Category Archives: Strategy

Measure Up Costa Rica: Old Techniques, New Tools (Part 2 of a series)

This is the second part of a two part series by Dino Mora on influence operations in Costa Rica. You can read part one, “Around the Caribbean, Costa Rica Under Pressure” here.


Featured photo: Costa Rican Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Arturo Fournier Facio waits obediently while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signs a visa-free travel agreement with Costa Rica.


Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, has maintained a deep interest in Latin America since before the Second World War and in Costa Rica in particular since at least the 1970s. Their goal was – and remains – to develop a base for espionage and “active measures” as a non-nuclear deterrent against U.S. policies globally. In a 1992 report to Congress, the United States Information Agency defined Soviet active measures as “the manipulative use of slogans, arguments, disinformation, and carefully selected true information, which the Soviets used to try to influence the attitudes and actions of foreign publics and governments.” Or, as KGB defector Vasili Mitrokin put it: “political warfare conducted by the Soviet and Russian intelligence services.” Today those active measures are on full display around the world and Costa Rica is no exception. Understanding them requires an examination of the interesting history of active measures in Central America and how they shape Russia’s perception of their importance and effectiveness there.

Old Techniques

In his masterpiece, “The Mitrokin Archive”, the former KGB Major claimed Russia used active measures to manipulate events in Central America as early as 1940. At that time, a Soviet operative named Iosif Romualdovic Grigulevic took a leading role in assassinating Bolsheviks and Communists that were not loyal to Joseph Stalin. Grigulevic counted among his accomplishments the attempted assassination of Leon Trotsky at his villa in Mexico City and the sabotage of Nazi supply chains from the region during the Second World War. More striking perhaps is that he eventually assumed cover as a Costa Rican diplomat with the false identity Teodoro B. Castro. Posing as the illegitimate son of a prominent but very dead Costa Rican (his “father” was in reality, childless), Grigulevic served as the ambassador of the Republic of Costa Rica to both Italy and Yugoslavia between 1952 and 1954. His mission in Belgrade was to assassinate Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, a task interrupted by Stalin’s death in 1953.

In order to “penetrate Costa Rica’s diplomatic corps”, Grigulevic posed as a wealthy Costa Rican businessman; a coffee expert with links to international coffee magnates. He used his money and connections to cultivate a relationship with Jose Figueres Ferrer (three-time President of Costa Rica) based on a joint venture to sell coffee in Europe. Figueres was an unlikely target. During his first term as President of Costa Rica (1948-49), Figueres banned the Communist Party from politics. It was not until he sought a third term in 1970 that he considered accepting funding from Communist sources. According to Mitrokin, Figueres held secret meetings with the KGB Resident in Costa Rica, A. I. Mosolov who eventually funneled more than $300,000 to Figueres from the KGB in exchange for a promise to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Shortly after his re-election, Figueres did exactly that, oiling the government machinery that reopened the Soviet Embassy.

New Tools

Russian active measures did not end with the Cold War. If anything, Russia’s intelligence services dramatically expanded their use in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. At any given time, observers can find evidence of ongoing Russian meddling in the United States, Syria, Turkey, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Poland, and of course, Latin America. Modern active measures use hostile social manipulation through media and radical-right groups as agents to accomplish Moscow’s twin goals of destabilizing Western societies and co-opting Western business and political elites. The tools are new but the techniques are not.

According to Russia’s 2015 Military Strategy, Moscow has two goals in Latin America. The first is to develop a functional alliance with a Central American country. Nicaragua is the natural first choice with its strategic geography, leftist government, and importance to a coalition of states closely aligned with Moscow; China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela. Russia’s second goal is to develop collective security arrangements that can serve as non-nuclear deterrents against US policies elsewhere. A plan proposed in a May 2015 article by two well-known military thinkers: Aleksandr Perendzhiyev from the Association of Independent Military Political Experts, and Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, a member of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, advocated the creation of combined Russian-Chinese units in Nicaragua and the stationing of Russian troops in Venezuela and Brazil. More ominous was their suggestion of placing a task force off the coasts of the US – an oblique reference to Cuba – that would have American territory in its sights. Such a “grand coalition” could include Iran as well and would be supported by a “major diplomatic and information offensive”; a euphemism for active measures.

