Small Wars Journal

Growing Military Relations Between Nicaragua and Russia

Fri, 12/05/2014 - 12:04am

Growing Military Relations Between Nicaragua and Russia

Brenda Fiegel

Since 2006 Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista Revolutionary Front have progressively increased bilateral relations with Russia in the realms of trade, commerce, agriculture, anti-drug programs, proposed space programs, and infrastructure development. Starting around 2008 Russia also began providing military support to Nicaragua through the provision of funds, equipment and training. In 2011 alone Russia provided Nicaragua with $26.5 million in military aid—almost nine times more than the U.S. military gave.[i] In response to Russian support, the Nicaraguan Government, with approval from the National Assembly, will allow Russian military formations, ships, and aircraft to remain in the country through June 2015, despite the fact that its constitution prohibits the establishment of foreign military installations on national soil. And in an attempt to maintain continued presence in the country despite constitutional clauses, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has indicated that Russia would like to seek regular access to military facilities in Nicaragua in addition to establishing a military base.  Russia is also taking similar actions in Venezuela and Cuba in what appears to be a geopolitical play for strategic military presence in Latin America.

Why Nicaragua?

According to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Nicaragua is geographically desirable, as it will allow Russian vessels access to refueling stations near the equator.[ii] Russia also wants to take part in providing military security during the construction of the Nicaragua Canal.  What is interesting to note about the Canal project is that it doesn’t have a declaration of neutrality which means that in the event of a conflict, the canal would not remain neutral. In addition, the canal concessions allow for the establishment of a military base. This is significant in the sense that granting Russia the security concession for the canal could actually serve as the cover for a Russian military base from which Russia could potentially host covert programs and agents while simultaneously receiving economic benefits from illegal port activities.  It also provides Russians with an operating base that has close proximity to the US. Natural resources including bauxite and potentially large deposits of natural gas in the Caribbean Sea also make Nicaragua appealing to Russia.

Nicaragua Supports Russian Military Presence and Space Programs

President Daniel Ortega has always maintained favorable relations with Russia, especially in the military realm. In 2014, for example, Nicaragua made an exception to its constitution that allowed Russian military formations, ships, and aircraft into the country as part of a six-month training agreement (which ended in June 2014).  A second agreement which is in place until June 2015 allows Russian and Nicaraguan soldiers to conduct joint anti-narcotics patrols in territorial waters in the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean. This same agreement allows Russian fleets to provide security during the construction of the Nicaragua Canal.[iii] When questioned regarding Russian military presence in Nicaragua, Ortega cited US military presence as a justification by stating “How many US military ships visited (our ports) between 2007 and 2012? How many US ships have spent months in our Caribbean and Pacific Ocean ports? Military vessels that have shown up on peacekeeping missions! And how many American soldiers and officers have landed in our country to deploy their bases?… (Foreign) bases are forbidden by the Constitution, but (in reality) bases have still been deployed.”[iv]

Nicaragua is also supporting Russia’s space program, as President Daniel Ortega formally accepted a Russian proposal to build a satellite navigation monitoring system, known as GLONASS, in July 2014.  According to Russian open source media, this system will “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.”[v]

Russian Military Support to Nicaragua

According to President Ortega, Russia’s contribution to the Nicaraguan military has been “steady, reliable and extremely important” and the facts bear this out.[vi] Between 2008 and 2009 Russia provided the Nicaraguan Air Force with two modern helicopters, in addition to providing $(USD) 10,000,000 in “non-reimbursable financial assistance.”  In March 2013 Russia helped to create an Anti-Drug Training Center in Managua.  In April 2013 Russia provided the Nicaraguan Army with a fleet of Tiger armored vehicles, in addition to creating the Mariscal Gueorgui Zhúkov military training center. Support continued into 2014 with the donation of a flight and airborne simulator valued at $(USD) 15 million.[vii] When questioned about Russian support and equipment donations, President Ortega responded by stating, “Is (the United States) offering to equip our army with modern weapons? We all know that the arms we have are decades old already.”[viii]

The Perception of Neighboring Countries to Russian Presence in Nicaragua

For Costa Rica, the idea of a Russian military base in Nicaragua is unnerving, as relations between the two countries are tense. Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís reiterated this idea by referring to Nicaragua as an “uncomfortable neighbor” in March 2014. Solís further added that “We should keep in mind the ties that exist between our countries, but Nicaragua was an aggressor in Costa Rican territory; they invaded (referring to Isla Calero in 2010).”[ix] Citing similar concerns, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo indicated that Nicaragua is attempting to intimidate its Central American neighbors by arming itself with modern weapons and equipment with the help of Russia.


Nicaragua appears to be an important first step for Russia in accomplishing its goal of obtaining strategic military presence in Latin America.  And although no Russian military bases have been approved for construction in Nicaragua, the idea has been proposed and the constitution has already been modified for initial Russian military presence on Nicaraguan soil. The Nicaragua Canal project which is slated to start in 2015 will also provide Russia with additional years of military presence in the county while simultaneously providing the opportunity to bring additional warships and land-based military equipment. This continued presence will likely allow Russia ample opportunities to further their end goal of establishing permanent military presence in Nicaragua while simultaneously establishing themselves as a strategic ally in the region.

