Caribbean is on a much smaller scale to that of China, its presence, for some in Washington in particular, represents a worrying alternative in an ever broadening spectrum of Caribbean relationships. In part this concern reflects Russia’s intention to have a long-term military presence in the Caribbean Basin, when its relationship with the west is deteriorating.
While there is no sense as yet that the Caribbean, given its strategic geographic position in the Americas, may again become a feature in some new version of the Cold War, it is clear that some in the US Administration and Congress see Russia’s presence as an attempt by President Putin to erode US leadership, challenge Western influence within the Western hemisphere, and as a potential threat. However, an alternative view, as General John Kelly, the officer in charge of US Southern Command suggested recently to a US Senate committee, is that a Russian military presence in the Caribbean Basin is more a ‘nuisance’ at a time of budget cuts.
Russia’s interests in the Caribbean
From a Caribbean viewpoint, however, Russian interest in engagement and improved diplomatic and economic engagement is largely seen as enabling the diversification and rebalancing of its international relations.
According to Russia’s Ambassador to Guyana, Nikolay Smirnov, Russia has much sympathy with the Caribbean’s position on issues such as smallness and vulnerability and is prepared to use its influence internationally to support the region. Moscow, he has said, is also willing to help the Caribbean understand what lies offshore in the region by providing state support with specific projects involving the study of the Caribbean Sea.
Speaking more recently in Trinidad he noted that Russia hopes to expand its trade there and with other nations in CARICOM, see tourism grow, and RT, the state funded television and internet service, become more widely available in the Caribbean region.
At its most visible, Russian engagement has come in the form of rapidly increasing tourist arrivals.
However, with the introduction of US, Canadian and EU sanctions following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and subsequent difficulties with money transfer, plus the dramatic fall in the value of the rouble and general economic uncertainty, the Caribbean region has seen at best Russian arrivals stagnate and in some cases record a significant decline.
For example, in the case of Jamaica, sanctions and the consequent ending of a direct Russian air link have all but halted the rise of what had been the island’s fastest-growing new tourism market. In contrast, Russian arrivals into the Dominican Republic tourism have been steadily increasing. Even with Russia’s present economic problems, official figures for 2014 put arrivals into the Dominican Republic from Russia at 165,690, slightly up on 2013.
For most of the rest of the region however, Russian tourism numbers remain small.
There has however, has been a rapid growth in Russian interest in investment in tourism, in part to take advantage of OECS investment for citizenship schemes, and in land purchases.
More generally there is Russian interest in mineral extraction and raw materials. UC RUSAL, the leading Russian global aluminium producer, has a majority shareholding in the Bauxite Company of Guyana, a US$25m investment in bauxite mining in the Kurubuka area and licences covering two other areas where there are bauxite deposits.
The same company is also increasing it bauxite-related investment in Jamaica. At the end of last year it announced that it will spend approximately US$400m on an integrated mining and infrastructure project, and an associated power plant which will lead to increased exports of bauxite to Russia.
Relations with Cuba
In contrast has been the rapid improvement in Russia’s relationship with Cuba at a time when it has been pursuing detente with the US.
In mid-2014 President Putin visited Havana and expressed regret that Russia had left in the 1990s. At the same time President Castro said that Cuba was pleased with Russia’s international pursuit of the “firm, intelligent policy currently being implemented” and that Cuba expected this coincidence of views to continue.
During the visit, President Putin signed ten bilateral economic and commercial agreements; confirmed Russia’s decision to forgive more than US$35bn in Cuban debt to the former Soviet Union; and announced an interest in new investments in energy, power generation and offshore oil exploration, plus other plans for co-operation other areas including international information security. He was joined in Havana by Igor Sechin, the head of Russia’s state oil company Rosneft, which intends exploring for oil off Cuba’s northern coast.
Since then Cuba has also been in dialogue other Russian oil companies including Zarubezhneft.
More recently, the Russian President visit was followed this February by General Sergey Shoigu, the Russian Minister of Defence who visited Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In subsequent comments on this visit Anatoliy Antonov, Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister, told the Russian media that Moscow is working with a number of Latin American countries on establishing logistical support outposts on their territory to support Russian Naval vessels when necessary with provisioning and other facilities including maintenance.
Gauging the Russian presence
Although his statements about a minimal Russian presence may be purposely ambiguous and are likely paralleled by similar requests for the Russian air force, it is now widely accepted that establishment of such facilities in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela reflect Russia’s desire to again project itself as a global power, and that this will mean over time that the US in particular will have to weigh the strategic implications.
Space does not permit more, but what this brief summary suggests is the need for the region and those beyond to form a balanced judgement to determine how best to relate to Russia in the Caribbean; whether its presence and approach represents a threat and if so to whom; or whether it is just a further demonstration of the fact that newer actors may with Caribbean support, be gradually rebalancing the historic dominance of Europe and North America.