The plan to build non-nuclear deterrents may already be in operation. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu started in 2015 with an official visit to Nicaragua that likely put the finishing touches on a deal to install a Global Satellite Navigation System (GLONASS) tracking station on the outskirts of Managua. In 2017, Russia opened a counter-narcotics training center there that gives them access to security officers from all over the Central American region. This represented an expansion of an already robust military and diplomatic presence in Nicaragua — estimated to be 400 to 500 people at any given time — that reflects increased Russian military engagement around the region. Venezuela is also experiencing a well-documented increase of Russian military advisors and exercises, as well as private military contractors working for the Russian government. In 2019, the Russian Navy sent its first-in-class frigate, Admiral Gorshkov (FFG 454) to Havana. The Admiral Gorshkov was allegedly transporting unspecified intelligence assets and was joined by at least two Russian support vessels.

Measuring Up Costa Rica

Well on its way to achieving its strategic basing and non-nuclear deterrence goals, Russia can use its position in Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela to influence all the other countries in Central and South America with Costa Rica as the natural next target for active measures. Accordingly, a series of political and economic phenomena have affected Costa Rica in ways detrimental to its stability since late 2018, leading one high level Costa Rican politician to claim it was occurring “under the direction of the Russian Federation.”

From September to November 2018, Costa Rica suffered a massive strike that paralyzed the economy. Ostensibly a response to a tax reform proposal, the strike served instead to focus public opinion against the government’s decision to accept an influx of refugees from Nicaragua. The strike, and subsequent manifestations of xenophobia in the capital were suspected to be the work of Nicaraguan and Cuban intelligence operatives, some of who are believed to have infiltrated amongst the refugees. Their work included a series of violent incidents disguised as crime including: acts of sabotage to the media company, Teletica, an oil pipeline, and the national electric and telecommunications company. The attempted assassination in July 2019 of Zoila Rosa Voilo, a member of the Legislative Assembly, and a wave of violent crimes unfairly attributed to Nicaraguan refugees is also likely to be the result of an ongoing intelligence operation to weaken Costa Rican resistance to foreign influence.

The destabilization of Costa Rica’s democratic system is the endgame of Cuban and Nicaraguan intelligence operations in the service of a broader Russian ambition to establish an economic, political, and geo-strategic sphere of interest in Latin America. The extent to which this is the outcome of a well-laid strategic plan that encompasses Russian activity across the region or just the Kremlin’s uncoordinated vision for influence is something that cannot be determined. However, the tradecraft used, especially for the massive disinformation campaign, coupled with the temporal coincidence of some Russia-friendly decisions by San Jose, suggests the suspected Cuban and Nicaraguan intelligence operations affecting Costa Rica are in fact coordinated with and supported by Moscow. Measuring up to the threat will require Costa Rica to master new techniques as well as the new tools available for influence.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.

Around the Caribbean: Costa Rica Under Pressure (Part 1 of a series)

This is the first part of a two part series by Dino Mora on influence operations in Costa Rica. Read Part 2 “Measure Up Costa Rica: Old Techniques, New Tools” here. 


Featured Photo: Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans march against xenophobia and San Jose, Costa Rica, on August 25, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / EZEQUIEL BECERRA


On the night of 27 July 2019, three men crept carefully across the street to the headquarters of Teletica Media in the Sabana Oeste neighborhood of San José, Costa Rica. According to witnesses, they placed an object on the steps that exploded the moment they left the scene, causing minor damage to the front windows of the office. Though the incident caused no injuries, it was the kind of demonstration associated with the incipient phases of insurgency. How the Costa Rican government handles this case, and a growing number of similar acts of violence, is under increasing scrutiny by a citizenry with memories of insurgent violence.

