Russia and Latin America After February 24

Essay By
Learn more about David J. Kramer.
David J. Kramer
Executive Director
George W. Bush Institute
Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in 2018 (Wikimedia Commons)

David J. Kramer, Executive Director at the Bush Institute, explores the relationship between Russia and Latin America.

For years, Russia has maintained strong ties to authoritarian regimes around the world, including three countries in Latin America. The leaders in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have become heavily dependent on Moscow for political, economic, and security assistance, without which they would struggle to stay in power. For decades, Russia has maintained strong ties with Communist Cuba and with the Ortega regime in Nicaragua. Russian support for Venezuela’s illegitimate leader Nicolás Maduro, and before that Hugo Chávez, has been key to propping them up in power, too.

Nicaragua relies heavily on Russia for military support, including refurbishing of its armed forces, while Russia operates a large, high-tech communications facility on the outskirts of Managua. In June, Nicaragua’s authoritarian leader Daniel Ortega reauthorized Russian troops, planes, and ships to deploy to Nicaragua for purposes of training, law enforcement, or emergency response. He also permitted small contingents of Russian troops in Nicaragua for “exchange of experiences and training.” Venezuela and Cuba maintain similar dependence on Moscow for military and security assistance.

Putin wants more in Latin America

But Russian President Vladimir Putin is not content with aligning solely with these like-minded regimes in the region. He seeks to extend Russia’s influence to other Latin American countries and undermine America’s influence in the Western Hemisphere. He proudly hosted two leaders – Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro – soon before he ordered the re-invasion of Ukraine.

That February 24 decision to re-invade Ukraine (Russia invaded the first time in 2014) has proven costly to Putin on many levels. Tens of thousands of Russian forces have been killed and wounded as the Ukrainians have put up a heroic campaign in fending off the invading forces. (At the same time, of course, the invasion has forced millions of Ukrainians from their homes, killed thousands, and caused havoc for the Ukrainian economy.)

The United States and many democratic allies have imposed severe sanctions and provided Ukraine with vital military assistance to push back on invading Russian forces. The Russian economy is suffering under the weight of the sanctions regime, and dissatisfaction inside Russia with Putin’s and the military’s abysmal performance in the war is rising.

Putin’s invasion has turned Russia into an international pariah and damaged Russia’s standing on the global stage. Russian influence in various parts of the world has taken a major hit.

In Latin America, however, the picture is more gray than black and white. Shortly before the invasion and even in the weeks afterward, it initially appeared that Moscow might be able to maintain influence in the region, as evidenced by the ill-conceived visits to Moscow by Fernandez and Bolsonaro. The outreach to those two leaders may have influenced their decisions, along with that of Mexico’s leader, not to join other democracies in imposing sanctions on the Putin regime.

In Mexico, MORENA, the party of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, launched a Mexico-Russia “Friendship Committee” in March, i.e., after Russia’s invasion; López Obrador declared, “Our posture is neutrality.”

In late April, all three countries abstained on a resolution in the Organization of American States (OAS) that suspended Russia as a permanent observer of the 34-country group; 25 countries voted to do so. In a later vote in early October, the OAS passed a Guatemala-led declaration calling for “the end of Russian aggression in Ukraine.”

Russian influence in various parts of the world has taken a major hit. … In Latin America, however, the picture is more gray than black and white.

Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina once again did not sign onto the declaration. Soon after, Brazil abstained from a U.N. Security Council vote condemning Russia’s annexation of occupied territories in Ukraine’s east.

At the same time, the picture was not all positive for Moscow. Most countries in Latin America – including Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico – voted to condemn the invasion in a March 24 vote before the United Nations General Assembly. No Latin American and Caribbean countries voted against the resolution, though four Latin American countries – Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and El Salvador – voted to abstain.

Another test came a few weeks later, when the General Assembly voted to expel Russia from its seat on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Nineteen countries from Latin America and the Caribbean voted in favor of expulsion; Cuba joined Bolivia and Nicaragua as the only countries in the region to oppose the resolution. Abstaining were 10 countries from the region: El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil (perhaps reflecting a benefit for Moscow from Bolsonaro’s February visit), as well as Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.

By the summer and fall, when the United Nations General Assembly met in September, the positions of Latin American countries toward Moscow hardened amid mounting evidence of Russian atrocities and war crimes in Ukraine. Brazilian Foreign Minister Carlos Alberto Franca criticized the Russian invasion, saying “The continuation of the hostilities endangers the lives of innocent civilians and jeopardizes the food and energy security of millions of families in other regions, especially in developing countries.” Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard was even harsher, declaring the invasion a “flagrant breach of international law.”

In a General Assembly vote to allow Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy to address the September gathering remotely, only Cuba and Nicaragua among Latin American countries opposed the invitation, joining a gallery of rogue regimes including Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria. And a UN General Assembly resolution October 12 supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories, won the votes of 143 countries; most Latin American countries voted in favor though Nicaragua opposed it while Bolivia and Cuba abstained.

