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Russia’s Latin American Offensive – And still hunting Igor Bitkov

La ofensiva latinoamericana de Rusia - WSJ Y sigue cazando a Igor Bitkov.

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Moscow infiltrates institutions with the goal of destabilizing democracy.

Mary Anastasia O'Grady
By Mary Anastasia O’Grady Dec. 2, 2018 4:33 p.m. ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin in Moscow, March 26. PHOTO: SERGEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS

The West was alarmed when Russia escalated its conflict with Ukraine last month by seizing three Ukrainian navy vessels. Russia launched the attack despite a 2003 treaty allowing Ukrainian ships to pass through the Kerch Strait.

This brazen offensive is a reminder that Vladimir Putin is bent on reviving the Cold War to strengthen his hold on power. His ambitions aren’t limited to Europe and the Middle East. In Latin America creeping intervention from Moscow is designed to damage U.S. interests by destabilizing liberal democracy.

President Trump’s refusal to meet with Mr. Putin at the Group of 20 Summit in Buenos Aires sent the right signal of disapproval. But a more muscular U.S. policy is needed, particularly in the Western Hemisphere.

It’s fashionable to pooh-pooh warnings about a Russian threat in Latin America. Some Kremlin efforts have indeed fallen flat. Reuters calculates that Moscow and state-owned Rosneft have lent Venezuela $17 billion since 2006. But Russia is not receiving the oil shipments from the Venezuelan state-owned company PdVSA that it was promised as repayment. And it hasn’t escaped Russia’s notice that Venezuela is repaying its debts to China, according to Reuters. Rosneft head Igor Sechin reportedly flew to Caracas last week to dress down dictator Nicolás Maduro and the deadbeats at PdVSA.

Yet the Putin crowd is tenacious and crafty. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, the head of U.S. Southern Command, Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, warned that “Russia’s increased role in our hemisphere is particularly concerning, given its intelligence and cyber capabilities” and its “intent to upend international stability and order and discredit democratic institutions.”

The admiral, who retired last month, noted that in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, “expanded port and logistics access” allows Russia “persistent, pernicious presence, including more-frequent maritime intelligence collection and visible force projection in the Western Hemisphere.”

In October, the head of the defense committee in Russia’s lower house of Parliament said that Moscow is contemplating a military base in Cuba. That could be saber-rattling. But as Adm. Tidd warned, “Left unchecked, Russian access and placement could eventually transition from a regional spoiler to a critical threat to the U.S. homeland.”

Equally troubling is the timeless Russian practice of using propaganda as a weapon. The admiral hit on this when he described Moscow’s “two dedicated Spanish-language news and multimedia services” and its “influence campaigns,” which seek “to sway public sentiment” in the region. This agitprop is paired with the infiltration of institutions.

Last month Russia’s effort to install one of its own at the head of Interpol drew widespread condemnation from the West. Only last-minute wrangling saved the international law-enforcement organization from certain destruction under the leadership of Alexander Prokopchuk, a Russian interior ministry official who is currently an Interpol vice president. A letter from a bipartisan group of U.S. senators warned, among other things, that putting Mr. Prokopchuk in charge at Interpol would “bolster the Kremlin’s ability to harass critics living outside of Russia.”

It’s a familiar narrative in Guatemala. The Kremlin has successfully burrowed into the United Nations organization known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG. The evidence emerged in the case of the Russian family of Igor Bitkov, whom I wrote about in March and April.

The Bitkovs, who owned a business in Kaliningrad, refused to meet the extortion demands of Mr. Putin. They fled their homeland and in 2009 started life anew in Guatemala. Putin gangsters followed and enlisted CICIG to persecute them.

Details of CICIG’s human-rights violations at Russia’s behest were aired in an April congressional hearing. It was established that the Bitkovs had been victims of human traffickers. In May Florida Sen. Marco Rubio put a hold on U.S. funding for CICIG, requesting new oversight protocols on an institution that had gone rogue.

Unfortunately, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, lifted that hold in August while logrolling with Democrats. CICIG saw the new money as a green light for its Russia dirty work.

On Wednesday Mr. Bitkov will again be dragged by CICIG before a Guatemalan judge, this time on the absurd charge of using the driver’s license and credit cards he secured when he believed himself in the country legally. The only explanation for such nonsense is that Mr. Putin demands his pound of flesh.

Russia is now pushing for an extradition treaty with Guatemala. Meanwhile, a source inside the Guatemalan government told me last week that Russia has been trying to increase its influence by offering “weapons, equipment, training and technology.” Guatemala has thus far refused the “help,” but Moscow is unlikely to give up there or anywhere else in America’s backyard if the U.S. doesn’t object.

Write to O’[email protected].