Note: This article originally appeared in Spanish in Foreign Affairs Latin America, Volume 18, Number 3. It appears here with permission. Click here to read the original article.
The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 30, 2016, is based on a diagnosis that “Global power and development potential is becoming decentralized, and is shifting toward the Asia-Pacific Region, eroding the global economic and political dominance of the traditional western powers.” The document goes on to say that “The attempts made by Western powers to maintain their positions in the world, including by imposing their point of view on global processes and conducting a policy to contain alternative centers of power, leads to a greater instability in international relations and growing turbulence on the global and regional levels.”
The platform is part of a renewed international role for Russia, staked out by Putin after his re-election in 2012. That year, as explained by Paul Stronksi and Richard Sokolsky of the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Program in The Return of Global Russia (2017), Moscow began to deploy a broad and effective international campaign to expand its influence. The objectives of this campaign were to weaken the global leadership of the United States by modifying the post-Cold War order, divide the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), increase Putin’s international and internal legitimacy, and promote Russian commercial, energy, economic and military interests.
Recently, this strategy has led to an escalation of conflict with the West, evidenced both in Syria and Russian efforts to interfere in Western elections. Russia expert Dmitri Trenin defined this escalation as a new asymmetric Cold War, in which the absence of the specter of nuclear war leads the parties to more direct conflict in the economic, financial, political, and cyberspace spheres.
To achieve its aims, Russia has adopted the role of a relevant actor or arbiter in various regional crises (Syria and Ukraine) to maximize its geopolitical, military and economic influence, while at the same time developing a more systematic and long-term agenda of confrontation with the West, often within the framework of global alliances. However, as Aglaya Snetkov has pointed out, in today’s world, Russia remains on a secondary level; its limited geopolitical and economic resources—especially in contrast to China and the United States—forces Moscow to act in flexible and creative ways.
Latin America has a role to play within Russia’s global repositioning efforts. Paragraph 98 of the Foreign Policy Concept states:
Russia remains committed to the comprehensive strengthening of relations with the Latin American and Caribbean States taking into account the growing role of this region in global affairs. Russia will seek to consolidate ties with its Latin American partners by working within international and regional forums, expanding cooperation with multilateral associations and Latin American and Caribbean integration structures, including the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the Southern Common Market, the Union of South American Nations, the Central American Integration System, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, the Pacific Alliance and the Caribbean Community.”
The Kremlin has employed various strategies to advance its strategy of broad objectives despite limited resources in Latin America. Weapons sales are popular because of attractive financing terms, technology transfer, and the ability to conduct training, which has increased the revenues of the Russian military industrial complex at the same time that it expands Moscow’s geopolitical influence. Customers who have traditionally purchased from the U.S. and Europe, including Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, have purchased Russian air equipment in recent years.
In media, Russian news channels are available in basic cable packages throughout the region. Russian businesses in the fields of hydrocarbons, metalworking and tourism have reinforced their presence in the regional market; the value of Russian-Latin American trade in these sectors increased by 50 percent between 2006 and 2016.
At the same time, Latin American leaders continue to visit Russia in droves—Raúl Castro in 2015, Michel Temer and Nicolás Maduro in 2017, and Mauricio Macri in 2018—demonstrating the highest level of bilateral ties in recent memory.
Russia’s inner circle
Political and economic ties with Cuba have narrowed in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union. Rául Castro visited Moscow in 2015, followed by his successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, in 2016. On July 26, 2017, Josefina Vidal, the main Cuban negotiator with the U.S. government, met with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov to exchange information about Washington. On September 20, 2017, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez held a “confidential” meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, during the UN General Assembly. Similarly, the Cuban ambassador in Moscow has held several meetings with Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov.
Cuba’s economic relations with Russia, although modest compared to its relations with Canada, China, the European Union or Venezuela, grew by almost 70 percent in 2017. The state-controlled company Rosneft announced significant increases in shipments of hydrocarbons to the island (which totaled almost a quarter of a million tons in 2017) to offset the decline in shipments from the government of Nicolás Maduro. Igor Sechin, Rosneft’s director, met with Cuban officials to discuss joint extraction projects and the possible modernization of the Cienfuegos refinery, operated jointly by the Cuban organization Unión Cuba-Petróleo (CUPET) and Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA). Agreements have also been signed to modernize the generation of thermoelectric energy, the metallurgical industry, land transport and the rail system. For its part, Havana is collaborating with Moscow in the field of biotechnology and with the export of medicines to the Russian market.
Finally, Russia and Cuba have updated military agreements. Officials in the Ministry of Defense, as well as other military officials, have made frequent visits to Havana. In December 2016, immediately following elections in the United States, Russia sealed an agreement to modernize the Cuban army. There has also been talk of increasing the transfer of new technology, in addition to updating equipment from the Soviet era.
Moscow’s military, political and economic connections with Caracas have grown steadily in recent years. In the middle of an escalating national crisis, Venezuela reached an agreement with Russia in November 2017 to restructure debts for $3 billion. At the same time, Rosneft has invested $14 billion in the Venezuelan gas and oil industry. In February 2018, the ministers of economy of the two countries met in Moscow and expressed their interest in expanding commercial ties. Maduro’s initiative to create a cryptocurrency, the petro, backed by the country’s hydrocarbon reserves interests Moscow for two reasons: 1) Russia can take charge of the technological support for transactions and 2) both countries can take advantage of the petro to evade Western economic sanctions.
