MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — On the rim of a volcano with a clear view of the U.S. Embassy, landscapers are applying the final touches to a mysterious new Russian compound.
Behind the concrete walls and barbed wire, a visitor can see red-and-blue buildings, manicured lawns, antennas and globe-shaped devices. The Nicaraguan government says it’s simply a tracking site of the Russian version of a GPS satellite system. But is it also an intelligence base intended to surveil the Americans?
“I have no idea,” said a woman who works for the Nicaraguan telecom agency stationed at the site. “They are Russian, and they speak Russian, and they carry around Russian apparatuses.”
Three decades after this tiny Central American nation became the prize in a Cold War battle with Washington, Russia is once again planting its flag in Nicaragua. Over the past two years, the Russian government has added muscle to its security partnership here, selling tanks and weapons, sending troops, and building facilities intended to train Central American forces to fight drug trafficking.
an activity uptick
The Russian surge appears to be part of the Kremlin’s expansionist foreign policy. In other parts of the world, President Vladimir Putin’s administration has deployed fighter planes to help Syria’s war-battered government and stepped up peace efforts in Afghanistan, in addition to annexing the Crimean Peninsula and supporting separatists in Ukraine.
“Clearly there’s been a lot of activity, and it’s on the uptick now,” said a senior U.S. official familiar with Central American affairs, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
As the world untangles the Trump camp’s links to Moscow, American officials also puzzle over Russian intentions in its former stomping ground. Current and former U.S. officials suspect the new Russian facilities could have “dual use” capabilities, particularly for electronic espionage aimed at the U.S. Security analysts see the military moves in Central America as a possible rebuttal to the increased U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe, showing Russia can also strut in the United States’ back yard.
American officials say they are not yet alarmed by the growing Russia presence. But they are vigilant. The State Department named a staffer from its Russia desk to become the desk officer in charge of Nicaragua, in part because of her prior experience. Some American diplomats dispatched to Nicaragua have Russian-language skills and experience in Moscow.
cold war history
Nicaragua’s president’s office, the foreign and defense ministries, and the police all refused to address questions for this report. The Russian Embassy in Managua also failed to respond.
Spy games and Washington-Moscow power struggles are old hat for Nicaragua, a country the size of Alabama with a rich Cold War history. The Soviet Union and Cuba provided soldiers and funding to help the government of Daniel Ortega and his leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front after they overthrew the U.S.-backed dictator Anastazio Somoza in 1979. The CIA jumped in to back rebels known as the “contras” fighting the Sandinistas in a war that killed tens of thousands.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to such Cold War conflicts. But in the past decade, and particularly under Putin’s rule, Russia has sought a bigger world footprint.