Canning House commissioned a paper to examine the evolving role of Russia in Latin America…
Russia in Latin America
The Soviet Union’s role in the region, especially Cuba, during the cold war is well documented, however, the decline and then collapse of the USSR in 1991 saw Moscow’s activities in the region drastically reduced.
But Russia enjoyed a revival at the turn of the century when Vladimir Putin’s election as president was followed by a global commodities boom that allowed the Russian state to look outwards once more. Russian involvement in LAC may be less significant than it was during the days of the Soviet Union, but by focusing on several key areas Moscow has managed to maintain an influence which outweighs the relatively few resources it dedicates to the region.
Russia’s commercial activity in the region is marginal and is concentrated in a handful of sectors. Trade with the region may have grown 44% from 2006-2016, but it reached a total of just $44bn at the end of that period, which pales into insignificance compared to both US and China trade. Around 50% of trade went to Brazil and Mexico, with Argentina also an important partner. Russia is a major buyer of agricultural goods, including meat from Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.
Going the other way, many Latin American nations are reliant on Russian fertilisers. In March, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay pushed for fertilisers to be excluded from Western sanctions on Russia due to the invasion of Ukraine, underlining the benefits of heavy involvement in crucial economic sectors for Moscow.
The oil and gas sector has also been an important avenue for investment, as Russian firms can use the expertise developed in their domestic industry. Rosneft has played a key role in Venezuela, while other Russian firms such as Gazprom, Lukoil, and TNK have also invested in Bolivia, Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia. Russian mining firms have also been involved in Venezuela’s gold industry, nickel mining in Guatemala, and bauxite mining in Guyana and Jamaica.
Russia’s involvement in the region has been limited by its own economic difficulties during the 2010s, as the country was hit hard by the 2008 financial crash, and its continued economic activity in Latin America will be affected by sanctions due to the invasion of Ukraine. Countries in the region have been reluctant to take sides over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, perhaps given a history of non-alignment and the experience of sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela. But even if regional governments decide to continue trading with Moscow, sanctions make it difficult to do so.
In terms of diplomacy, Russia’s main focus in LAC is relations with Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, anti-US regimes which look to Moscow to counterbalance hostile relations with the US. The Kremlin has offered debt relief and diplomatic support as these countries become increasingly isolated on the world stage. Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov’s tour of the three nations in mid-February, in the run up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, showed the continued strength of these relations.
Receptiveness to the Russian view of the world has been boosted by the steady expansion of Kremlin-controlled media outlets in LAC. Across the region, audiences can access state broadcaster RT, and RT Spanish has built a following of millions since launching in 2009. “They have really a very professional presence on the internet,” said Sandra Weiss of the International Politics and Society Journal during the Canning Conversations event, adding that RT is considered a serious news agency in the region, rather than a propaganda platform. In addition, the Sputnik news agency launched its own Spanish-language output in 2014.
Russia also worked hard to project soft power in the initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, making commitments to send its Sputnik vaccines to Latin America. While they were the first vaccines to arrive in Argentina, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador, Russia has struggled to deliver on its promises and has faced some doubts over the quality of the vaccines. For example, Guatemala cancelled Sputnik imports in July 2021 after receiving just 550,000 doses of 8 million ordered.
In terms of security engagement, Russia continues to leverage ties built during the Cold War. Many countries in the region bought Soviet-era weapons systems, which makes it easier to sell upgrades, and prices tend to be lower than the US-made equivalent. Arms sales and servicing provide opportunities to develop security relationships, with Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela the main buyers. Peru has also been an important client due to arms purchases made in the wake of the 1968 leftist military coup.
Venezuela bought more than $11billion of Russian military hardware in the last 20 years, starting under the leadership of former President Hugo Chavez, including advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles and Su-30 fighter jets. Russia has also sold or donated T-72 tanks, TIGR armoured vehicles and other equipment to Nicaragua, and it has helped modernise Cuba’s military by writing off $30billion in debt and providing credit for new equipment. It also signed a 2016-2020 defence modernisation programme with Havana. In the region more widely, military helicopters are an area of particular success for Russia, with more than 400 legacy aircraft in use in the region and Russian manufacturers garnering 42% of new sales.
However, in recent years Russian arms sales to the region have dropped, and from 2015-2019 just 0.8% of Russia’s total sales went to Latin American countries. This is due in part to an economic crisis in Venezuela, constrained military spending in the region after the end of the commodities boom, and the growth of alternative suppliers such as China, who can offer cheaper equipment. For example, Chinese companies have had increasing success selling to Venezuela, a key Russian market, and recently won a bid to replace Russian truck-mounted rocket launchers used by the Peruvian military. Another factor is a change in Latin American governments, with Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro ending the country’s previously expressed interest in the Pantsir S-1 missile system following his election in 2018.
Beyond arms sales and servicing, Russia has provided military and intelligence support and, in February, Moscow signed an agreement to strengthen military cooperation with Caracas.
Although Russia is no longer trying to export an alternate political system to Western liberalism, it does present itself as a counter to US hegemony in Latin America.