Nicaragua looks to Russia to modernize army

Ortega defends Nicaragua's right to armament, but remains secretive about plans with Russia

Nicaragua is looking to Russia to replace its old soviet-era military equipment

photo/ Tim Rogers

Nicaragua is looking to Russia to replace its old soviet-era military equipment

The Sandinista government is turning to its old cold war arms benefactor to modernize its military and beef up its national defense capabilities.

In a speech to the Nicaraguan Army on April 4, President Daniel Ortega insisted that Nicaragua has the right to arm itself with modern weaponry, and again is looking to Russia to supply its military buildup.

Comparing today with the cold war, Ortega said Russian military support for Nicaragua is as important as ever.

“It’s just as important now to defend our right, the right that we Nicaraguans have to arm ourselves, to strengthen ourselves militarily; we have to modernize the army to provide these services,” Ortega said. “It’s just that simple.”

Since Nicaragua acquired an additional 100,000 sq km of territorial waters in the 2012 ruling by the International Court of Justice, the impoverished Central American nation has been trying desperately to beef-up its ill-equipped army to better assert its sovereignty against Colombia.

Though little is known about the nature of the “many agreements” Ortega claims his government has signed with Moscow, The Nicaragua Dispatch has learned that Russia has dramatically increased military aid to Nicaragua in recent years. According to a U.S. government source, Russia provided Nicaragua with some $26.5 million in military aid alone in 2011—almost nine times more than the U.S. military gave.

Ortega says there’s nothing strange about courting Russian military aid, but he seemed to get defensive about it during his speech on Friday.

“What’s so strange about developing relations with the Russian Federation with the same intensity and the same strength as the relations we’ve developed with the United States military? What’s so strange about that?” Ortega demanded.

The Sandinista leader called Russia’s aid to Nicaragua “extraordinary” and “unconditional” and says its motivated by generosity “because they know about problems with drug trafficking and organized crime.”

“Who can complain about that?” Ortega demanded in a speech on Friday night. “Is (the United States) offering to equip our army with modern weapons? We all know that the arms we have are decades old already.”

Secretive Sandinistas

When it comes to understanding the nature of Nicaraguan-Russian relations, look no further than Moscow…because you won’t find any answers in Managua.

In recent years, the Sandinistas have become even more secretive than the Kremlin, which this week released information about forthcoming satellite monitoring system that Nicaragua refuses to acknowledge publicly.

Following last week’s visit to Managua by members of Moscow’s Duma, Russian lawmakers on April 1 approved a bill that would allow that country to build a satellite navigation monitoring system in Nicaragua, according to the Russian press.

“The agreement is aimed at creating an organizational and legal framework for mutually beneficial partnership between Russia and Nicaragua in terms of exploring and using space for peaceful purposes,” reads an official statement by the Russian government, translated in English by Russian media outlet RIA Novosti.

Russia plans to build a GLONASS satellite monitoring system in Nicaragua. Map shows Glonass' constellation of satellites

Russia plans to build a GLONASS satellite monitoring system in Nicaragua.Map shows Glonass' constellation of satellites

Russian media reports that the agreement between the two countries would establish a “network of land-based control stations” in Nicaragua to “boost Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation system, the only current alternative to the US’s Global Positioning System (GPS) to feature global coverage and comparable accuracy.”

GLONASS, Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System, has a constellation of 24 satellites providing global coverage. It is the most expensive program of the Russian Federal Space Agency.

The bill calling for the establishment of a Russian satellite navigation system is scheduled to be debated in the near future in Moscow, but apparently not in Nicaragua, where the Sandinista government remains totally hermetic.

Sandinista military officials have dismissed rumors of Russian plans to build a military base in Nicaragua as “speculation,” and President Ortega said that foreign military bases on Nicaraguan soil are prohibited by the constitution (but so too was his reelection in 2011).

Last year, Russia announced the creation of a Nicaraguan-Russian drug war center in Managua, scheduled to open sometime this year, to train police officers from throughout Central America. But since the original announcement was made, the Sandinista government has remained tight-lipped about progress of that arrangement.

The Russians had also promised to supply Nicaraguan police with firearms, helicopters and Tiger urban assault vehicles to employ in the war on drugs. Russian drug czar Victor Ivanov, who visited Managua in February 2013, said his plan was to convert Nicaragua into a regional stronghold for Central America’s drug war, but it’s unclear in Nicaragua what has happened to further that goal since then.

  • James Conyers

    Much hoopla about nothing… FIVE countries: America, Russia, Germany, China and France have accounted for three-quarters of international arms exports over the past five years and global BUSINESS is booming to the tune of 75+ BILLION DOLLARS annually. Overall, international arms sales between 2009 and 2013 were 14% higher than the previous five-year period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks the arms trade.

    America has led the pack for years and exports to over 90 nations, with aircraft and hi-tech weapons systems or ‘platforms’ making up most of its export sales. Russia has been increasingly gaining ground and currently supplies arms and military hardware to 66 countries, has concluded agreements on military and technical cooperation with 85 countries, and sells more ships and naval helicopters (the Kamov Ka-28/31 naval helicopter is consider by many as one of the best in the world) than any other country.

    SIPRI in its latest report “Trends in International Arms Transfers – 2013” says Russia’s exports of arms and armaments increased by 28% between 2004-2008 and 2009-13 from a low of just 3% back in 1994. While equipment for air forces and air defense of foreign countries lead the Russian export list with a 56% share, it is their weaponry for ground forces and naval equipment that account for about another 40% of their exports that will be of interest to Nicaragua. This NOT a rebirth of the old Soviet cold war practices of arming of the proletariat. Moscow isn’t doling out largesse to potentially delinquent clients. It is, instead, the pursuit of an arms export programme on based on “market principles” where the problem of finding financing in cases where countries cannot make payments using reserves is being addressed through the growing involvement of Russian banks in the management of credit related to arms exports.

    Meanwhile western weapons manufacturers are waging an uphill battle to retain their falling market share mostly by ‘pushing’ sales of expensive, hi-tech weapon systems and platforms that their clients in general do not need or their poorly-trained personnel cannot operate… simply to keep American partisan politics, congressional lawmakers and interest groups (many with weapons plants located in their constituencies) happy.

    Nicaragua’s desire/need to update its DECADES old inventory and standard of weaponry for the Armed Forces and the Policía National is a matter of national defense, against both internal and external threats. It only makes sense to look to an arms exporter that can provide the standard and range of equipment that meets the national requirements… which Russia can do better than most other arms exporting countries (with the possible exception of China who in fact imports a significant portion of their export arms FROM Russia in the first place).

    Given it’s MY tax dollars (or Cordobas) that will be paying in part for the upgrade I’m all for cutting out the middleman and going to the source for a better deal.