Venezuela’s purchases of Russian-made products are still by far the most important in the region. From 2000 to 2010 alone, Moscow sold $11 billion in armaments to Caracas, including fighter-bombers, helicopters, transport planes, heavy tanks, armored cars, artillery, anti-aircraft and anti-submarine systems, radar, transport and logistic vehicles, and firearms. In April 2018, Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino participated in the 8th International Security Conference in Russia and met with his counterpart, Sergey Shoygu, to discuss military cooperation. Padrino told the press about Caracas’ interest in expanding the training exchange programs, beginning construction on a Venezuelan factory of AK-103 assault rifles, and opening a training center for pilots of Mi-17, Mi-35 and Mi-26 helicopters. The technology, doctrine and training provided by Moscow are largely responsible for the militarization of Venezuela’s internal politics and its possible geopolitical impacts.
Throughout the region, the hiring of local correspondents for Russian international media networks and growing academic links with Latin American universities point to what Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig consider to be the promotion of specific political narratives to advance the interests of the Kremlin.
Taking advantage of the growing access of Latin Americans to the internet, cable television, computers, and smartphones, Russian media have increased their regional penetration. With offices and programs in several countries of the region, Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik Mundo have become sources of information for important segments of the middle and working classes and platforms for anti-liberal populism. While the intellectuals who espouse this worldview are happy to grace the airwaves to talk about politics in Latin America, they remain silent about the social conservatism, political authoritarianism and expansionism of the Putin regime. One example is the serialized column from American-born, naturalized Mexican citizen John Ackerman, who has published more than seventy columns for RT since December 2016. Ackerman (as well as his wife, an academic and daughter of a prominent historic leader of the Mexican nationalist left) is a known ideologue of leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Recently, the Cuban news agency, Prensa Latina, along with Sputnik signed an official cooperation agreement. Its bureau in Uruguay produces daily news programs and opinion content for Spanish-speaking audiences. In all Russian media in the region, Moscow is presented as an alternative of order and development for the region, in stark contrast to the decadent, imperialist West.
Joint activities between regional and Russian social science institutions have also taken off in recent years. Russia’s Institute of Latin American Studies (founded in 1961) today has four sub-centers and a staff of more than eighty researchers. Additional Russia-based research institutes include the fledgling Center for Ibero-American Studies at the State University of St. Petersburg (founded in 2013) and the State Institute of International Relations of Moscow (founded in 1944), which is the alma mater of generations of ambassadors to Latin American countries. In October 2017, the Latin American Council of Social Science, the Latin American Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, and the State University of St. Petersburg held a collaborative conference that was attended by Russian and Latin American academics and politicians.
In Mexico, the centenary of the 1917 Revolution was commemorated in academic events with researches from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM), as well as the publication of a special bulletin from the Russian embassy. Russian Ambassador to Mexico Eduard Malayan, a graduate of the Institute of International Relations of Moscow with nearly a half century of diplomatic experience, actively participated in the celebrations. At the celebrations, the young historian Rainer Matos presented his new book, Historia mínima de Rusia (2018). Taken together, the festivities represent a concerted effort on the part of Moscow to project itself to the Mexican public and the Mexican academy.
Elsewhere, Nikolai Leonov—the veteran KGB agent who met with Raúl Castro in Mexico years before the 1959 Revolution and who spread Soviet propaganda throughout Latin America during the Cold War—is newly popular among academics and politicians. Leonov’s status as a close friend and biographer of Raúl Castro has earned him considerable fame within the Bolivarian bloc. His resurgence in the regional academy is worrying, especially as experts such as Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan warn about the renewal of Soviet-era Russian intelligence methods in Moscow’s geopolitical strategies.
Russia has never felt satisfied with its post-Cold War status in global geopolitics. For the past five years, it has made it clear that being a regional power is not enough. As Trenin pointed out in Should We Fear Russia? (2016), Moscow wants to sit among decision makers and is ready to fight for its place at the table. Even with its limited resources, the country insists on punching above its weight as a world power, in what Andrei Kortunov and Ivan Timofeyev identify as a new cycle of Russian foreign policy.
In Latin America, numerous variables favor the current Russian agenda. In comparison with the United States and Europe, Russia does not have an imperial past with respect to the countries of the Americas. Added to that is the ascendance of anti-American, anti-imperialist political forces throughout Latin America, as well as the neglect of the United States under the Trump administration’s policies of isolationism and aggressiveness toward the region.
For two centuries, Latin America has seen the United States as a contradiction. On one hand, it is the imperial superpower that threatens its autonomy; on the other, it is the prosperous and open society that it envies. Young Latin Americans learn to repudiate the School of the Americas, but to admire the Civil Rights Movement. The most radical among us have cultivated a worldview of anti-imperialism that’s resistant to changes of epoch and the style of our neighboring hegemon; however, they are quick to forgive the intrusions of other powers.
Paradoxically, these powers—whose history, culture and political regimes are so distant from bicentennial republicanism, democratic progressivism and Latin American social movements—are now very active in the region. China, with its overwhelming mix of capital investments, credit supply, and massive purchases of raw materials, is betting on a slow and firm advance. Russia, incapable of competing with the Chinese power, advances itself through technical-military collaboration and bilateral geopolitical alliances, and seeks to expand its cultural influence beyond the usual sympathizers.
Latin America needs to forge alliances in a complex and convulsive world, where the half-millennium of Western dominance seems to be declining in the face of a booming Asia. But betting on extra-continental autocracies will not bring greater social equity and respect for human rights to the Americas. It is not a clash of civilizations, with culture and faith as unshakeable pillars; the problem is more conventional. We live in societies where it is possible to oppose the government and, by peaceful means, reform the state. It is about choosing whether, as a resource of internal political disputes, local actors are allied with powers in which the regime, state and government are one and the same; those powers are ones hostile to the project of the liberal republics that make up the belief system in most of the region. The active presence of Russia, and its effects on the democracies and societies of Latin America, must be evaluated from this perspective.
Armando Chaguaceda is a political scientist and historian. He teaches at the University of Guanajuato.