China is considered the main challenger for the U.S. in Latin America and the Caribbean, but Russia has rejoined the geopolitical game in the region. It does so with hopes to avoid diplomatic and economic isolation, while taking a poke at the U.S. strategic underbelly.
Leadership Under Pressure
Putin’s Russia is under considerable stress. Its war in Ukraine is not going well, and the conflict appears to have bogged down into a bloody stalemate. Ukraine has reminded the Russian public that they are also vulnerable to cross-border incursions, drone attacks, and assassinations.
The Ukraine quagmire has also created divisions in Russia’s leadership, as evidenced by the Wagner Group’s short-lived rebellion, and it is eroding the public’s perception of safety and material wellbeing. At the same time, the Russian economy, which has held up remarkably well, is feeling strains from the Ukraine war and Western sanctions, and Moscow has been forced to restructure its trade relations. Trade between Russia and Europe has plunged.
Moscow’s current narrative regarding Latin America and the Caribbean is anchored by the Putinist worldview that sees Russia as a great power that has recovered from Soviet collapse. The dominant U.S. role in the post-Cold War era is rejected, and a multipolar world promoted. Putin regards Western liberalism — defined by everything from fair and free elections to LGBTQ+ rights — as an existential threat to Russia’s traditional values. This is especially true of the West’s encouragement of so-called color revolutions that forced changes in autocratic-leaning governments, including Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.
The brief Russo-Georgian War of 2008, the creation of puppet regimes in Eastern Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 all must be seen in this light.
For Russia, Latin America offers three things: a trio of longstanding fellow autocratic and anti-U.S. allies (Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela); a means to counter diplomatic and economic isolation imposed by the West over its invasion of Ukraine; and a geopolitical theater from which to strike back at the United States. The Soviet Union had important Cold War-era relations with Cuba and Nicaragua, and more recently Moscow established close ties to Venezuela. Russia has renewed and deepened its relations with these three regimes.
Although Russia lacks the financial heft the Soviet Union had during the Cold War, it has engaged these countries on the energy front and emphasized their importance to Moscow with high-level diplomacy, military aid, and medical assistance. The June 2023 rebellion by the Wagner Group in Russia has made relationships such as these more important than ever, and the leaders of all three countries were quick to signal their support for Putin. Indeed, Venezuela’s autocrat, Nicolás Maduro, repudiated Prigozhin’s rebellion and sent a “hug of solidarity” to the Russian leader.
Not Imperialists – Here, at Least
Russia’s economic role is smaller in the rest of Latin America. But Russia has targeted markets such as fertilizers throughout the region, and it has engaged in energy projects in countries such as Brazil and Mexico. Further, it shares with much of Latin America a preference for a multipolar world — one helped along by the creation of the BRICS grouping. Indeed, in late June 2023 Russia indicated that it would welcome enlarging the BRICS bloc composed of Brazil, Russia, China, India, and South Africa by adding Argentina and Iraq. Through its role in BRICS, Russia underscores its sympathy with the Global South.
In a related vein, Russia emphasizes whenever it can that it never acted as an imperial power in Latin America, unlike the United States and European countries. Russia’s diminishment of its own imperial past, of course, conveniently brushes aside its ruthless history of conquest and occupation of parts of Eastern Europe and Asia. Nevertheless, it appeals in leftist circles. Venezuela has played an important role in promoting this view, especially since the invasion of Ukraine. Venezuela’s state broadcaster Telesur avoids the word “war” and instead uses the Russian verbiage of a “special military operation” in Ukraine, also focusing on the country’s “denazification.”
Views on Multipolarity
To get Moscow’s message to Latin Americans, Russia has made adroit use of strategic communications, largely through RT and Sputnik, two state-owned media machines. As Brian Winter, editor in chief of Americas Quarterly, observed earlier in 2023: “Those guys are really good. You look at RT en Espanol – it has one of the biggest social media followings of any media company in the region.” He also acknowledged that many people in Latin America who are not pro-Russia nonetheless share content and videos from RT. The June 2023 rebellion appears to have made little impact on Russia’s narrative.
Latin America has its reasons for engaging Russia. The past several years have been economically challenging, with the Covid-19 pandemic followed by sharp price pressures in energy and food due to the Russo-Ukraine War. Most recently, rising international interest rates have come from both the U.S. and Europe. Coming down on one country’s side or another’s would greatly complicate economic relations for nations like Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, which depend on Russian fertilizer for their large export-oriented agricultural sectors.
But that is not all. Russian energy companies operate in several countries, and Russia is moving into critical metals. In late June, Bolivia’s government signed an agreement with Russia’s state-owned Rosatom to develop its lithium business. For one of Latin America’s poorest countries, the potential Russian investment of $600 million is of major importance.