Though violent crime rates in Costa Rica are among the lowest in the region, the increase is notable and varied and is causing a great deal of unease among ordinary Costa Ricans. The ability of the government to handle the situation is increasingly in question as mass media draws connections between what is happening on the streets and the growing population of refugees fleeing instability in neighboring Nicaragua. Distrust grows in Costa Rican society with every act of violence and while the majority of cases are attributed to common delinquency and young criminal gangs, there are indications the trend is the result of a directed effort by a state actor. Costa Rica is under attack. Understanding why requires us to look south of the border.

Instability

According to the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute, more than 5,000 Cubans arrived in Nicaragua during the first five months of 2019, an increase of almost 900 percent compared to 566 that arrived in all of 2018. Far from being attracted to tourist spots, many Cubans come for undercover activities to help the Ortega-Murillo regime remain in power. Aníbal Toruño, director of Nicaraguan Radio Darío, told the Panamanian newspaper Panam that Cuban service members enter Nicaragua covertly, hidden among migrants seeking to escape the island and head to the United States. These advisors began arriving in 2007, but that number increased exponentially after a deadly April 2018 uprising and crackdown that triggered instability in Nicaragua. Since then, the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa reported that 200 advisers from the Cuban Intelligence Directorate regularly operate with the Nicaraguan Armed Forces and provide training to the police and officials of the Directorate of Customs and the Prisons System. In relative terms, this is a very large effort by Havana to stabilize their ally in Managua.

Despite their numbers, the Cubans are eager to remain mostly in the shadows. According to Nicaraguan nationals interviewed by the author, Cuban officers are not part of operational units that “arrest people in the street.” Instead, the Cubans deal exclusively with “interrogations of arrested people in the most brutal way.” According to a statement by Nicaraguan exiles at the Cuban Justice Commission held in San José, Costa Rica in May, Cuban officers are known to “…torture and kill farmers” as part of a strategy of radical, violent, systematic, and selective repression in Nicaragua. Meanwhile, opposition press in Managua claim this strategy is so important to Cuban foreign policy that none other than Cuba’s leader Raúl Castro and his Interior Minister Julio César Gandarilla themselves direct and operate it in Nicaragua.

Costa Rica Expansion

The ongoing Cuban operation in Nicaragua is only a troubling first step in a wider effort to realign Central America in ways more favorable to Havana. The willingness of the Ortega Administration to allow his country to serve as a platform for Cuban influence is bad news for neighboring Costa Rica. Since the beginning of the crisis in Nicaragua, pro-Cuban media in Costa Rica employed a propaganda strategy of amplifying a genuine, preexisting uncertainty and fear over the entry of Nicaraguan refugees. This campaign includes the creation of nationalist and anti-immigrant social media platforms and closed/private chat groups designed to maximize its impact on public opinion.

The disinformation campaign targets people of all social statuses, employing specific themes related to their varied lifestyles, education levels, and social and political status in order to provoke a quick and widespread reaction. Calls for armed revolution against the current government have a pronounced effect among the less educated that are prone to believe the massive wave of widely disseminated fake news. This type of messaging incited massive strikes that paralyzed the economy, specifically the tourism sector, and provoked violent reactions in San José and the urban area around the capital.

The ongoing Cuban operation in Nicaragua is only a troubling first step in a wider effort to realign Central America in ways more favorable to Havana.

Cuban penetration however is not just covert. In April, Costa Rica surprised the world by signing an agreement with Cuba for cultural exchanges in the field of education. As part of the agreement, Cuba was to send “professors” to collaborate with the Costa Rican Ministry of Education. The inclusion of a Cuban voice in school curricula was certainly controversial. In the face of ongoing violence presented as popular discontent with the government, supporters can portray Cuban-style Communism as a viable solution and expect a receptive audience among school-aged youth. Recognizing this, a number of politicians expressed concern about the possibility of external interference in Costa Rican politics. Immediately thereafter, public concerns appeared about Cuban attempts to use education and culture to instill Communist ideology in the social and cultural development of Costa Rica. Though Nicaragua has made a decision to follow the Cubans down this path, Costa Rica is still resisting.

