Photo credit: CSIS
On March 2, 2022, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution to reprimand Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Of the 181 member states that took part in the vote, 141 supported the resolution, while Russia and four of their closest allies (Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria) voted “no.” On the margins were the thirty-five states that abstained, many of which sought to balance relations with Russia and the West. The fact that five Latin American states joined the ranks of those unwilling to condemn the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty suggests that Putin’s influence in the Western Hemisphere is greater than once thought. However, given Russia’s recent self-inflicted injuries, conditions are ripe for the United States to leverage economic and soft power advantages to offer Latin American partners an alternative to Moscow’s “coalition of the illiberal.”
Russia’s post-Cold War campaign to extend its influence in Latin America is paying dividends. Moscow’s interests, pursued via military diplomacy and concentrated economic policies, create bilateral bonds that transcend the military and economic sectors and bolster diplomatic relations. Burgeoning diplomatic ties were tested over the past year as states responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. States that have defended Russian aggression or conspicuously abstained from denunciation tend to fall into one of two groups. The first group is made up of fellow-traveler autocracies, and the second is those with deep Russian economic and diplomatic ties.
Of the five Latin American states that balked at condemning Russian aggression, Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua meet the criteria for at least one of the aforementioned groups. Cuba is the most politically straight-forward example of a Russian client in Latin America. The island nation has not known democracy since the mid-1940s and has been aligned with Russia to varying degrees since the culmination of the revolution in 1959. Nicaragua enjoyed a brief period of relative stability and liberalism in the 1990s and 2000s, following the Nicaraguan Revolution. Since returning to power in 2007, however, Daniel Ortega has consolidated power by stifling opposition parties and media and manipulating all elements of the electoral apparatus. Additionally, since 2008, the Ortega government has maintained close ties with Russia and regularly hosts Russian military contingents. Though plagued by corruption, unrest, and inequality for decades, Venezuela maintained a semblance of democracy until the 1990s. The ascent of Hugo Chavez to the presidency in 1999, and subsequent presidency of Nicolás Maduro since 2013 (but contested since 2019) has ushered in a period of severe democratic erosion and closer relations with Russia. Freedom House gave Venezuela a score of “1” out of 40 points for “political rights” in 2021.
More interestingly, Bolivia and El Salvador were among the Latin American countries that abstained. Bolivia and El Salvador are neither recognized autocracies nor traditional Russian economic or diplomatic partners, but their abstentions potentially suggest a desire for further alignment with Moscow. To the casual observer, these are developing democratic states, precisely the kind of polity one would expect to stick up for a nascent democracy like Ukraine. That Bolivia and El Salvador choose to turn a blind eye to Russian aggression is not a coincidence but a result of calculated decisions by Moscow and by those Latin American leaders seeking to consolidate power.
Russian influence in Latin America beyond the Cold War
Russian influence in Latin America foundered in the years immediately following the end of the Cold War, as the state lacked the financial and diplomatic wherewithal to even project soft power. By the late 1990s, Russia sought to reassert its global influence, including in the Western Hemisphere. Though Latin America is by no means a priority for Russian influence operations, three efforts bore some fruit there: military sales, investment and trade, and mutual understanding among authoritarian regimes.
Military sales in Latin America represented just 4% of Russia’s global arms exports from 1992-2007 and were limited to a small handful of countries. Venezuela purchases the largest volume of Russian arms of any Latin American state with imports estimated at $20 billion since 2000. Due to their heavy investment in Russian military equipment, and the fact that many arms-exporting states refuse to do business with them, Venezuela’s military is largely dependent on Russia for military hardware and technical support. Nicaragua, Mexico, Brazil, and Peru have likewise made significant purchases of Russian military equipment in recent years. These sales have provided Russia with some influence in Latin American states where otherwise Russia’s influence would be negligible. Notably, Peru maintains an ongoing training and cooperation relationship with the Russian military. Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have long maintained mil-to-mil relationships with Moscow and have hosted Russian naval task groups, sometimes to the chagrin of their neighbors.
