Note: This article originally appeared in Spanish on our partner website esglobal. To read the original piece, click here.
With measured nuance, Russia is discovering a new “El Dorado” in Latin America. Since around 2008, the Kremlin has accelerated its presence in a broad and diversified manner in the Western Hemisphere, taking advantage of shifted U.S. attention and an absent European Union.
With relevant historical antecedents, despite a brief interregnum following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the reality of Latin America’s political landscape, which is still defined by leftist and nationalist-populist governments, has renewed Russian interest in Latin America.
Inflexion point: Crises in Georgia and Crimea
For Russia, Latin America is especially compelling from a geostrategic perspective because of its geographic proximity to the United States. In addition, the region draws Moscow’s attention because of the reality of the country’s foreign diplomacy, which has suffered considerably from U.S. and EU sanctions in response to the crises in Georgia and Crimea.
The support given to Moscow by several Latin American countries (Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador) in the face of Western sanctions, as well as the abstention of Brazil, together with the fact that these countries have refused to join Washington’s criticism of ongoing Russian military intervention in Syria, has further encouraged Vladimir Putin to focus his attention on the region with the goal of reducing his international isolation. In the post-Crimean context, Latin America has provided Russia with important markets for trade, particularly in the face of Western sanctions.
Earlier, the brief Russian-Georgian war (2008) persuaded the Kremlin of the need to expand the scope of its new national security strategy to the Western Hemisphere. The conflict with Georgia led to the de facto independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were immediately recognized not only by Russia but also by Latin American allies including Venezuela and Nicaragua.
After various attempts from Western democracies to move ex-Soviet countries away from the Russian sphere of influence (particularly in Ukraine and Georgia), Moscow has begun to forge strategic military alliances (including nuclear) in Washington’s backyard, particularly with Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, and to a lesser extent with Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia.
In recent years, prominent think tanks in Washington have begun to warn of an alleged “Russian threat” to U.S. national security interests. These warnings should be taken seriously, but with informed moderation.
Today’s Russia, unlike the USSR, is not guided strictly by ideological imperatives when it comes to opening or improving relations in Latin America. While geopolitics continue to drive relations, the Kremlin’s relations with the region have also been oriented towards a higher level of pragmatism and flexibility.
This new manner of international relations has been made clear by recent political trends in the region away from the Pink Tide governments of the early and mid 2000s. The shifting landscape has motivated Moscow to focus widely on economic interests (energy, transport, aerospace, biotechnology, etc.) with the goal of opening new markets for Russian products.
This level of Russian pragmatism is especially noteworthy in the cases of Argentina and Brazil, which have been strategic partners of Russia since the times of Kirchner in Argentina (2003-2015) and Lula in Brazil (2003-2016). Now, with political changes underway in both countries, the relationship with Russia has remained unchanged and even expanded, especially under President Mauricio Macri in Argentina.
In this sense, the recent political reorientation towards the liberal right in countries including Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and even in post-Correa Ecuador, would suggest an improvement in relations with Washington, but also with external actors such as Russia and China, defined in terms of economic rather than geostrategic imperatives.
The ‘ALBA axis’: Friends forever?
As for geopolitical allies, Moscow knows that the ALBA axis—Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia—will continue to be the focus of Russian geostrategic engagement in the hemisphere. Since 2000, Russia has made a total of 42 high-level visits to Latin American countries. Half of them have been to ALBA countries.
In these relations, the geopolitical imperatives, particularly political and ideological harmony (chavismo in Venezuela and Bolivia, Cuban socialism, and sandinismo in Nicaragua) serve as key strategic building blocks for Moscow in the region.
In the Venezuelan case, the relationship with Russia is absolutely vital for the government of Nicolás Maduro to the point of economic dependence (Moscow supported the creation of the Venezuelan cryptocurrency, the Petro), due to the still-worsening financial and humanitarian crisis, international pressure from the U.S., EU, OAS, and Lima Group. Without Russian support, the continuity of Maduro’s regime would be further thrown into question.
Maduro has made common cause with the Kremlin’s geopolitical goals. For Putin, Venezuela is part of Russia’s effort to create a second axis of global powers—also including China, Turkey and Iran—to compete with the Western Alliance. Russia, with its multinational giant Rosneft at the helm, has also become the main lender when it comes to restructuring the declining Venezuelan oil industry. Since 2005, Caracas has become such a strategically important military partner for the Kremlin that it receives 73 percent of Russian arms sales in Latin America. By 2025, it is expected that Venezuela will become the second largest recipient of Russian arms sales abroad, after India.
Venezuela and Bolivia also interest Moscow because of their reserves of crude oil and natural gas. On the other hand, the Russia-Cuba relationship entered a new dimension in 2014, after Russia forgave Soviet-era Cuban debt ($30 billion) and began to entertain the possibility of reopening the Russian electric plan of Lourdes, which Putin closed in 2000. Putin’s 2014 trip to Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and Nicaragua, followed by Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu’s trip to Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua in 2015, strengthened a strategic military relationship that has caused enormous concern in Washington.
But realpolitik has begun to mitigate this relationship. The decline of ALBA, the endless Venezuelan crisis, the possibility of a renewal of the Nicaraguan crisis, and mounting pressure from Washington against Cuba are sources of instability that seem to have persuaded Moscow to adopt more cautious positions in the region. For example, Russia refused to be included as an observer of ALBA.