Hidden Hand

The Costa Rican response has not been entirely successful. San José underestimated the threat for too long, allowing it to grow with very little attention from law enforcement and security services. With relative freedom, elements recruited by Cuban intelligence planned and conducted the campaign of criminal acts now destabilizing the country. In other words, the Cuban effort is working and they know it. The formula being applied in Central America closely resembles the Cuban playbook elsewhere. Jorge Serrano, an academic at the Peruvian Center for Higher National Studies says the deployment of Cuban “political and military advisors to military bases and in key situations for political and economic power in Nicaragua…is the same maneuver used by Cuban political leaders to support Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.” There is some evidence to back this up. Close political ties between Ortega and Maduro, and the timing of the crisis in Nicaragua, coincide with credible information that Cuban close protection assets guard both leaders and their families.

If this were simply a matter of preventing the Cubans from projecting influence from Nicaragua, the Costa Ricans are well equipped to protect themselves but there are indications of an even more powerful hand at work. If Serrano is right, and the Cubans are exporting their playbook from Venezuela, one cannot ignore the fact that Cuban efforts in Venezuela are supported by, and closely coordinated with Russia. The same could be true in Central America. This puts the Costa Rican struggle into a larger context with global implications, one in which the United States takes a direct interest. How Washington responds to the wave of criminal and propaganda activity in Costa Rica could indeed echo around the Caribbean and beyond.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.

Arming Ukraine: The Debate

Russia has been fighting a war on Ukrainian soil since its “little green men” took over the Parliamentary building in Crimea in February 2014. The ongoing conflict, triggered by the flight of the Russia-backed President of Ukraine, has been very costly in human terms. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimated in a 2016 report that approximately 16,000 people have been killed or injured and around 2.8 million displaced by the fighting that continues despite two ceasefire agreements (Minsk I and Minsk II).

Even if the Minsk agreements are fulfilled, Ukraine will continually be at risk of Russian invasion. Kiev has very little control over its 1200-mile border with Russia and after years of neglect of its armed forces, Ukraine is at a great disadvantage relative to its large and well-armed neighbor. Clearly ignoring its previous commitments, Russia continues using its proxies to destabilize Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions and to maintain a corridor to Crimea.

Ukraine
Wearing no insignia, a Russian soldier stands guard in front of the Parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea. Photo credit: Reuters via http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2014/03/02/article-2571301-1BEE383000000578-462_634x419.jpg

In response, the United States and NATO have committed more than $600 million in non-lethal security assistance to Ukraine. This assistance includes training, advice for defense reform, and, according to the White House, defensive systems such as “counter-artillery radars, secure communications, training aids, logistics infrastructure, information technology, tactical UAVs, and medical equipment”. NATO provides advisory support, defense reform assistance, defense education, demining operations, and explosive ordnance disposal, and has created five trust funds to support Ukrainian defense. In addition, the US and Ukraine conduct two joint military exercises each year: SEA BREEZE and RAPID TRIDENT.

Russia’s actions and the collective response to it have led to a vigorous debate in western capitals about whether to respond by arming Ukraine. In 2015, citing an increase in ceasefire violations, a conglomerate of authors from three prominent US think tanks issued a report calling for the US to supply Ukraine with light anti-armor missiles and to give Ukraine three tranches of $1 billion in military assistance in 2015, 2016, and 2017. The Obama Administration, along with leaders of France, the UK, and Germany, opposed this course of action, but the apparent failure of non-lethal western aid to end the fighting is reenergizing some in the US Government to call for lethal assistance.

The Cost of Russian Aggression in Ukraine

Arguments in favor of arming Ukraine with defensive/offensive weapons emphasize security guarantees for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Despite a Russian tendency to probe the international community for resistance before making risky decisions, the underwhelming response by the US and EU to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 set a precedent in which the West settled for a frozen conflict. Proponents of arming Ukraine contend the West needs to send Moscow a clearer message about its involvement in former Soviet republics and the near abroad, a region Putin deems is his area of influence.

Additionally, Russia has been a participant in acts of war as well superficial attempts at peacemaking in Ukraine. Over the last three years Russia brokered ceasefires in conflicts to which it is a party and then violated those agreements for political purposes. This duplicity undermines international rules and norms and amplifies the security dilemma with many post-Soviet and Eastern European countries.

