US Southern Command calls for greater engagement

The top commander of the U.S. Southern Command is raising concern about the increasing role of Russian military involvement in Nicaragua and other like-minded Latin American nations.

Gen. John F. Kelly, the Marine Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday that the current level of Russian military involvement in Latin America has not been seen since the days of the Soviet Union.

“Last year marked a noticeable uptick in Russian power projection and security force personnel in the region. It has been over three decades since we last saw this type of high-profile Russian military presence: a visit by a Russian Navy Interfleet Surface Action Group to Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and the deployment of two Russian long-range strategic bombers to Venezuela and Nicaragua as part of a training exercise,” Gen. Kelly said.

While Russia’s growing interest in the region is not necessarily a bad thing, Kelly says it’s something the U.S. should keep an eye on.

“While Russian counterdrug cooperation could potentially contribute to regional security, the sudden increase in its military outreach merits closer attention, as Russia’s motives are unclear,” Kelly told the Armed Services Committee.

The Southern Command leader’s comments represent an apparent shift in U.S. government views toward Russia’s role in the Latin American drug war.

A year ago, a top U.S. anti-narcotics official told The Nicaragua Dispatch that Russia’s growing involvement in Nicaragua’s drug war is “welcome” by the United States.

“I welcome any contribution, any donation and any support that the Russian government wants to give in this hemisphere, exactly as I expect the Russian government to welcome our anti-drug programs in  Asia—based in Afghanistan or in the republics of Central Asia,” William Brownfield, U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, said during a webcast press conference last March.

Brownfield added, “The truth is that we want collaboration, and if the collaboration comes from Russia in our hemisphere or if it’s the United States in Russia’s hemisphere, then I think that is positive.”

The U.S.’ enthusiasm for Russian cooperation seems to be fading.

“Given its history, the region is sensitive to any appearance of increased militarization, which is why it is important that Russia and China promote their defense cooperation in a responsible, transparent manner that helps maintain hemispheric stability and hard-won democratic gains,” Kelly told the Armed Services Committee yesterday.

Kelly also mentioned the Nicaragua’s efforts to build a $40 billion Chinese-owned canal as further example of “increased regional influence of so-called ‘external actors’.”

Kelly used the example of the canal plans as a reason for the U.S. to not disengage the region any more than it already has.

“If we want to maintain our partnerships in this hemisphere and maintain even minimal influence, we must remain engaged with this hemisphere,” Kelly said. “Budget cuts are having a direct and detrimental effect on our security cooperation activities, the principal way we engage and promote defense cooperation in the region. The cumulative effect of our reduced engagement is a relative but accelerated decline of trust in our reliability and commitment to the region. Our relationships, our leadership, and our influence in the Western Hemisphere are paying the price.”

  • Jon Cloke

    So, for the best part of the 19th Century it was the Monroe Doctrine and ‘fears’ of European intervention that justified continuous military interventions throughout Latin America by the US, then there was the rise of socialist revolutionary movements from the beginning of the 20th century and the Cold War that took over, until 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    Thankfully, just as it looked like the US would have no more justification for continuing to intervene, invade and overthrow governments because of the ‘peace dividend’ and (as the Onion so presciently put it) the US State Department was auditioning for the part of ‘mortal enemy of the US’, some genius came up with the ‘Axis of Evil’ and all of the interventions, invasions and massive, massive expenditure on weapons and materiel that justified! Thank goodness for the fundamental threat to the existence of the US comprised by the AoE and the ‘War on Terror’ that went with it, because how else would the US continue to unquestioningly allocate vast sums of US taxpayers money to the Pentagon/corporate subsidy industry?

    By comparison, the ‘War on Drugs’ has been a bit of a disappointment as a rationale for justifying intervention and expenditure, although it has been quite useful as a way to use aid conditionality to get client regimes salivating like Pavlov’s dogs. But as the WoD disintegrates into sane attempts to decriminalize in Uruguay at one extreme and the awful, bloody anarchy in Mexico at the other and it becomes plain that if there ever was a war on drugs it was lost a long time ago like some vast global Volstead Act, how on earth can US ‘defence’ contractors and their five-star sales people in the Pentagon justify spending more than the next ten countries on ‘defence’?

    I know! How about making China into a threat and even raising the hoary old chestnut of an aggressive Russia! That should be good to keep those US$billions flowing in! And in the meantime, the F35, ‘the jet that ate the Pentagon’, sucks up military dollars like an insane fiscal sponge, and bases all over the continental US bulge at the seams with unused Strykers, MRAPs, Abrams and Humvees in such vast quantities that the US military has no idea how many it has or where they are….. such is the price of freedom, buddy, and don’t you dare question it!

  • Ken

    While I don’t doubt Gen. Kelly’s good intentions, his own words cause me to suspect that he’s at minimum naive–if not knowingly blowing smoke.

    For sure, Russian motives may not be “clear” in the region, but are they any less “clear” than US motives? It’s now reasonably well documented that the US government itself has been a participant in the drug trade and it’s hard to document that the “war on drugs” has succeeded (or been smart policy). It’s not “clear” to me what US military motives are in the region, so it seems weird that the general is expecting Russian motives to be any clearer.

    Then Gen. Kelly expresses concern over “external actors,” chiefly China but presumably also Russia. Well gosh, isn’t the US an “external actor” too? This is smacking of the Monroe Doctrine. By what rationalization does the general assume that the US is an “internal actor”?

    Meanwhile, the general wants to remain “engaged” in the region and warns that budget cuts are threatening this. I’m a US citizen (and alas a US taxpayer) and am not sure I want to spend money keeping the US “engaged” with “partners” in the region. My opinion is that the US has (or should have) a Department of Defense to defend itself from foreign invasion. OK, diplomacy and this and that are good things too, but I’m not sure I want to spend billions of dollars maintaining a fleet of warships with the only goal of being “engaged.”

    Good article. Gen Kelly said it all himself, no need to spin it.

    • Ben

      Well put, Ken.

  • Flaco Delgado

    “helps maintain… hard-won democratic gains,”

    Anybody have a clue what he is referring to?

  • http://www.opwr.org/ Indio Jones

    In Commander Kelly’s words from his “posture statement”, “Russia continues to build on its existing strategic partnerships in Latin America, pursuing an increased regional presence through arm sales, counterdrug cooperation, and bilateral trade agreements. Last year marked a noticeable uptick in Russian power projection and security force personnel in the region. It has been over three decades since we last saw this type of high-profile Russian military presence: a visit by a Russian Navy Interfleet Surface Action Group to Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and the deployment of two Russian long-range strategic bombers to Venezuela and Nicaragua as part of a training exercise.” If you need to know more, http://bit.ly/CKellyposture