Putin’s zero-sum view meets reality

Putin views the world in zero-sum terms. Accordingly, Western assistance to Ukraine, which Putin doesn’t view as an independent state but instead as part of Russia’s sphere of influence, requires payback by Russia through meddling in what the Russian leader perceives to be America’s sphere of influence: Latin America. Russian officials even threatened earlier this year to deploy new military assets in the region, in a clear response to Western pledges of support to Ukraine.

While Russian officials may wish to enhance their profile in Latin America in response to the Western military assistance to Ukraine, Russian forces are bogged down in the fighting in Ukraine and suffering major losses. Putin’s order to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Russian males is deeply unpopular. All that means Russia’s ability to extend its position, expand its influence, send its planes, sell more arms, and prop up regimes in the region has been compromised.

Bolstering Russia’s physical presence in Latin America, whether through traditional or non-traditional actors (such as the Wagner mercenary outfit that itself is bogged down in Ukraine), is unlikely for the foreseeable future. The botched invasion of Ukraine and the need to scramble to staunch the bleeding there — literally and figuratively — have exposed the limits on Russia’s power projection capabilities. That is bound to have an impact on Russia’s profile in Latin America.

Even Russian disinformation and propaganda in the region, which for years has promoted an anti-American narrative, might have to take a back seat to an all-hands-on-deck approach to the situation in Ukraine. RT en Español, headquartered in Chile with more than 3.5 million Twitter followers before the invasion, may be strapped for resources and more limited in its ability to win over Latin American audiences and sow doubts about America’s reliability as a partner, given that RT is struggling to win over audiences closer to home with its twisted propaganda. The sanctions and their effects on the Russian economy and revenue streams will make resourcing RT more challenging.

The botched invasion of Ukraine and the need to scramble to staunch the bleeding there — literally and figuratively — have exposed the limits on Russia’s power projection capabilities. That is bound to have an impact on Russia’s profile in Latin America.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is trying to counter Russian efforts in the region. As reported by the Miami Herald, the government in Kyiv in August appointed Ambassador Ruslan Spirin as special envoy for Latin America with a particular focus on countering Russian disinformation about the war. The war, Spirin argued, is “between civilization and barbarism, a police state dictatorship and Ukraine’s democracy.”

The invasion’s impact on Russia’s standing in Latin America

In short, Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine is affecting Russia’s position in Latin America. Visits to Moscow by Latin American leaders, like those of Fernandez and Bolsonaro right before the invasion, seem inconceivable now given the sanctions in place.

In addition to Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and most of Russian officialdom have been sanctioned. That makes them persona non grata. While Lavrov visited four countries in Africa over the summer, he has not set foot in any countries in the Western Hemisphere (except to represent Russia at the September UN General Assembly session).

In light of the massive sanctions regime imposed on Putin and Russia, dealing and doing business with Russia are and will remain much more difficult than it was before. Russian firms sanctioned by the United States and other allies are essentially off limits for Latin American counterparts who would otherwise risk being hit with secondary sanctions, even if countries in the region have not adopted sanctions themselves against Russia.

Russia’s abysmal military performance in Ukraine is likely to make Russian weapons and arms less attractive for potential buyers. Poor planning and logistics have had a lot to do with Russian forces’ inability to achieve their objectives, but scenes of Ukrainian tractors pulling damaged and disabled Russian tanks will not be good for Russia’s arms business.

The fact that Russia is bogged down in Ukraine means it is less likely to have the resources — political, economic, military, even human — to extend much further into Latin America. The temptation to stick it to the United States in what Moscow perceives as America’s sphere of influence will be considerable, but the ability to match that temptation with actual capabilities will be limited.

The Biden administration’s challenge

The United States needs to do a better job of encouraging more support from Latin American allies for a hardline position toward Moscow; trying to persuade the regime’s in Havana, Managua, and Caracas is pointless. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to the region in early October was a start but not enough, especially since other issues dominated the agenda. The Biden administration must make clear the choice countries in the region face, especially the big three of Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina.

Through quiet diplomacy as well as naming and shaming when and where necessary, Washington should plainly state that when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now is the time to choose sides — and that the right side to be on is with Ukraine and the democratic countries that have rallied behind Kyiv, not with Moscow. It cannot take for granted that countries in our hemisphere will automatically side with Ukraine.

Colombia’s new leftist president, Gustavo Petro, for example, criticized the United States for ostracizing Cuba through sanctions during Blinken’s recent visit. It’s possible that Petro will signal a softer stance toward Moscow than his predecessor, adding to the challenge.

Through quiet diplomacy as well as naming and shaming when and where necessary, Washington should plainly state that when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now is the time to choose sides — and that the right side to be on is with Ukraine and the democratic countries that have rallied behind Kyiv, not with Moscow. It cannot take for granted that countries in our hemisphere will automatically side with Ukraine.

The United States needs to encourage more investment and business interest in the region to step in where Russian activity has ceased or become problematic. The alternative otherwise might come from Beijing, which would extend that authoritarian regime’s influence in place of Russia’s, and on top of its already growing presence.

That argues even more for a proactive campaign by the United States to fill those gaps and not let China do so. The United States must ramp up its game and seize this moment in the hemisphere before others do.