Was this actually possible? In 2019, footage of a U.S. Coast Guard interdiction of a homemade drug smuggling submarine took the world by storm, and for good reason. As we watched one of the baddest dudes we’re ever apt to see anywhere outside of a movie pounding on the hatch of the mostly submerged sub, many of us were shocked to learn that drug cartels actually have their own submarines.
What may surprise you more is that these amateur submarines were really a consolation prize for drug smugglers out of Colombia. Their first choice? An actual Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine. What’s even crazier, however, is that the Russians seemed to be more than happy to sell them one.
The Soviet legacy of desperation
The Cold War that erupted between the United States and Soviet Union immediately after World War II came to an end prompted a massive build-up of military hardware in both nations. The Soviets, championing their communist political and economic model, secured a number of early PR victories over the capitalist U.S., being the first nation to send a satellite, a dog, and a person into earth’s orbit. This early lead created what some have taken to calling the “Sputnik Crises” in America and its Western allies. The Soviets weren’t just matching the technological might of the world’s first nuclear power, they were exceeding it, and showing the world just how effective their governmental model could be.
For the United States and its allies, dead set on preventing the spread of communism around the globe, these technological successes were seen as a clear and present danger to the American way of life. Those early Soviet wins led directly to the establishment of NASA, and the re-orienting of famed-former Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun away from the Redstone missiles he was tasked with building and toward the heavens. Von Braun’s work led to the development of the Saturn V rocket–a platform that took America to the moon and still remains the most powerful spacecraft ever constructed.
America’s eventual victory in the Space Race can be seen as indicative of America’s broad approach to battling the Soviets on technological and financial grounds. In fact, many credit President Ronald Reagan with effectively spending the Soviets into ruin, fielding increasingly capable military platforms and weapons, which forced the Soviets to respond in kind, despite their struggling economy. Of course, the fall of the Soviet Union can really be attributed to a number of factors, including the will of its populous, but it’s tough to discount the dire financial straights the former superpower found itself in by 1991–the year the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and a new Russian government took its place.
It was during this transitional time that the former Soviet Union gained a reputation for offloading military hardware to the highest bidder. The new Russian state lacked the funds needed to operate or maintain its massive military apparatus, or even to sufficiently pay large swaths of its personnel. As a result, military officials participated in the sale of military assets as a means of survival amid the nation’s economic collapse. In one instance, the Russian government themselves even traded the American soft drink company Pepsi a fleet of warships and submarines in exchange for a new shipment of soda. In another, members of the Russian Navy actually conspired to sell a diesel-electric submarine directly to drug cartels in Colombia for the purposes of smuggling as much as 40 tons worth of cocaine into the U.S. with each trip.