Russia reportedly spent $16 million on propaganda targeting the United States in 2021 to create friction between the United States and its partners in the Western Hemisphere and beyond. For instance, Russia Today en Español published an article characterizing the United States’ foreign policy toward Mexico as being “absen[t] of support” for Mexico’s alternative strategies on migration. Is publishing articles smearing U.S.-Mexico relations enough to erode public opinion of the United States in one of its most important regional allies?
Russia’s propaganda effort in Mexico represents a single move on a global chessboard. Russia seeks to develop a presence in all corners of the globe to solidify its image as a world power. Tipping a few countries in the Western Hemisphere toward an anti-U.S. stance, especially among solid U.S. partners, could undermine U.S. domestic policy and distract policymakers from its global priorities. Russia is weaponizing news to erode Mexico’s and Latin America’s perception of the United States without threatening U.S. hegemony in the region with physical force.
Russia Today en Español, also known as “Actualidad RT,” is the Spanish-language version of Russia Today (RT), a Russian state-affiliated channel funded by the Russian government. The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFR Lab) notes that the Spanish version of RT on Facebook receives on average more likes and followers than the English-language version. RT en Español serves as Russia’s propaganda machine and has gained notoriety and clicks among audiences in Latin America. According to web analytics provider SimilarWeb, RT en Español received nearly twenty million visits in October 2021, with users in Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina comprising nearly 40 percent of the traffic. The DFRLab found that RT’s news sub-headlines primarily included keywords related to the United States, such as “EE.UU.,” the Spanish abbreviation for the United States, and “Washington.” Analyzing RT en Español’s articles regarding U.S.-Mexico relations since Joe Biden took office as president of the United States showcases Russia degrading U.S.-Mexico relations through their communication apparatus.
Political scientist John Mearsheimer argues that the best way to survive international anarchy is to be the sole regional hegemon. Once a state achieves regional hegemony, such as the United States in the Western Hemisphere, it further aims to prevent other powers from competing in their region by “roaming” around the globe interfering in other hegemons’ regions. This framework suggests that Russia’s propaganda efforts in Latin America create security problems for the United States by attempting to shift public opinion in the region against it, thereby curtailing the United States’ ability to focus on other regions. Much of the public discourse regarding American-Russo relations centers on Russia’s use of strategic communications to sow division within the United States, which indeed raises serious concerns about weakening the country’s values and the United States’ global reputation as an ally. However, a narrow focus on Russian propaganda targeted within U.S. borders underestimates the scope of Russia’s strategy. If Russia can create trouble anywhere in the United States’ region of influence, the United States would be forced to redirect efforts towards the Western Hemisphere and possibly abandon projects and efforts abroad.
To illustrate RT’s choices in covering U.S.-Mexico relations, I analyzed 133 articles published by RT en Español in the first half of 2021 mentioning both the United States and Mexico. I found that RT en Español published nearly twenty articles per month covering U.S.-Mexico relations. RT en Español’s coverage of migration to the U.S. southern border represents the most significant subject (41 percent) of the total coverage, comprising nearly seven articles per month. Interestingly, the most engaged articles on migration have positive headlines: sharing stories of family reunification (42K Facebook engagements) and U.S. border patrol rescuing a migrant (9K Facebook engagements). The fact that positive headlines drove engagement counters RT’s communication strategy to weaponize low-hanging fruit to criticize the United States migration policy. 80 percent of articles on migration feature negative headlines towards the United States’ handling of migration, with the remaining 20 percent presenting favorable headlines to the United States. However, aside from the two highest engaged articles mentioned previously, the remaining positive articles amplify Mexico’s initiative and determination to improve migration mitigation efforts.
The second-largest category covers meetings between Biden Administration officials and Mexican leaders. RT’s coverage spiked on June 8, 2021, publishing five articles in one day on President Biden’s meeting with Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador, saturating the overall global media coverage of the meeting between dignitaries. Headlines featuring Mexican leaders’ criticism of the United States, however, garnered higher engagement than headlines reporting on Mexico and U.S. official meetings. In May 2021, RT published three articles amplifying President López Obrador’s criticisms of the United States while he “wait[ed]” for a response regarding an alleged U.S.-funded non-profit that supports the opposition party to López Obrador. In addition, RT spotlighted López Obrador stating that financing is an act of interventionism, a phrase Russia and the PRC often use in their messaging to denounce foreign nations’ oversight into their countries’ internal affairs.
One might wonder why Russian state media is so focused on developments in Mexico given that Russia and Mexico maintain a superficial diplomatic relationship. Since the start of the Biden Administration, Mexican and Russian officials met twice to discuss vaccine diplomacy. Even the Russian International Affairs Council’s journal makes a case for the importance of improving Russian-Mexican relations, highlighting Mexico’s role on the global stage and pointing to Russia’s lack of extradition treaties and cooperation agreements. The marginal Russian diplomatic interests in Mexico give no immediate reason for it to deploy its propaganda machine unless its aims are to sow discord between the United States and Mexico. However, evidence suggests that Russia’s propaganda efforts in Mexico serve to undermine U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere.
The United States ought to stay vigilant to Russia’s propaganda efforts in Latin America; security experts have begun to make this case with respect to Mexico. During the Mexico 2018 presidential campaign, U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Institutional Revolutionary Party’s politician Javier Lozano warned of possible Russian intervention in Mexico’s electoral process. Then presidential candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador mocked allegations of Russian meddling by sharing a video on Twitter calling himself “Andres Manuelovich.” López-Obrador’s nonchalant response underscores the importance of the U.S. prioritizing the issue because further facilitation of Russia’s influence in Mexico will enable campaigns aimed at influencing Mexico’s 2024 presidential elections. Though Russia’s goal of eroding Mexico’s public perception of the United States is not overtly stated in Russia’s grand strategy, if Russian propaganda efforts create a negative perception of the United States among Latin Americans, it will be at the expense of American diplomatic interests.