Russian troops enter Perevalne base, a Ukrainian military installation located in Crimea, during the Crimean Crisis of 2014. Photo Credit: Anton Holoborodko
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its sponsorship of an ongoing separatist insurgency in Eastern Ukraine was largely met with widespread international condemnation. The United States and European Union levied sanctions against Moscow in opposition to the move. In the case of Latin America, many of the region’s governments issued public statements decrying Russia’s actions and calling for the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.[i]
Russia’s land-grab, however, did enjoy the support of a minority grouping of six states.[ii] Ironically, half of this group resides in Latin America, a region that for the most part, had largely disapproved of Russia’s Ukrainian forays. Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, Latin America’s “Troika of Tyranny” in the words of former National Security Adviser John Bolton, unequivocally declared Crimea’s accession to Russia as legitimate. All three states maintain close ties with Russia and have consistently supported Moscow diplomatically in incidents such as the Russo-Georgian War of 2008.[iii]
November 2020 witnessed another example of Russia’s “Troika diplomacy” in action. Russia formally announced that Nicaragua would open a consulate in Crimea, making it the first foreign diplomatic mission in the Russian-occupied region. A delegation headed by Nicaragua’s ambassador to Russia, Alba Azucena Torres, visited Crimea to meet with Oleg Belaventsev, a Russian military officer whom the Central American country had selected to represent Nicaragua’s interests in the peninsula as an honorary consul.[iv] Ukraine immediately denounced Nicaragua’s actions as a violation of Kiev’s sovereignty and declared that it would impose sanctions on Nicaragua.[v] The U.S. embassy in Ukraine similarly criticized Nicaragua’s actions and accused Russia of trying to “justify its violation of international law.”[vi]
The physical foundations for Nicaragua’s Crimean consulate have yet to be placed, but it appears that the country had long contemplated its establishment for months. Ukraine had previously warned Nicaragua against this move in other instances, most notably in August, when Kiev threatened Managua with sanctions.[vii] Nicaragua’s bold move has significant implications for both Russia’s own interests in Ukraine as well as Moscow’s broader relationship with the Troika states in Latin America.
Nicaragua’s establishment of a Crimean consulate may encourage other states who have also recognized Russia’s annexation of the peninsula to set up diplomatic shop in the territory as well. It would not be surprising if the other two Troika members, Cuba and Venezuela, sent diplomats to Crimea to begin discussions with the Russians on the establishment of their own respective consulates in the region.
Nicaragua’s diplomatic move in Crimea effectively represents attempts by Russia to further legitimize and cement its hold over the peninsula. The questionable 2014 referendum served as Moscow’s initial move to annex the territory. The Nicaraguan consular business seems to convey Moscow’s notion that because Crimea is now sovereign Russian territory, Moscow will treat any diplomatic engagement with that region as tantamount to direct interaction with Russia itself. Russian President Vladimir Putin would probably hope for Venezuela and Cuba to follow in Nicaragua’s path, partially relying on the Troika to generate diplomatic momentum that would try to shut out Ukraine’s protests over Russia’s incursions in the country.
The Troika’s possible consular presence in Crimea would not be a one-way transaction, and it’s also likely that Russia could reciprocate in kind by backing the Cuban, Venezuelan, and Nicaraguan governments in their own domestic affairs. For example, Russia could voice support for the legitimacy of election results from Venezuela’s upcoming December 2020 parliamentary elections, even though critics contend that these proceedings would be rigged in favor of the regime of Nicolás Maduro.[viii] Similarly, Russia could continue to provide security and public support for the embattled authoritarian regime of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua as the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FLSN) continues to clamp down on domestic dissent through restrictive legislation.[ix] While Russia and the Troika have been subjected to U.S. sanctions and largely criticized for their human-rights abuses, both parties will continue to cling to each other for support regardless of outside opinion.
In terms of Washington’s own stance on the opening of the Nicaraguan consulate in Crimea, the United States should continue to reaffirm Ukraine’s right to its territorial sovereignty and rally like-minded allies and partners to support Kiev diplomatically. The United States should not only potentially consider additional sanctions on Nicaragua, but should also issue sanctions warnings to the five other states that formally recognize Russia’s claims over the Crimean Peninsula. Washington should also use this Nicaragua episode to further assess Russia’s use of its Latin American contacts to further Moscow’s interests closer to home and better understand the country’s foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere.
[i] “Russia and Latin America in the Context of the Ukrainian Crisis,” Russian International Affairs Council, September 12, 2014, https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/russia-and-latin-america-in-the-context-of-the-ukrainian-cri/
[ii] Jeremy Bender, “These Are the 6 Countries On Board with Russia’s Illegal Annexation of Crimea,” Business Insider, May 31, 2016, https://www.businessinsider.com/six-countries-okay-with-russias-annexation-of-crimea-2016-5. These six countries are Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea.
[iii] “Nicaragua Recognizes South Ossetia, Abkhazia,” Reuters, September 3, 2008, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-georgia-ossetia-nicaragua/nicaragua-recognizes-south-ossetia-abkhazia-idUKN0330438620080903. Countries like Nicaragua recognized the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia as independent states, two areas that Russia used to justify military action against Georgia during the 2008 war.
[iv] “First Diplomatic Mission to Open in Crimea Since Annexation- TASS,” The Moscow Times, November 10, 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/11/10/first-foreign-diplomatic-mission-to-open-in-crimea-since-annexation-tass-a72000
[v] “Foreign Ministry Statement on Illegal Opening of Nicaragua Honorary Consulate in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Ukraine,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, November 10, 2020, https://mfa.gov.ua/en/news/foreign-ministry-statement-illegal-opening-nicaragua-honorary-consulate-autonomous-republic-crimea-ukraine
[vi] U.S. Embassy Kyiv, Twitter Post, November 13, 2020, 7:04 am, https://twitter.com/USEmbassyKyiv/status/1327220771576541185
[vii] See “U.S. Embassy Responds to Opening of Nicaragua’s ‘Honorary Consulate’ in Crimea,” Ukrinform, November 13, 2020, https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-polytics/3135687-us-embassy-responds-to-opening-of-nicaraguas-honorary-consulate-in-crimea.html and “MFA Sanctions Against Nicaragua Over Illegal Appointment of “Honorary Consul” in Occupied Crimeea,” UNIAN Information Agency, November 10, 2020, https://www.unian.info/politics/occupied-crimea-ukraine-sanctioning-nicaragua-over-honorary-consul-11213576.html
[viii] “U.S. Blacklists Venezuelan Lawmakers, Alleging Electoral Manipulation,” Reuters, September 22, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics-usa-sanctions/u-s-blacklists-venezuelan-lawmakers-alleging-election-manipulation-idUSKCN26D274.
[ix] See Armando Chaguaceda, “Russia and Nicaragua: Progress in Bilateral Cooperation,” Global Americans, March 28, 2019, https://theglobalamericans.org/2019/03/russia-and-nicaragua-progress-in-bilateral-cooperation/ and Ryan C. Berg, “The Case of ‘Authoritarian Learning’ in Nicaragua,” AEIdeas, October 2, 2020, https://www.aei.org/foreign-and-defense-policy/the-case-of-authoritarian-learning-in-nicaragua-2/