Moscow’s Other Offensive: Russian Public Diplomacy in Latin America

Making the rounds: Russia's ambassador to Cuba, Viktor Koronelli, pictured after attending a ceremony in Havana in September 2023. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

The Kremlin’s ambassadors have increased their public diplomacy, challenging supporters of Ukraine and amplifying counter-West narratives.

The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 significantly tarnished Moscow’s public diplomacy. Strained relations with the Western world obliged Russia to rethink its global positioning with a heavier focus on multipolarity, aimed particularly at Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

Moscow, however, has never been popular in Latin America. While Russia and Western Hemisphere countries have engaged in diplomatic relations based on shared historical experiences such as Cold War dynamics and non-aligned movements, sparse historical connections have constrained mutual understanding between Moscow and the Western Hemisphere.

Even before the war, a Latinobarometer poll conducted in 10 countries revealed a poor image of Moscow, with only one in five Latin Americans liking Russia, compared to 47% with a positive view of the US. Russia has compensated for its lack of soft power through economic cooperation and trade, including investment projects in resource-rich Latin American countries – namely Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela – which are key exporters of agricultural commodities, machinery, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Although condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine included almost every country in Latin America and the Caribbean, Moscow is keen to seek greater regional support in its pursuit of counter-West diplomatic enterprises, including what the Kremlin argues is the importance of a diverse and balanced international system. ‘I am convinced that our cooperation with the countries of Central and Latin America will be one of the engines of development and creation of a new multipolar world order on the planet’, said Duma member Leonid Slutsky at the opening of a meeting in October 2023 between Russian politicians and their counterparts from Latin American countries including Nicaragua, Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba and El Salvador.

This shared perspective has led to diplomatic cooperation in international forums, for example at the recent BRICS and G20 meetings, where Moscow advocated for a global order resisting what it characterises as unilateralism from major powers. To back such efforts, the Kremlin has revamped its diplomatic inroads in the region, with Russian ambassadors challenging supporters of Ukraine in their respective host countries and making a visible effort to appear in the news cycle championing Moscow’s policies.

The Charge of the Muscovites

Ever since inflammatory speeches against Kyiv by Russian government officials became the norm, Vladimir Putin’s large-scale invasion in 2022 has gone virtually unchallenged. Russia controls information flows through state-controlled media and has taken measures to limit dissenting voices or perspectives that contradict the official narrative. There are laws and regulations that grant the government broad powers to restrict information that is deemed a threat to national security or public order surrounding the Ukraine war.

However, when it comes to other countries, the Kremlin cannot censor media outlets expressing views inconsistent with its official stance. Instead, it is using news outlets to advocate the Kremlin’s so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, openly challenging dissident opinions.

Russian ambassadors are challenging supporters of Ukraine in their respective host countries and making a visible effort to appear in the news cycle championing Moscow’s policies

In Colombia, where geopolitical dynamics have been influenced by the historical alliance between Bogota and the US, Russian ambassador Nikolay Tavdumadze published an op-ed in El Tiempo on 9 February in which he attributed the ‘various conflicts and crises’ in the international system to the ‘stubborn refusal of some Western countries, led by Washington, to perceive the objective realities of the multipolar world that is currently in the process of formation’.

‘Their destructive contribution undoubtedly comes from the US military-industrial complex. US companies producing all kinds of weaponry want to keep working without stopping, and they cannot allow their products to remain in storage for too long. Hence, they have always incited and continue to incite Washington to unleash wars around the world’, said Tavdumadze, before going on to warn that the ‘risks of a global conflict are growing’.

In Chile, ambassador Sergei N Koshkin used Russia Day on 9 June 2023 to blame Ukraine for committing ‘terrorist acts’ and ‘sabotage against civilian infrastructure’, such as ‘our painstakingly built Nord Stream gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea’. Speaking about the military situation, Koshkin said that ‘the combat is not between Russia and Ukraine; it is Russia against the unified military might of NATO’, in which the ‘collective West’, as he termed it, ‘unleashed a hybrid war on all fronts’.

