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Why the Russians might -- or might not -- be tempted by Nicaragua

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The statement by Soviet President Brezhnev on the possibility of placing Soviet nuclear missiles close to US shores if the United States continues to deploy its missiles in Europe highlights the strategic importance of the Caribbean and Central America. While most observers immediately associated the Russian threat with a repetition of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, a more ominous and dangerous scenario may be developing. It is possible that Brezhnev was referring to a deployment of Soviet nuclear capability not in Cuba but in Nicaragua.

The use of a Nicaraguan Pacific port for Soviet nuclear submarines would bypass the US-Soviet ''understanding'' of 1962 which pledges the Kremlin not to introduce ''offensive'' weapons into Cuba. The Soviets have made no similar pledges regarding Nicaragua. This would pose significant problems for the US and could lead to a Soviet-American crisis.

So far Moscow has been cautious in its support of the Nicaraguan government. The Kremlin leaders may be concerned about increasing US apprehensions over the possibility of another Cuba. The Soviets, furthermore, don't seem eager to embark on large-scale support of regimes that are not totally controlled by loyal Marxists. Soviet experience with regimes that gain power without Soviet support has shown that these regimes sometimes pursue policy lines independent from Moscow and are difficult to control.

The possible strategic advantages for the Soviet Union of mounting a military presence (naval as well as air) in the Pacific side of Central America based in Nicaragua might be significant. It would facilitate the deployment of Soviet submarines off the Pacific coast of the US, as well as extend the time these submarines can remain on station and shorten the transit time to and from their bases. It might generate a threat to US SAC (Strategic Air Command) bases located in the southwestern US. It would complicate the US ASW (antisubmarine warfare) problems and possibly reduce the risks of an early US intercept of Soviet submarines leaving their bases in the Soviet Union. It might allow the Soviet navy to keep better surveillance over movements of US submarines and other naval vessels in the Pacific ocean. And finally, an improved Soviet submarine and naval deployment might be critical to a Soviet preemptive strike posture in accordance with Soviet military doctrine.

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