"Whether we like it or not, they are engaged in a competition for influence, and we can acknowledge that, we can ignore that, or we can engage in competition as well," said Admiral Kurt Tidd.
WASHINGTON – The U.S. “can’t afford to ignore” Russia’s presence in the Western Hemisphere given its warming relations with its historical allies in Latin America, the commander of the U.S. military post overseeing Central and South America said Tuesday.
“If you look at the types of activities they’re engaged in that violate the international norms and rules that society has come to expect, as we saw in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, that shouldn’t allow a free pass for activities that they may be engaged in in other parts of the world,” Admiral Kurt Tidd, head of U.S. Southern Command, said during a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Tidd said Russia is “reinvesting a significant amount in historical relationships that they have had in Cuba, Nicaragua, in Venezuela.”
“Whether we like it or not, they are engaged in a competition for influence. And we can acknowledge that, we can ignore that, or we can engage in competition as well,” he added.
Earlier this month, Venezuelan President Nicholás Maduro created a peace prize in honor of the late socialist leader Hugo Chávez and awarded it to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov suggested weeks ago that his nation is looking into reopening military bases in Vietnam and Cuba that it shuttered in 2002 amid budget constraints.
“The global situation is not static, it is in flux,” Peskov said, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency. “You see that the last two years have made significant changes to international affairs and security. Therefore, it’s quite natural that all countries assess these changes in line with their national interests and take certain steps in the way they consider appropriate.”
Within the last two year, U.S.-Russia relations have soured over the annexation of Crimea and the battle against ISIS, where the nations are split in their support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
Within the past month, a ceasefire negotiated between the two countries over war-torn Syria collapsed, Russia suspended an agreement about the disposal of nuclear material and the Obama administration accused Russia of meddling in the 2016 election.
Last year, Tidd’s predecessor, General John Kelly similarly told Congress that, under the presidency of Putin, Russia had returned to “Cold War-tactics” and was attempting to “erode U.S. leadership and challenge U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere.”
Kelly said that Russia has “periodically” exerted influence in the region since 2008, with “propaganda, military arms and equipment sales, counterdrug agreements and trade.”
Tidd said Tuesday that Russia is engaged in a “very aggressive in a propaganda campaign to spread the narrative that the United States is not a reliable partner.”
He cited that Southern Command dispatched nearly 2,000 Marines, a dozen helicopters and an amphibious assault ship to Haiti earlier this month for Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts as evidence that the U.S. is about more than just talk.
“When you look at the response to Haiti, we had at one point in time 12 helicopters — heavy-lift and medium-lift helicopters — flying aid and meeting the vital needs of the Haitian people,” he said. “I didn’t see any Russian helicopters out there.”
Last week, Tidd and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter participated in a biannual meeting of Western Hemisphere defense heads, hosted in the Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago. Representatives from all Western Hemisphere countries except Cuba attended.
U.S. officials said an invitation was extended to Cuba.
The U.S. has largely maintained uncontested access to Latin America since the end of the Cold War. Russia currently has military bases only in Syria, in former Soviet republics and in its own territory.
TMN intern Kyle Gasaway contributed to this report.