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Russia has made inroads back into a part of the Western Hemisphere in Latin America. President Vladimir Putin signed a new security agreement with Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, a Russian ally back in the Cold War. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports on Putin's expansion and a shipment of weapons into the U.S.'s backyard.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Nicaraguans got a look at their brand-new Russian hardware during the country's annual military parade this summer.
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KAHN: Seven of 50 tanks donated by Russia rolled down Managua's main boulevard to cheering crowds. Meanwhile, farther south, in one of the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in the capital, Russian contractors remain hard at work. The sign out front says this multi-story building going up is an anti-drug training center funded by the Russian Federation. Roberto Canjina, a local security analyst, says that's an odd role for Russia to take on in this part of the world.
ROBERTO CANJINA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "Russia doesn't have anti-narcotics intelligence information here, not like the Americans do," says Canjina. He says, two years ago, Russian aid to Nicaragua went from supplying mostly food and medicine to military training and supplies. He says the switchover began as Russia annexed Crimea. Canjina says Russia appears to be sending a message that it will not back down on its global aspirations, even in the U.S.'s own backyard. Eliot Abrams, former assistant secretary of state during the Reagan administration, says this latest move by Russia into the hemisphere, while nowhere near the level of engagement it had during the Cold War, is still troubling.
ELIOT ABRAMS: We've been through this. It seems to me that, either publically or privately, we need signal that there are some limits.
KAHN: Why Nicaragua accepted this sticky spot between the two former Cold War rivals again is unclear, especially since the U.S. is now Nicaragua's number-one trading partner. Our request for an interview with Nicaraguan officials was declined. Nicaraguan security consultant Roberto Orozco says Ortega and Putin share ideological sympathies, but the Nicaraguan leader clearly has his own domestic agenda, too. He says Nicaragua's military is one of the most antiquated in the region.
ROBERTO OROZCO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "Nicaragua's army comes out as the winner in this competition," he says, "getting valuable assets from both sides." Senior U.S. officials say they are monitoring the situation, but that's not eased fears in the region. Neighboring Costa Rica, which doesn't have an army, has expressed concerns. And at home, opponents of Ortega worry weapons, especially the Russian tanks, will be used to quash domestic dissent.
There had been increasing protests in the run-up to the recent Nicaraguan presidential election, widely criticized as unfair, and demonstrations over Ortega's plan to build a transoceanic canal backed by a Chinese businessman. Evan Ellis of the U.S. Army War College says, unlike during the Cold War, Russia is no longer a superpower threat.
EVAN ELLIS: Frankly, you know, Russia doesn't have the cash to do the type of things that, for example, China can do - providing billions of dollars in loans through China Development Bank.
KAHN: Budget shortfalls notwithstanding, Russian construction in Nicaragua goes on, like at this site at the edge of Managua.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: This construction worker leaving for the day says they are building a new five-story Russian Embassy. He didn't want to give his name for fear of losing his job but did say the building, which fills an entire city block, should be up and running by late next year.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Managua, Nicaragua.
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