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.”

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