Another key factor in Latin America’s willingness to engage Russia is a shared worldview. While most Latin American countries condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the region has a broader preference for nonalignment. There are differences in how nations define multipolarity — Russia looks at itself as a great power with a sphere of influence, and Latin America identifies as a neutral community of states able and willing to interact with all countries. But multipolarity appeals to them all. For Latin America, it provides a way to avoid too heavy a reliance on the U.S., a country that has meddled in its affairs in the past.
The combination of economic necessity and multipolarity allows Moscow to fend off diplomatic and economic isolation. Russian policy has proven success in this regard: Governments in Latin America are not following the West in imposing economic sanctions.
Strains With Washington
Russian diplomacy in Latin America earned dividends at the European Union -Community of Latin America and the Caribbean leadership summit held in Brussels July 17-18. An earlier EU invitation to Ukraine’s president Vladimir Zelensky was revoked after the Latin American and Caribbean countries pushed back. Moreover, preparatory discussions saw some Latin American countries demand the removal of a condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the draft conclusions. This made the EU-CELAC summit a little less cordial, with Latin America and the Caribbean asserting their wish not to be engaged in a conflict pitting Russia against the West — something that Moscow greatly appreciated.
At the same time, the EU wanted to use the summit to reinvigorate its engagement in the region, offering $50.6 billion in new investments. This desire was especially strong in the face of the Russo-Ukrainian War, and considering the need for the critical metals that will feed the great energy transition.
The Russo-Latin American convergence of interests has also strained relations between Washington and Brasilia. Brazilian President Ignacio Lula da Silva favors advancing the Global South and emphasizing multipolarity, which on the policy side has come off as anti-U.S. Over the past several months, Lula has blamed both Russia and Ukraine for the war; suggested that the U.S. and Europe are encouraging war; proposed a peace plan to end the hostilities; favored the displacement of the U.S. dollar as the world’s most used currency; brought Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in from the diplomatic cold; allowed Iranian warships to dock at Rio de Janeiro; and announced that a direct shipping line would be opened from Iran to Brazil.
Lula also hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in April 2023 and has stressed Brazil’s “special relationship” with Russia, leaving some analysts to conclude that Lula has taken a Russian view of the conflict.
The U.S. response to the appearance of a pro-Russian tilt in Brazilian foreign policy is one of frustration. The word “ambiguity” is often used in describing the region’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But Russian propaganda in Latin America has found an audience that lacks confidence in its leaders, political parties, and democratic institutions due to their corruption and their failure to deliver promised public services.
The U.S. responds by organizing high-level trips to the region, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s July trip to Trinidad to meet with CARICOM heads, or via summits like the Cities Summit of the Americas in Denver. But work still needs to be done to counter Russia’s progress.
Owning the Transition
Russia’s role in Latin America and the Caribbean should not be overstated, but neither should it be downplayed. Moscow has worked hard to re-establish its presence. If nothing else, it aims to be a nuisance for Washington. Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela could offer Moscow further room to maneuver. Indeed, Russian officials and companies have been frequently visiting Havana in 2023. It is also being reported that Cuban soldiers are fighting in Ukraine on the Russian side, while oligarchs are busy signing deals to supply the Communist regime with wheat, making investments in sugar and rum, revitalizing infrastructure, and providing badly needed oil. Considering that China also appears to be using Cuba as a surveillance base, increased Russian activity would not be a surprise.
Bolivia is another country where U.S. influence is weak. Russia and China are well positioned to gain further leverage over that country’s lithium industry. The white metal is critical to the global energy transition away from fossil fuels — a transition the Biden administration is betting on.
While it is unclear what byzantine politics play out in the Kremlin, the short-lived June rebellion reveals that behind the façade of Russian power lies a highly fractious and volatile polity. Frustration over the war in Ukraine could drive Russian leadership to probe deeper into Latin America and the Caribbean, seeking to apply pressure in what it considers Washington’s near abroad.
Russia’s Latin American and Caribbean policy must be taken in that context. Core policies will probably remain in place even if Putin drops out of leadership, but another round of Kremlin infighting should raise questions in Latin America about Russia’s reliability as a partner.
Dr. Scott B. MacDonald is Chief Economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings. Prior to this, he was Senior Managing Director and Chief Economist at KWR International, Inc (KWR). Prior to KWR he was the Head of Research for MC Asset Management LLC, an asset management unit of Mitsubishi Corporation based in Stamford, Connecticut (2012-2015) and Head of Credit & Economics Research at Aladdin Capital (2000-2011) and Chief Economist for KWR International (1999-2000). Prior to those positions he worked at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, Credit Suisse and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (in Washington, D.C.). During his time on Wall Street, he was ranked by Institutional Investor magazine as one of the top sovereign analysts.