San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nicaragua drops $80 million on Russian tanks

News Monday that Russia had shipped the first 20 of 50 battle tanks to Nicaragua rattled Costa Rican officials and left others scratching their heads.

The $80 million T-72B tanks are a significant purchase for the hemisphere’s second-poorest country, which spent $71.6 million total on its military in 2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an organization that tracks global military spending. Nicaragua has significantly increased its military budget during the last five years, a move that foreign relations experts see as rooted in Nicaraguan domestic politics and Russia’s international ambitions.

Carlos Cascante, director of the National University’s International Relations Department, said that the tanks are part of President Daniel Ortega’s plan to strengthen the army as a political force inside Nicaragua. During the 1990s, the country’s military budget was cut following the Contra War and the weakened public institution lost some of its clout.

He said the purchase of the tanks was a sign that the military is becoming more influential politically, but he did not see it as a bellicose gesture to Nicaragua’s neighbors, including Costa Rica.

University of Costa Rica political scientist Carlos Zamora agreed that the tanks were part of a domestic agenda. He said that between the large, regular demonstrations against the Nicaraguan Canal and former Contra fighters taking up weapons again in the northern part of Nicaragua, the government may be trying to bolster its ability to respond to a potentially violent protest.

During a news conference Wednesday, President Luis Guillermo Solís said the tanks were “unnecessary” and that there was no justification for such an investment in Central America.

“More than a concern or a threat, it constitutes a feeling of sadness because these are people who still lack much in terms of human development,” he said. Solís added that Costa Rica is a major destination for migrants fleeing the country’s poverty.

The tanks might actually have more to do with Russia than Ortega’s military ambitions. Zamora pointed out that weapons exports make up an important part of Russia’s GDP, and the country may be looking to entice new buyers with the sale to Nicaragua.

As erstwhile buyers of Russian materiel, like Venezuela or Brazil, have fallen on hard times economically, the sale to Nicaragua was “oxygen” to Russia’s markets in Latin America, he said.

Paola Solano, head of the International Relations Department at the Latin American University of Science and Technology, said that the weapon sales give Russia a chance to expand its sphere of influence in Latin America, where it has few beachheads. Along with the sale of fighter planes, naval ships, partnerships for civilian aerospace facilities and intelligence assistance with patrolling Nicaragua’s coastline for drug runners, Russia has a unique relationship with Nicaragua compared to other Central American countries.

Central American military spending
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But despite Nicaragua’s increase in military spending, the country remains a minor player compared to the rest of Latin America. Just in Central America, Nicaragua’s military spending trails far behind its neighbors in the so-called Northern Triangle: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. And the Dominican Republic outspent the rest of the isthmus by nearly $100 million in 2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Costa Rica’s foreign minister, Manuel González, said that tanks and weapons of war were ill-suited to the problems Central America faces: poverty, organized crime, human trafficking and drug trafficking. Instead of weapons, González said the region needs to “combat poverty with education, healthcare, technology and infrastructure.”

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I certainly hope all the “experts” are right about Ortega wanting fifty tanks merely for maintaining domestic safety. On the other hand, given the huge military expenditures by the Northern Triangle should be troubling to the entire region as well as to Western observers. Russia’s adventurism knows few bounds. The Russians seemingly have always suffered something of an inferiority complex. Putin is certainly no exception…

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Hachi Ko

50 Tanks for Domestic Safety?

Whether it’s a Lie or the Truth, nothing good can come of that.

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Ken Morris

Zamora ends up coming closer to the truth than others.

These tanks have very little to do with enhancing Nicaragua’s military capabilities, but very much to do with the evolving relationship between Nicaragua and Russia.

Sure, the tanks have some symbolic value for Nicaragua from the standpoint of worrying its foes, and we already see Costa Rica’s leaders taking the bait and condemning Nicaragua (on the usual “humanitarian” grounds). The tanks also will probably boost morale in Nicaragua’s army, since the poorly paid soldiers with not much to do will have some real tanks to play with. I even suspect that Ortega himself will enjoy the occasional tank parades as a symbol of Nicaragua’s “arrival.”

But nobody in their right mind expects the tanks actually to run. On a good day, pilfering parts from some of the tanks might get a dozen or so of them moving for a parade or show of force, but at the way they drink gasoline, even those that are running won’t run far. Plus, Nicaragua has nobody to go to war against where tanks would be useful.

The tanks are toys, at most symbolic things, not really anything to worry about.

And I doubt Nicaragua will pay for them. That’s not how things work. The sale is a bookkeeping notation for both countries, I’m sure. Putin gets to boast about making a great sale and Ortega gets to boast about having a mighty military, but in reality Russia will surely just be getting free storage for old tanks in Nicaragua.

Ortega has been fiercely loyal to Russia since the 1970s, and Russia has been fiercely loyal to him in return. That reciprocal loyalty has continued under Putin, who periodically kicks in some aid to Nicaragua too.

I think all we have here is just a symbolic win for both Ortega and Putin, but not anything to be concerned about, much less fooled by. Surely the deal doesn’t include Nicaragua actually paying $80 million for the tanks–that’s just the inflated number floated to the press–as neither does it involve Nicaragua having enhanced military capabilities of any practical use.

Bottom line is that too many people believe that Ortega and Putin are stupid. Neither are. They both know what they’re doing, and once again the public is falling for their ruse.

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Hachi Ko


I’m not convinced about Ortega yet, but that Putin… he is definitely a shrewd one. What astounds me about this deal is that anyone could just “brush off” a deal regarding 50 Tanks as a measure of “Domestic” policy or safety.


What country (especially one the size of Nicaragua) in its right mind… purchases 50 tanks for “Domestic” safety?


I think that Ken Morris is on the right track here. None of this makes any sense, other than bolstering a Nicaragua-Soviet (ummm… excuse me… Russian) deal, and maybe making a grandiose display for the 6 o’clock news.

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Mike Willis

This is China’s doing… They want to build a new canal which we don’t control, and also have a port in North America… I think we need to sanction Nicaragua… This is a strategic military move by Russia/China.

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80 million would go a long ways to house feed and provide medical help.. What a waste spending on these tanks. The cost of upkeep and 2 gallons of diesel per mile going to at least triple the amount. I predict they will turn into rust buckets anyway. look at the helicopters sitting at the airport rusting away. It makes little sense unless Ortega has other ides.

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What are you talking about RUSSA’s international ambitions. What about Americas corporation imperialism. Russia has been trying to keep the peace around the world right now.

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DRMEMO, your whining about “American corporate imperialism” seems to discount the financial investment and job creation by American corporations to the benefit of Ticos and the CR economy. What have communist China and Russia contributed to CR? I might also remind you that CR and Panama’s luxury of having no military is only because of the military might of the United States in the hemisphere and on the global stage. No nation is perfect and without its mistakes and faults and that includes America, but seeking an alliance with Russia or China creates countries like Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea.

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Comrade – tell us all about how Russia sending military tanks to Nicaragua – which has peaceful neighbors and is threatened by NO ONE – is Russia trying to keep peace ? Is that you Putin ?

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CR needs to establish better relations with Russia and get rid of the USA as a big brother.

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CR has no need of better relations with Russia. USA has not militarized CR. There is NO need for Nicaragua to have military tanks except to threaten and intimidate its peaceful neighbors – unless Nicaragua plans on using these tanks on their own citizens.

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