The views expressed in FMSO publications and reports are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

End Notes

[i] “Nicaragua Looks to Russia to Modernize Army. Nicaragua Dispatch.  Accessed on September 09, 2014 from

[ii] “Russia Seeks Access to Bases in Eight Countries for Its Ships and Bombers.” CNSN News. Accessed on August 05,2014 from

[iii]  “Base militar de Rusia en Nicaragua.” La Prensa.  Accessed on August 28, 2014 from

[iv] “Ortega: Rusia armará al Ejército.” La Prensa. Accessed on August 5, 2014 from

[v] “Glonass funcionará en dos años en Nicaragua.”  El Nuevo Diario.  Accessed on July 28, 2014 from

[vi] “Ortega: Rusia armará al Ejército.” La Prensa. Accessed on August 5, 2014 from

[vii] “Ejército de Nicaragua gestiona con Rusia armamento para vigilar los espacios marítimos.” El Espectador. Accessed on August 25, 2014

[viii] “Ortega: Rusia armará al Ejército.” La Prensa. Accessed on August 5, 2014 from

[ix] “Armamento de Nicaragua inquieta al canciller. La Nacion.”  Accessed on September 05, 2014 from


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Brenda Fiegel is a Senior Intelligence Analyst and the Editor of the Latin American Operational Environment Watch at the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. FMSO conducts open-source and foreign collaborative research, focusing on the foreign perspectives of understudied and unconsidered defense and security issues. Her specific research expertise includes “US/Mexico foreign relations,” “US/Mexico border security threats,” “Mexican and Central American violence/extremist groups to include drug cartels” and “Conflict resolution and peacekeeping in Mexico and Central America.” She has lectured on these topics in professional military education settings, at Interagency Security Conferences, at Customs and Border Patrol Facilities, and at academic forums.


Bill M.

Sat, 12/06/2014 - 5:07pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

What I find most interesting is the significant and growing influence of both China and Russia in Latin America, which implies the Monroe doctrine no longer implies, or it isn't enforceable.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 12/05/2014 - 2:22pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert---the ARCOM goes to the translators who translated the Russian title of their doctrinal publication into English.

BUT the idea of an unconventional/irregular counter approach of using SOF is extremely valid --what you mentioned might actually be the single most important element in actively countering the Russian UW strategy--question is do our civilian leadership see the connection?

Right now the Russian military has lost over 5000 KIA, 2000 WIA, and over 800 MIA since Sept and that is almost as many as we lost in the entire Iraq period.

The Ukrainian SF and airborne units together with two volunteer BNs have shifted to a strong guerrilla campaign against the Russian SF/GRU units inside the Ukraine and are contributing massively to the loss of life among the Russian SF/GRU.

First indication that the Russian mercenaries give that they know Ukrainian SF are in their rear areas.
VIDEO #Russia ARMY in #Novoazovsk acknowledge the presence of #Ukraine Special Forces in area…
Sometimes adaptation on the fly in the middle of combat is the best modernizer for a military.

Their 92nd Airborne Bde on 1 Dec killed over 200 Russian SF in heavy fighting together with a high ranking Russian GS officer who was in charge of their SF attack ops inside the Ukraine and who had been involved in a number of fights.

How important was the killed Russian GS SF type?---a Lt. General of the Russian Ground Forces came into do a ceasefire deal to just recover his body and the bodies of the other SF---one of the darkest days for a supposedly elite SF unit is what is privately being said.

By slowly blunting the military and SOF/GRU elements of their new UW strategy one might in fact "discourage" Russian adventures in the future especially in the Baltics and then Balkans as their new doctrine foresaw a tight integration between their CF and the SOF/GRU units.

A kind of strategic strategy with a tactical component.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 12/05/2014 - 8:28am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell


Did someone get an ARCOM for "New Generation Warfare"? :-)

Seriously though, as you know, nothing new here, other than the fact that as US deterrence of Russia breaks down (for a wide range of reasons) the Russians are wisely adopting approaches for advancing their interests and sovereignty to the detriment of weaker parties in a manner cleverly designed to be less likely to trigger an overt military response.

For the US this should be a powerful metric of the general erosion of our global influence and ability to deter powerful state actors across the spectrum of activities available for encroaching upon the sovereignty of others. I do not think there is any one single answer, but it is perhaps the singular problem: the breakdown of US deterrence.

Every community owning a portion of deterrence needs to reexamine their approaches. Certainly we cannot rely upon nuclear weapons and assume that Strategic Command can do this alone. Clearly they cannot. I think this is where the SOF community has an opportunity to grow interest and support to what SOF can do through unconventional warfare approaches to help deter the type of approach that Russia currently feels quite free to employ. Maybe talking "unconventional deterrence" will find greater traction among those who equally recognize the growing problem with state actors such as China and Russia who increasingly feel they no longer need to remain confined to the sovereignty boxes imposed upon them by others.



Dave Maxwell

Fri, 12/05/2014 - 7:50am

I wonder if they are going to export their New Generation Warfare (political and unconventional warfare) to and through Nicaragua.