June 16, 2024

A recent leak of U.S. classified intelligence reports appears to confirm what many Latin America and Caribbean watchers have warned about in recent years: Russia and China are trying to gain a foothold amid waning U.S. leadership.

Screenshots of some of those documents obtained by the Miami Herald show that Russian mercenaries were planning to pitch a plan to provide security in Haiti after months of unsuccessful negotiations led by the United States to form a multinational force to help tackle escalating armed gang violence in the Caribbean nation. They also reveal that the Russian government was trying to use Brazil’s offer to mediate in the war the Kremlin launched against Ukraine to its advantage. Also, according to the highly classified documents, China is benefiting from the Russia-Ukraine war in countries like Nicaragua, where Moscow is a key security partner.

On Monday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said President Joe Biden was briefed late last week when the administration “first got word that there were some documents out there.” Asked if there were more documents circulating and if they believed the leak had been contained, Kirby said, “We don’t know. We truly don’t know.”

Kirby refused to address if the leaked documents had any impact on U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts in Russia, telling reporters “I won’t speak to intelligence collection one way or another, on any given day.”

“As I said, U.S. officials have been in touch with relevant allies and partners, given some of these disclosures over the last few days. And we’ll continue to have those conversations as appropriate,” he said.

The reports on Russia and China’s inroads in the Western Hemisphere come as more nations dump diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of Beijing, and countries like Nicaragua and Venezuela, and to a lesser extent Cuba, are willing to allow their political relationship with Russia to be used to project symbolic threats against the United States.

Evan Ellis, a research professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, said that, as a U.S. government civilian employee, he could not “confirm, or deny or explicitly comment” on leaked classified documents. But public source documents clearly show that U.S. officials have growing concerns about Russia, China and also Iran’s presence in the hemisphere.

The region “is at an unprecedented level of political and economic crisis in which you have many different states, which are kind of teetering on the edge in terms of whether they continue to be transparent democratic regimes or something more radical,” said Ellis, who also serves as a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

The sensitive material mainly contains secret U.S. intelligence assessments of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Copies of the documents started circulating on various social media sites weeks ago. Though the Herald could not independently verify them, Pentagon officials have acknowledged that most are authentic though some appear to have been altered. The FBI is investigating the source of the leak.

One report relying on information collected by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said that as of late February, members of the Russian mercenary force known as the Wagner Group “planned to discreetly travel to Haiti to assess the potential for contracts with the Haitian government to fight against local gangs.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me that [Wagner] would be looking for business opportunities,” Ellis said, adding that he has no personal knowledge of their plans. “But there’s a difference between looking for business opportunities and actually having a serious conversation with somebody that could lead to a contract.”

A top Haitian official told the Miami Herald that Prime Minister Ariel Henry has not had any discussions with the Wagner Group or any Russian officials, nor has he sought help from either as part of his request to international partners to deploy a rapid response force to Haiti to help the national police take on gangs.

Another report says that as of late February, Russian foreign affairs officials favored a Ukraine mediation proposal presented by Brazil’s recently elected president, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. The secret document suggests Ukraine’s rejection of the plan is not unfounded since, according to the report, the Russian officials believe the plan “to establish a club of supposedly impartial mediators to settle the war in Ukraine … would reject the West’s ‘aggressor-victim’ paradigm.”

Early this year, Lula da Silva rejected calls to send weapons to Ukraine, instead advocating for a negotiated solution. But he has been under fire for equally blaming the two countries for the war and comments last week suggesting that Ukraine should renounce territorial claims to Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. The U.S. intelligence report mentions that the Brazilian government was planning to send an envoy to Moscow to discuss the plan in early April.

Celso Amorim, Lula da Silva’s adviser, met Russian President Vladimir Putin in late March, though it’s not clear if much came from the visit. In an interview with CNN, Amorim said that doors were not wholly “shut” to finding a negotiated solution to the war.

Ellis views Lula da Silva’s position as his way of “trying to position Brazil to have a greater international role,” in similar fashion to what he did during his previous time in office. He served two terms as Brazil’s president between 2003 and 2010.

“I see that as more kind of opportunistic diplomacy than anything else,” Ellis said. “You see that with AMLO [President Andrés Manuel López Obrador] in Mexico for similar reasons … in El Salvador, in Honduras, if you look at the UN voting record. There’s that kind of traditional Latin American orientation of ‘We’re not going to get involved in international politics unless there’s something in it for us.’ ”

A third document reveals secret negotiations between China and Nicaragua to build a deep-water port in Bluefields on the country’s Caribbean coast. Citing signals intelligence, the report said that China Harbor Engineering Company had been negotiating to conduct initial site surveys and discuss future operations since mid-2022. Taiwan officials first warned of China’s interest in building a naval outpost in Nicaragua in late 2022. Nicaragua severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 2021.

According to the report, Nicaragua, under the rule of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, “still views Russia — also interested in Bluefields — as its primary security partner,” but since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, has expanded ties with Beijing, purchasing security equipment and agreeing to the presence of a Chinese military representative in the country. While the report says that China has not stated plans to “acquire any overseas basing or military access in Nicaragua,” it assesses that the Nicaraguan government “probably would consider offering Beijing naval access in exchange for economic investment.”

Ellis said while he sees the Chinese threat in the region being “far, far greater” than Russia’s, there is reason to be concerned about both nations. For example, as the conflict in Ukraine continues, he believes some Latin American countries may be more willing to allow Russia “to do some limited, but very serious things from the hemisphere.”

“As Putin moves toward his end game if he wants to up the ante, he has a small number of threat hosts in the region which are willing to do so,” he said.

During congressional testimony in February 2019, the director of U.S. Southern Command at the time, U.S. Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, told a Senate committee that Russia and China’s growing influence in the hemisphere was among the chief security challenges affecting the United States.

“The most disturbing insight,” he said, “has been the degree to which external state actors, especially Russia, China and Iran, are expanding their influence in the Western Hemisphere. Russia, in particular, enables actions in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba that threaten hemispheric security and prosperity.”