Russia Returns to Latin America

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro pictured in 2019. Courtesy of Commons/CC BY 4.0

Although Russia has deepened its involvement in Latin American affairs over the past decade, it has struggled to convert its rising profile into genuine leverage.

On 11 July, protests erupted in Cuba over food and medicine shortages, amid public frustration with the Cuban Communist Party’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. While the US swiftly imposed sanctions on Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police over its repression of demonstrators, Russia enthusiastically called for non-interference in Cuba and accused the US of instigating a ‘colour revolution’ in the country. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also expressed solidarity with Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega over his detention of 26 dissidents and emphasised Moscow’s long-term commitment to close relations with Venezuela.

Russia’s strident support for Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela underscores its great power aspirations in Latin America. These ambitions first surfaced during then-Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s week-long tour of Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela in May 1996, and accelerated after Russian President Vladimir Putin struck a slew of economic and security agreements with Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and Nicaragua in July 2014. In recent years, Russia has successfully pursued new commercial opportunities in Latin America and advanced a sovereignty-focused normative agenda that appeals to countries throughout the region. However, Russia’s security presence in Latin America remains underwhelming and Moscow possesses a soft power deficit, which has been exacerbated by its failed Sputnik V vaccine roll-out.

Despite Russia’s sluggish economic growth, its commercial presence in Latin America has expanded from small foundations. From 2006 to 2016, Russia’s trade with Latin America increased by 44% to $12 billion, and approximately half of Moscow’s trade deals were concentrated in Brazil and Mexico. Russia’s commercial breakthroughs in Latin America have been most pronounced in the oil and gas sector. Energy giant Rosneft spearheaded Russia’s entry into Venezuela’s oil market, but due to the US’s imposition of sanctions on two Rosneft-linked entities, the Russian government nationalised its holdings in March 2020. Lukoil has an established presence in Mexico’s oil markets, and on 6 July, it invested $435 million in the Area-4 project, which is anticipated to have a peak daily production capacity of 115,000 barrels of oil. Rosneft also secured preferential access to Brazil’s Solimoes basin in July 2019, and its CEO Igor Sechin participated in the November 2019 BRICS summit in Brasilia to strengthen Brazil–Russia oil industry cooperation.

In other sectors, Russia has announced ambitious plans for economic cooperation, but with limited follow-through. Russian nuclear energy giant Rosatom ratified an intergovernmental agreement with Mexico in July 2015, struck a memorandum of understanding with Brazil and signed a strategic document with Argentina in December 2018. These declarations of intent have not translated into large-scale projects, with the exception of its research facility in El Alto, Bolivia. Russia’s post-2014 economic malaise has also stymied manufacturing, agriculture and technological cooperation with Latin American countries, despite the proliferation of Russian business councils throughout the region.

Russia’s presence in Latin America is also strengthened by shared normative positions. Russia’s assertion of its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space and its resolute support for state sovereignty in the Global South resonate particularly well in Latin America. During the August 2008 Georgian War, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua publicly defended Russia’s military actions in South Ossetia, while Brazil and Chile called for a de-escalation without condemning Russian conduct. In a March 2014 vote on UN General Assembly Resolution 68/262, which expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia voted with Russia, while Brazil and Argentina abstained. Most Latin American countries supported or remained neutral on Russia’s military intervention in Syria, despite periodic disagreements over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons use and refugee resettlement. Russia and Brazil also periodically consult each other on the Syrian conflict in bilateral meetings, which compensate for the stalled progress of normative cooperation in the BRICS format.

Russia has extended its aversion to extra-legal regime changes in Latin America to rhetorical and material support, which bolsters its image as a crisis-proof partner for authoritarian and anti-Western governments. From 2010 to 2019, Russian state-owned companies poured $9 billion into Venezuela’s economy. These investments propped up Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA and diluted the impact of US sanctions. Russia also deployed Wagner Group mercenaries to Venezuela in January 2019, as the majority of Western countries recognised Nicolas Maduro’s rival Juan Guaido as president. Russia helped ameliorate Cuba’s fuel crisis, and signed a spate of infrastructure, medical and industrial deals with Cuba in October 2019. When Bolivian President Evo Morales left office in November 2019, the Russian Foreign Ministry described his ouster as an ‘orchestrated coup d’etat’, which reinforced Morales’s account of the October 2019 Bolivian elections.

Despite Russia’s unevenly expanding commercial footprint and growing normative ties with Latin American countries, Moscow has struggled to expand its regional security presence. Russia’s security partnership with Venezuela undergirded its presence in Latin America’s arms markets during the first decade of the 2000s, and Hugo Chavez secured a $4 billion loan to purchase Russian defence equipment in October 2010. Venezuela’s economic crisis coincided with the decline of Russia’s arms exports to Latin America. From 2015–19, just 0.8% of Russia’s global arms sales were to Latin American countries, as the US restored its position as the region’s leading arms vendor.

Russia’s efforts to reverse the decline of its arms exports to Latin American countries have been thwarted by the reversal of the Pink Tide and the unwillingness of the region’s largest militaries to rely on Russian equipment. In 2017, Brazil expressed interest in Russia’s Pantsir S-1 missile defence system, but Joao Bolsonaro’s 2018 election victory caused Brazilian foreign policy to firmly pivot in a pro-US direction. Russia signed a memorandum on security cooperation with Argentina in December 2017, but has struggled to convert this into arms sales. Although Mexico struck six arms deals with Russia in the early 2000s, no contract has been fulfilled since Mexico purchased three Mi-17 military helicopters in 2011.

Russia’s resurgence in Latin America has also been thwarted by a considerable soft power deficit. A February 2020 Pew Research Survey revealed that confidence in Vladimir Putin’s leadership stood at just 34% in Brazil, 36% in Argentina and 39% in Mexico. A 2017 Pew Research Survey similarly revealed that favourable perceptions of Russia range from 27% in Argentina to 41% in Peru. This soft power deficit can be explained by the overhang of Cold War-era anti-communist sentiments and the unpopularity of Putin’s governance model. The coronavirus pandemic gave Russia an opportunity to reverse this trend, but Moscow’s Sputnik V deliveries in Latin America have fallen short of expectations. Guatemala’s cancellation of Sputnik V imports on 28 July, which was triggered by Russia’s delivery of just 550,000 doses instead of the 8 million promised, is emblematic of the failure of Moscow’s vaccine diplomacy in Latin America.

Although Russia has deepened its involvement in Latin American affairs over the past decade, it has struggled to convert its rising profile into genuine leverage. Russia’s limited commercial presence outside of the energy sector, dwindling arms sales and soft power deficit ensure that it is a spoiler rather than a strategic rival to the US in Latin America. In the months ahead, Russia could leverage its support for authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua to establish elite-level normative ties with Latin American officials, but it will struggle to form diversified partnerships with the region’s leading powers.

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 Samuel Ramani

Associate Fellow; Tutor of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford

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