Through hybrid warfare and the Gerasimov Doctrine, Russia is increasingly blurring the lines between war and peace, business and crime. Russia’s involvement in Latin America is starting to follow a similar course. Douglas Farah, President of IBI Consultants, explains why he does not believe Russia’s presence in Latin America is currently a strategic threat to the U.S., but how this continued blurring of lines may lead it to become one.
The Cipher Brief: How would you assess Russia’s involvement in Latin America? Is this a strategic threat to U.S. interests, or do you anticipate it becoming one?
Douglas Farah: The Russian presence is not yet a strategic threat but is rapidly moving toward becoming one. Russia now has numerous and important allies in the region, primarily those countries in the ALBA bloc, grouped under the Bolivarian banner of 21st century socialism founded by the late Hugo Chávez. The bloc includes Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, and other smaller nations.
However, Russia has seen two key friendships weakened in the past month: Argentina, where the new government of Mauricio Macri is very unlikely to support Russia as former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner did; and Venezuela, where the Maduro government, perhaps the most friendly and supportive in the region to Russia, lost significant legislative victories to the opposition. That being said, Russia has a growing alliance with Nicaragua, which could potentially provide access to deep water ports and airstrips for long-distance bombers. And Russia is moving rapidly to strengthen its relationship with the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation) government in El Salvador, whose senior leaders were almost all trained in the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Russia is seeking to engage in specific areas where the U.S. has traditionally engaged: counter narcotics training, weapons sales, the development of military doctrine, and strategic intelligence alliances. In addition to the steady stream of senior Russian officials visiting the region to show solidarity with ALBA nations, which are among the most egregious human rights abusers in the region, Russia has engaged in multiple, little studied outreach and training programs that have grown rapidly. There are multiple “retired” senior KGB officials now running numerous electronic businesses and intelligence operations in Latin America, with strong indicators of ties to the most senior levels of the Russian military and intelligence establishments. As those relationships mature and Russia gains increased access in the region, it will grow as a strategic challenge to the United States.
TCB: What is the Gerasimov Doctrine? How does it apply to Russia’s actions in Latin America?
DF: General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of Staff of the Russian Federation’s military, developed The Gerasimov Doctrine in recent years. The doctrine posits that the rules of war have changed, that there is a “blurring of the lines between war and peace,” and that “nonmilitary means of achieving military and strategic goals has grown and, in many cases, exceeded the power of weapons in their effectiveness.” Gerasimov argues for asymmetrical actions that combine the use of special forces and information warfare that create “a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state.”
An overview of Russian activity in Latin America shows an adherence to Gerasimov’s doctrine of waging constant asymmetrical warfare against one’s enemies through a combination of means. These include military or hard power as well as shaping and controlling the narrative in public opinion, diplomatic outreach, military sales, intelligence operations, and strategic offerings of intelligence and military technology. All are essential components of the Russian presence and Gerasimov’s view that the lines between war and peace are blurred, and that non-military means of achieving power and influence can be as effective or more effective than military force.
TCB: How is the increased Russian involvement contributing to crime and instability in Latin America? Who is driving this, and how does it affect the U.S.?
DF: In every case of significant Russian expansion, the governmental presence is accompanied by a strong criminal presence. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper noted in his Congressional testimony, Russia, a “threat actor”, is an example of a nation where “the nexus among organized crime, state actors, and business blurs the distinction between state policy and private gain.” This nexus is used to further the goals of the Russian state without the state being visible, as well as provide significant revenues to criminal groups that also have deep ties into the Russian state establishment, both civilian and military.
The use of Russian organized crime as an instrument of state policy is not new, but it has served and will continue to serve as an important way to strengthening Latin American Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs), further crippling weak states and undermining the rule of law. That, in turn, will weaken U.S. goals and allies in the region. This is a fundamental instrument in propping up radical populist governments, like those in the ALBA alliance, as well as criminal groups, as the ALBA bloc uses TCOs as instruments of state power.
TCB: Why does the U.S. not seem concerned by Russia’s growing presence in Latin America? What would cause an alarm, so to speak, to go off here?
DF: I think it is primarily an issue of bandwidth. With Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, China, North Korea, etc., vying for attention, simmering issues like the Russian advances in Latin America are simply not given Tier One treatment. Very few intelligence resources have been dedicated to the problem set, and, because there is no immediately visible threat, issues like these are left to simmer.
I think Russian naval fleets docking in Nicaragua; a rapid shift in the posture of traditional allies toward Russia; or the documenting of new cocaine routes to Russia would raise the profile of the threat.
TCB: In light of this Russian activity in Latin America, what policies should the U.S. government pursue in the region?
DF: Engagement is the primary tool along with a bolstering of alliances that have been neglected. The changes in Argentina and Venezuela should be viewed as important and perhaps fleeting opportunities to significantly alter the relationship between the region and Russia.
The U.S. should also dedicate significantly more resources to understanding Russian activities in order to be able to accurately assess the level and type of strategic threat Russia could represent. Understanding the situation is the first step to developing coherent policy, and the Russian presence in Latin America is not currently understood.