Russia is Re-Engaging with Latin America. What Does This Mean for the Region- and for the U.S.?

Image: Flickr

By Laura Schroeder

As violence continues in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, more light has been shed on Russia’s presence across the globe over the past decade. In Latin America, Russian efforts to expand its influence to challenge the hegemonic power of the United States have revealed a decades-long reassessment of its strategic interactions in the region. After the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Latin America in the 1990s, Russia has gradually been reengaging with the region, from rekindling former political ties to investing in new partnerships to deftly employing soft power. 

Political Support and Economic Ties

The Kremlin is taking advantage of favorable conditions, like growing anti-U.S. sentiments and several political transitions, to influence close former partners. Demonstrating this re-engagement strategy, Putin spoke with the leaders of three Cold War ally nations – Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba – in the months leading up to the invasion. Building on an enduring relationship, Russian support for Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela has been strong. In recent years, Russia has also fortified its relationship with Cuba, building on a decades-long partnership.

Despite this, the majority of Latin American nations have decried the invasion of Ukraine. Prior to the Ukraine invasion, Vladimir Putin hosted Argentine President Alberto Fernández, who expressed his intentions to rely less on the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, Argentina has publicly criticized Russia and voted to suspend it from the United Nations Human Rights Council along with Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and several other nations. 

Russia’s decades-long geopolitical game in the region relies not only on strengthening diplomatic ties but ensuring that it continues to play a role in the economies and military systems in the region. In the space, nuclear, and petroleum industries, Russia has also found inroads to markets in Latin American nations to leverage its strengths. Between 2006 and 2016, trade between the region and Russia increased by 44 percent.

In 2017, three decades after Nicaragua drew global attention for its strategic importance as a Cold War proxy battleground for the Soviet Union and the United States, Russia built a high-tech telecommunications facility outside of its capital, Managua. Russia also began to send weapons and troops to Nicaragua, ostensibly to combat drug trafficking. Soviet military exports to countries including Nicaragua, Colombia, and Peru in the 1980s led to enduring cooperation as maintenance and modernization needs arose. Peru, for example, has the region’s largest fleet of Soviet-built helicopters, and has relied on its historic partnership with the Kremlin. Today, there are over 400 legacy helicopters in the region. 

In Cuba, military engagement with Russia has been limited since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Russia continues to supply the country with public goods. As former U.S. President Donald Trump’s government tightened restrictions on Cuba in 2017, Russia boosted its trade with the Caribbean nation and increased its exports to Cuba by 81% that year. In the following years, Russia increased humanitarian aid to Cuba as well and has shipped medical supplies there throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

From Vaccine Diplomacy to Propaganda 

Soft power has played a role in the effort to strategically reengage with Latin America as well. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Russian vaccine diplomacy has been highly successful in the region, with the Sputnik V vaccine being the first to reach Argentina, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador. 

Media has also been used to destabilize governments aligned with the United States. Russia Today (RT), launched a Spanish-language channel (RT en español) in 2009, which serves as a major source of news along with Sputnik News. Hashtags arguing for the abolishment of NATO were trending on Twitter in the region, reflecting the influence of such disinformation campaigns, including recent headlines (in Spanish) such as “U.S. Bombers Capable of Transporting Nuclear Arms Fly over Europe.” 

What Now?

In light of a recent wave of leftist victories in Latin America, or “pink tide,” Russia appears poised to gain a stronger foothold in the region as it seeks out opportunities to take advantage of anti-U.S.attitudes. In Colombia, leftist Gustavo Petro, who has vowed to lessen Colombia’s reliance on the west if victorious, is the front-runner in the upcoming May 29 presidential election. In Brazil, both major candidates in the October presidential election, conservative incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and liberal former leader Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, back Russia for different reasons. Bolsonaro perceives Putin as standing up to an oppressive liberal world order, while da Silva has claimed that Ukraine is just as responsible for the current war as Russia. No matter the outcome of the election, Washington will be hard pressed to counter any of the Kremlin’s attempts to expand its influence.

Although it is difficult to surmise exactly what Putin’s intentions are, it is clear that Russia’s increasing diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties to Latin America represent a challenge to the United States. The U.S. and China have – for the most part – dwarfed Russia’s attempts to engage Latin America, but Russia’s influence in the region must not be overlooked and underestimated.