Koshkin frequently engages in public exchanges with Ukrainian supporters and Ukraine’s representatives in Santiago, asserting Russia’ s commitment to a ‘negotiated solution to the conflict in Ukraine’, while also maintaining that the military operation will bring victory and expel Volodymyr Zelensky from power.

The bilateral relationship is clearly not of central geopolitical importance for Chileans – indeed, Russian-Chilean relations ‘have trended towards zero in almost all spheres’, as described by Koshkin. Meanwhile, Ukraine recently upgraded its delegation in Santiago to the status of embassy, with a new chief envoy.

In Mexico, ambassador Nikolay Sofinsky wrote an op-ed in La Jornada in September 2023 chastising the West for ‘using energy as a weapon’ and for causing turbulence in the international trade of hydrocarbons through ‘illegitimate restrictions and anti-market measures’. For the Russians, it may be a helping factor that Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador has not taken a direct position in the conflict between Moscow and Ukraine.

Despite Moscow’s targeted public diplomacy, its efforts to build sympathy for Russian foreign policy goals across the Americas seem to have hit a brick wall

Similarly, in Brazil, ambassador Alexey Labetsky has been publicly vocal about the war. Interviewed by Globo in September 2023, Labetsky complained that ‘Zelensky, and the regime installed in Ukraine, remains an almost neo-Nazi regime, anti-Russia, based unfortunately on values propagated by fascist Germany’. When asked about the meeting between Presidents Lula da Silva and Volodymyr Zelensky in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Labetsky said that the Kremlin respects ‘the sovereign policy of our strategic partner, Brazil, and accept[s] everything done within that policy’, moving on to argue that both countries enjoy a ‘vast bilateral agenda, including diesel, trade agreements, and investment projects’.

Brazil–Russia relations have not been so promising after the FBI and Brazil’s Federal Police released information on at least three cases of alleged Russian spies with Brazilian identities detected in the US, Ireland and Norway.

In Venezuela, the Russian ambassador to Caracas, Sergey Mélik-Bagdasárov, used a nationally televised show in February 2023 to blame the war in Ukraine on the US and NATO, and to embellish bilateral relations. ‘We (Russia and Venezuela) have solid foundations with our governments, a full understanding of the paths towards the future, our involvement in international organizations, bilateral political dialogue through consultations and visits of high-level contacts’, said Mélik-Bagdasárov, adding that ‘politically, we move forward together with a shared vision’. One aspect of Russian involvement in Venezuela is the two countries’ strong military ties, with Moscow supplying advanced weaponry including fighter jets and helicopters. These arms sales have bolstered Venezuela’s armed forces, with President Nicolás Maduro most recently ordering the militarisation of the Guyana border.

In Cuba, where Russia has actively pursued stronger energy cooperation, the Kremlin recently appointed Victor Koronelli, an experienced diplomat who previously headed the embassies in Mexico City and Buenos Aires. Koronelli, however, has been less fortunate than his counterparts, with reports of the recruitment of hundreds of Cubans to participate in the war against Ukraine forcing him to stay out of the limelight.

Hitting a Wall

Russia and the West have gradually become engaged in a ‘dialogue of the deaf’, with public diplomacy and cooperation taken out of the picture. The conflict in Ukraine marks the culmination of a long-term crisis in diplomatic engagement with Kremlin officials, who staunchly argue that Ukraine’s drifting toward the West is a major threat to Russia’s security and status aspirations.

Post-Cold War Russian diplomats have made attempts to redefine themselves, but whether their nationalist, anti-Western message will be effective in Latin America and the Caribbean remains doubtful. Despite Moscow’s targeted public diplomacy, its efforts to build sympathy for Russian foreign policy goals across the Americas seem to have hit a brick wall. Even if all the blame for the inequities of the international order is put on Western countries, new partnerships will be hard to materialise. As other have argued, Russia’s public diplomacy seems contradictive, limited and divisive, especially in the wake of the Ukraine war.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Carlos Solar

Senior Research Fellow, Latin American Security

International Security

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