New Cold War: Is Russia Spying on the U.S. From a Nicaragua Military Compound?

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin (2nd L) speaks to Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega (R) after he arrived at the international airport in Managua July 11, 2014. REUTERS/Cesar Perez

For nearly two months, Nicaraguan officials have used a satellite station set up in a compound south of Managua to monitor data on drug trafficking, natural disasters and other threats. Because the technology came from Russia, though, the U.S. is concerned that Nicaragua is eager to keep an eye on more than just internal problems.

Russia donated the satellite station to Nicaragua as the two nations have increasingly sought closer military ties, including Moscow last year giving the country 50 T-72 tanks, aimed at upgrading Managua's armed forces. These expensive tokens of international friendship have fueled fears that the real purpose of Nicaragua's new eye in the sky is to track U.S. activity and report back to Moscow.

"The economic cooperation was a facade," Roberto Orozco, executive director of the Center for Investigation and Strategic Analysis, a think tank in Managua, told The Washington Post. "What the Russians really wanted is an active military presence."

Nicaragua's left-wing government has denied it is using the satellite put into operation on April 7 to observe the United States. Orlando Castillo, director of Nicaragua's state-run telecommunications company, told the Associated Press last week the station "is not for spying on anyone," even though it uses a Russian version of a GPS satellite system.

The satellite compound is protected by concrete walls and barbed wire.

Russia's interest in Nicaragua has stumped some locals. Roberto Canjina, a local security analyst, told NPR last year it was unclear why Russia was sending military aid to Managua. "Russia doesn't have anti-narcotics intelligence information here, not like the Americans do," said Canjina.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly has a good relationship with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who initially came to power in 1979 when his leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew U.S.-backed dictator Anastazio Somoza with the help of Soviet Union soldiers. Ortega returned to office in 2006, and Russia acknowledged the victory with gifts of wheat and sorghum. In more recent years, Moscow has sent military equipment such as tanks, personnel carriers and mobile rocket launchers to Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

"The Russians are also engaging in some disquieting behavior, such as providing battle tanks to Nicaragua, which impacts regional stability," U.S. Southern Command Chief Admiral Kurt Tidd told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April. "This could cause its neighbors to divert vital resources needed to fight threat networks, and address developmental challenges, to maintain parity."

With the U.S. and Russia exchanging tense words over conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan, as well as over Moscow's alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election in November, the Kremlin is likely looking to build an outpost closer to its potential enemy, said Eliot Abrams, former assistant secretary of state during the Reagan administration. Call it the new Cold War, Abrams told NPR.

"We've been through this. It seems to me that, either publicly or privately, we need to signal that there are some limits," he said.