Putin as a Pirate of the Caribbean? That's Not Scary
Putin as a Pirate of the Caribbean? That's Not Scary
When I was going through the confirmation process in 2006 to be commander of US Southern Command — in charge of all joint military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean — I was often asked about the Monroe Doctrine. Issued in 1823 by President James Monroe, it warned European nations against further colonization in the Americas, and was expanded by subsequent administrations to essentially establish an exclusive sphere of influence for the US across the Western Hemisphere.
While Secretary of State John Kerry publicly declared that the “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over” in a speech at the Organization of American States in 2013, it was subsequently invoked by President Donald Trump’s administration regarding Russian and Iranian influence in propping up the Venezuelan regime. Most analysts feel that some version of the doctrine is still viable in terms of US regional diplomacy, and I agree, but it should be considered in a more multilateral way — through the mechanism of the Organization of American States, not as a unilateral tool of American policy.
Last week, as part of his saber-rattling over Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened increased military deployments to the Americas, mentioning Venezuela and Cuba. How should the US respond?
Let’s take a deep breath. This is probably not going to turn into another Cuban Missile Crisis.
This wouldn’t be the first time we would see Russians in the Caribbean or Latin America. Over past decades, the Soviet Union and then Russia deployed ships, aircraft, military trainers, intelligence officers, communication teams and cyberwarfare experts to not only Venezuela and Cuba, but to Nicaragua as well. While they have not had large, permanent contingents, there is really nothing new in the idea of rotational deployments, which is what Putin seemed to be threatening.
In addition, the impact of conventional Russian forces would be negligible in terms of regional politics. Operationally, the threat of such forces being used against the US, or even its close allies in the region, is essentially zero. They might be employed for suppression of internal dissent. But at the moment the authoritarian leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua seem to have repression of the population under control, so high-end Russian military units aren’t going to change anything.
When I led Southern Command, I had tens of thousands of troops and plenty of ships and planes at my disposal — vastly outpacing anything foreign rivals could throw at the Americas. Today, US Southern Command, from its headquarters in Miami, is closely monitoring Russian force levels and does not feel insecure, believe me. When I asked one recent head of the command about the potential for increased Russian deployments, he said it was “bluster” from Putin, not militarily important, and that it would be expensive for the Russians to maintain such deployments, so “let him waste the resources.”
However, there is one very serious consideration worth pointing out: a permanent deployment of Russian medium-range nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, something the Kremlin has done in the heart of Europe in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sitting between Lithuania and Poland.
Given the reduction in warning time compared to intercontinental missiles, and the proximity of very important targets — US energy refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, military bases in the southern states, big cities like Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans and Galveston — placement of cruise missiles would have a major destabilizing effect. Such a move by Putin would probably demand an escalation of forces in Europe and additional US cruise missiles in North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries.
None of this should cause the US any hesitation in its continued support of Ukraine. If Putin makes good on his threatened invasion, the US and its allies should respond by sharing with the Ukrainians additional defensive but lethal weapons (especially antitank and handheld anti-air missiles); defensive and offensive cyber-capabilities; top-grade intelligence; and electronic jammers to direct against Russian battlefield communications. This aid should be combined with massive new economic sanctions (against the broad Russian economy, the oil and gas sector in particular, and the overseas accounts of Putin’s oligarch cronies) and additional US ground-troop deployments (but not nuclear systems) closer to Russia within NATO borders.
If Russia really decides to deploy significant troops in the Western Hemisphere, the US military shouldn’t overreact. Providing additional surveillance resources to Southern Command is a good place to start, including unmanned aerial assets and intelligence-collection warships. Working with partners and friends in the OAS, Colombia in particular, to share intelligence and conduct regional military exercises makes sense.
Absent a significant nuclear deployment, we should largely shrug off Putin’s threat to become a pirate of the Caribbean. He can’t really afford it, and what forces he could deploy wouldn’t alter the military balance in the Americas.