Russian economic strategy in Latin America is focused on expanding energy markets and diversifying trade relationships. The latter may prove crucial as sanctions render many of their export markets inaccessible. Despite a general decline in the Russian economy during the period, trade between Russia and Latin America increased 44% from 2006-2016. Russian firms have made significant inroads in Latin American markets, particularly in the energy sector. Russian state corporations, such as nuclear energy firm Rosatom, and petroleum companies Rosneft and Gazprom, are firmly ensconced in the economies of Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Venezuela. However, Moscow has demonstrated little interest in investing in Latin American enterprises, as evidenced by their paltry levels of foreign direct investment. In 2016 for example, investment in Latin America represented just .0004% of the total Russian foreign direct investment portfolio. The argument for Russian economic influence is legitimate but should not be overstated. Russia ranks far below the United States and China as an export market for Latin American states. In 2021, Russian purchases of Latin American goods represented approximately 1% of U.S. and 3% of Chinese expenditures in the region. Further, Russian economic relationships are concentrated in just a few countries. Where they do operate, the concentration of Moscow’s funds may prove influential, but the effect is by no means common to the region.
Diplomatic relationships may provide the best explanation for certain states’ ambivalence toward the invasion of Ukraine. While economic and military relationships are intrinsically intertwined with diplomacy, the legitimacy associated with the support of a great power such as Russia may be the greatest prize. Nicaragua and Venezuela are among the five states to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Russian-backed breakaway regions that broke away from Georgia in 2008. In return, they have received the unflinching support of Russia in the UN and other international bodies. Russia was among the first and most vociferous supporters of the Maduro regime following Venezuela’s contested election in 2018. For their part, Nicaragua’s loyalty earned them strong Russian diplomatic support for Daniel Ortega’s government. This support manifested in 2018 as Russia issued warnings against external interference as much of the West decried the regime’s violent tactics in repressing anti-Ortega protests.
The Future of Russo-Latin American relations following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
The ongoing relationships of Putin’s government with historical and ideological partners such as Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela come as little surprise. The support afforded to Moscow by El Salvador and Bolivia is less predictable, but two factors may shed light on the decisions. First, non-alignment affords developing states in the Global South a diplomatic course of minimal risk to their interests. For many in the West, it is tempting to frame the geopolitical discussion around the invasion of Ukraine as a proxy for democracy versus authoritarianism. However, for states like Bolivia that depend on relationships on both sides of the ideological divide, the prioritization of national interests is the foundation of realist statecraft. Bolivia’s socialist president, Luis Arce, appears eager to deal with Russia, provided the right incentives. Second, authoritarians tend to run in the same circles. Democratic backsliding in Latin America is well documented, and the actions of states like El Salvador may be a sign of things to come. It may be too early to call Nayib Bukele a full-fledged authoritarian, but his attempts to circumvent term limits, startling incarceration rate, and disdain for free press are cause for concern. If these trends continue, it is not unreasonable to assume that he would seek stronger ties with a senior partner that will not criticize his heavy-handed governance.
Motives aside, it appears that Russia has gained at least two new partners willing to look the other way when they violate international norms. What is more, Moscow has earned that influence relatively cheaply. The United States and likeminded democracies are confronted with a dilemma: can they continue to partner with states that, at least tacitly, endorse authoritarianism and the violation of state sovereignty? Should the United States diplomatically distance itself from states like Bolivia and El Salvador, we cede an opportunity to leverage our economic and soft power advantage over Russia. Most importantly, we must offer Latin American partners an alternative to alignment with malign actors that also recognizes their immediate interests. Russia may not be in an economic position to extend its influence in the coming years, so the United States should take advantage of that self-imposed financial plight to strengthen ties and reassure commitment to neighboring Latin American states. Targeted economic policies to fill the economic vacuum in places like Bolivia may help nudge Latin American neighbors toward support for international norms. Finally, the door must be left open for the likes of Arce and Bukele to turn to liberal democratic partners and avoid creating another deeply entrenched Russian client, in the mold of Nicaragua. The sectors that malign actors have abused should be the focus of opportunities for partnership and cooperation. Bolstering domestic energy and resource extraction and providing alternate sources of military hardware remove incentives to drift toward Moscow.