Likewise, the lack of support from certain ALBA members (Ecuador, Bolivia and Cuba) to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia has diminished Russian expectations of the bloc, and has led Kremlin to instead prioritize bilateral relations with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
Brazil: It’s bigger than BRICS
In 1828, tsarist Russia officially recognized the independence of the Brazilian Empire. During the 19th century, Brazil, constituted as a republic in 1889, was the first Latin American country to maintain commercial relations with Russia.
The long-standing relationship between Brasilia and Moscow accelerated with the arrival of Lula de Silva in 2003. Trade, the arms business, joint ventures in the energy sector, and diplomatic collaboration in the BRICS and the G20 have expanded the profile of the bilateral relationship. Russia has also repeatedly supported Brazil’s request for admission to the UN Security Council.
The climate of cordiality and shared interests has dominated the relationship, which continues to be prolific. Putin visited Brazil for the first time in 2004 and returned in 2014. Former president and current Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev visited in 2008 and 2013. Lula visited Russia in 2005 and 2010, and his successor Dilma Rousseff traveled to Moscow in 2012. In addition, Patriarch Cyril I of the Russian Orthodox Church visited Brazil in 2016.
It remains to be seen, however, what the Russia-Brazil relationship will look like during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, especially given Bolsonaro’s populist style and his obvious affinity for President Trump.
However, it does not seem that Russia-Brazil relations will suffer an abrupt rupture in the new political context. Instead, Bolsonaro’s radical conservative, anti-liberal orientation may suggest political and ideological affinity with Putin, which could help to spark a personal relationship between Brasilia and Moscow.
This will depend on the foreseeable pressure that President Trump will receive to avoid any such Bolsonaro-Putin friendship given the foreign policy hawks he’s surrounded himself with in the White House. Likewise, the recent legislative victory of the Democratic Party will likely lead to an intensification of anti-Russian pressures in Washington.
Does Moscow pose a legitimate threat to the United States?
Between 2011 and 2015, South America accounted for 6.2 percent of Russia’s total arms sales, compared to 5 percent of Chinese arms sales and 2.3 percent of U.S. arms sales. Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Peru and Brazil are Moscow’s main military partners in Latin America. These relationships are focused on joint military exercises in the Caribbean (Venezuela, Nicaragua), cooperation in the fight against drugs, and sales of high-tech military equipment.
The SIPRI report on global arms spending in 2017 puts Russia fourth globally after the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia. Compared to 2016, Russian arms spending fell by 20 percent, most likely due to lower international oil prices and Western sanctions. In the Latin America, it’s important to note important variations. Brazil and Venezuela each recorded purchase increases of 4.4 percent in 2017, whereas in Central American and the Caribbean, expenditures fell sharply (-6.6 percent).
However, if you look at the volume of arms sales, military cooperation, and military exercises in a comparative context, Russia’s ties with Latin America are still incipient compared to the military relationships that Washington maintains with the region, especially in Colombia and Mexico.
Russian attention in the military sphere has focused on the ALBA axis and countries with high military spending such as Peru, Brazil and Argentina. While this has created considerable concern in Washington, given U.S. strategic hegemony in the region Russia’s status as a nuclear power, the feared ALBA-started domino effect has failed to come to fruition.
Russian military strategy in Latin America seems to favor a kind of reciprocal deterrent effect on Washington, in particular to counteract Western involvement in Eastern Europe. The Kremlin is thus involved in a kind of geopolitical chess match based on dissuading and distracting.
Soft Power: RT in Spanish
Another important area for Moscow is telecommunications. Since 2009, the state television station Russia Today (RT) in Spanish has been broadcast in Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba, in addition to maintaining a close relationship with TeleSUR. RT in Spanish maintains bureaus in Buenos Aires, Caracas, Havana, Managua, Los Angeles, and Miami.
Russian interest in Latin America has also been reflected in the field of think tanks and their involvement in the design of strategic policies and influence on public opinion on Latin American issues. These include the Institute of Latin American Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, created in 1961, the Center for Ibero-American Studies at the State University of St. Petersburg, created in 2013, and the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO). These centers also contribute to the training of Russian diplomats and businessmen on Latin American issues.
Moscow’s work on paradiplomacy towards the Russian diaspora, through its government agency Rossotrudnichestvo, is also important to note. Although the Russian diaspora in Latin America only numbers around 200,000, the cultural impact of Russia on the region is significant, particularly through programs designed to improve Russia’s image that are aimed at younger generations of Latin Americans.
American and Latin American media alike have criticized RT, as well as Sputnik (which has had a Spanish-language station since 2014), portraying them as mere propaganda instruments of the Kremlin, allegedly aimed at creating matrices of anti-American opinion.
This approach has been transferred to the electoral plane, especially in view of 2018 elections in Colombia and Mexico, during which RT appeared to blatantly favor leftist candidates who routinely criticize the United States such as Rodrigo Londoño in Colombia and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in Mexico.
It remains to be seen what the Russia-Mexico relationship will look like once AMLO assumes the presidency in December, especially given recent strategic readjustments by Washington with regard to Mexico such as the renewal of NAFTA (now known as USMCA) by the Trump administration in October 2018.
Looking to the future
According to Alexander Schetinin, director for Latin America of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the relationship between Russia and Latin American countries “are not conjunctural.” Taking into account the current context, everything seems to indicate that Moscow will continue to attempt to expand relations with the region in the coming years.
However, discussion of this relationship must move away from the catastrophic language so often used by the U.S., its allies, and Western media. Beyond the geopolitical imperatives, Putin’s approach to Latin America is essentially pragmatic, aware of its potential but also of its limitations, especially in military matters. In its decisions regarding the region, the Kremlin weighs with cold caution to what extent engagement is focused more on promising expectations than on structurally consolidated long-term relationships.