To those in favor of arming Ukraine, sanctions seem an ineffective way to alter Putin’s behavior despite a Russian economy in decline from falling oil prices. Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea, one of only two warm water ports to which it has access, is strategically significant due to the presence of untapped oil and gas reserves off the coast. Russia has already illegally taken control of Crimean oil rigs and Putin may believe he needs a “land bridge” to the peninsula that would traverse East Ukraine through Mariupol. Lastly, Russia relies on defense manufacturing in the region that was once part of the Soviet Union’s sprawling defense sector.

Crimea Annex
Following the February 2014 invasion, Russian troops occupy the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine. Photo credit: http://www.vox.com/2014/4/8/5590378/a-russian-invasion-of-eastern-ukraine-just-got-more-likely-heres-why

To many, the arming of Ukraine is a logical next step in trying to force Putin to resolve the issue diplomatically. French and German leaders made numerous unsuccessful attempts to obtain a ceasefire and an agreement to end the conflict while the Americans brought violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity to the UN Security Council as required by the Budapest Memorandum. Despite this, militants in East Ukraine have denied access to, threatened, and even fired upon OSCE observers. This blatant aggression seems to confirm the notion that Putin only understands force. Some observers cite recent research suggesting Russia uses tactics of bluster for political purposes and avoids risk in foreign policy endeavors. Western assistance through lethal defensive weapons could increase the risk level for Russia and help to call Putin’s bluff.

A History of Tepid Solutions

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of the UK and France oppose the idea of arming Ukraine. They note the importance of maintaining a coordinated response to Russian aggression to give validity and legitimacy to the West’s Russia policy. However, there will be difficulty obtaining consensus among all 28 EU member countries. Sanctions are a historical point of contention for economic reasons and because some countries are more reliant on supplies of Russian gas than others. Furthermore, arming Ukraine could prompt Putin to escalate the conflict, giving him a pretext for sending Russian troops overtly into Eastern Ukraine in much the same way he invaded Georgia in 2008. These points aside, if any further escalation by Russia is not dealt with forcefully by the US and EU, it would be a blow to western credibility and invite further Russian aggression.

The state of the defense sector presents a vulnerability for Russian aggression and an important opportunity for further western defense assistance. In 2016, the Poroshenko administration created a comprehensive plan for reforms based on detailed Rand Corporation recommendations for restructuring and strengthening the security and defense sector. Also in 2016, a former director of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) became a special advisor to Ukrainian defense company, Ukroboronprom, for long-term development. While the industry is beginning to modernize and restructure, it remains relatively dilapidated with a distant prospect for tangible progress. The restructure of the Defense Ministry and General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, for instance, will not likely be completed prior to 2018.

Strengthening the Western Stance

The US and EU must determine realistic objectives for their actions. Bellingcat, an open source analytical organization that uses satellite imagery in investigating war zones, recently issued a report detailing what they purport to be evidence of cross-border shelling by the Russian government against Ukraine in 2014. Despite this, the West continues to accept the Russian argument that it does not need to be a signatory to ceasefire agreements or be held accountable for violating them. This charade is symbolic and useless at best; flippant and insulting to the West at worst.

Arming Ukraine with defensive weapons, a continuation of US policy under the Obama administration, seems to be the most prudent decision vis-à-vis Russia’s actions and the current state of Ukraine’s defense sector. However, for Ukraine’s long-term viability it may make more sense for the West to promote Ukrainian defense by advising and supporting the restructuring of its defense industry. Still, it is not enough. Aggressive and determined Russian actions in Ukraine require a definitive US strategy and better coordination with Europe, both of which are currently lacking. Until the West can settle the debate about how best to arm Ukraine, the fighting will continue on Russian terms.


Heather Regnault is a Ph.D. Student in International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology with experience in Kyiv, Ukraine. This article in no way represents the views of Georgia Institute of Technology, or the Faculty of the Department of International Affairs.