Confounding Washington:

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s April 17-21 tour of Latin America shed light on Russia’s role in the region. The visit, which included Brazil, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba, also raised questions regarding the factors driving Moscow to strengthen its presence in the Western Hemisphere—in what is traditionally known as the United States’ back yard—as well as around what Russia seeks to achieve and what limitations could limit its efforts to strengthen relations with Latin American countries.

Powerful Motivators

Lavrov’s visit to Latin America comes amid the ongoing war in Ukraine and growing US and Western pressure on Russia. However, Moscow’s efforts to strengthen its influence in the region are driven by several factors that are not only related to the war in Ukraine, including:

1. Reducing US influence in the Western Hemisphere: There is a marked decline in US interest in the Western Hemisphere and growing tension between Washington and some countries in the region due to US sanctions policy and continued interference in their internal affairs. Moscow is not only working to exploit this decline, but even to deepen it by presenting itself as an international power the region’s countries can rely upon. This could hinder US efforts to reengage in the region.

Therefore, Moscow’s rejection of sanctions imposed by Washington on Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, as well as its condemnation of attempted foreign intervention in domestic crises, comes as no surprise. Russia even voted against draft UN General Assembly resolutions that condemned the policies of the ruling regimes in these three countries. Moscow has also repeatedly demanded an end to the US embargo on Cuba by stressing the need to respect the sovereignty of states and non-interference in their affairs, which is a well-established tradition in Latin America. Russia aims to win the support of the region’s major powers, especially Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina, and encourages them to adhere to the principle of neutrality amid intensifying competition between great powers at the current moment. From this standpoint, Brazil (the major power in Latin America) has put forward a peace initiative that included a proposal for Ukraine to cede Crimea in order to end the war. Mexico also previously put forward a peace initiative at the UN General Assembly that Ukrainian officials criticized as favoring Moscow.

2. Attempting to transport conflict with Washington to Latin America: Russia sent its Tu-160 nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela in 2008, 2013, and 2018. It also deployed a fleet of four warships to Venezuela in 2008, led by the nuclear-powered Peter the Great cruiser, to conduct exercises there. By intensifying its military movements in Latin America, Russia seeks to send an important message to Washington that it is capable of harassing it in its immediate vicinity, in response to growing US presence in Russia’s backyard. In January 2022, Moscow hinted—through the words of Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov—at plans to deploy military forces in countries whose governments have an anti-Washington orientation, namely Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Such statements were a clear signal to Washington of the need for mutual respect and refraining from interfering in each other’s sphere of influence. Therefore, Sergei Lavrov’s statements were striking during his meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart Yvan Gil in Caracas, in which he stressed his confidence that Latin America would become "one of the pillars" of the emerging international order that would oppose US "colonial policies." Underscoring the importance of Latin America in light of the current international conflict, while the Russian foreign minister visited Cuba on April 20, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was addressing lawmakers in Mexico, where he called for a summit with Latin American countries.

3. Complicating Washington’s response to the Ukrainian war: Since the Ukrainian war broke out, Washington has worked to mobilize global support for Kyiv and to isolate Russia from its international allies. To prevent that, Moscow has intensified its diplomacy and continued contacts with various countries, including in Latin America. In this context, the stance of Brazil—a traditional ally of Washington—refusing to adopt the Western position on the war stands out. Brazil opposed imposing sanctions on Moscow, and rejected a German request to provide military equipment to Ukraine. Notably, Brazilian President Lula da Silva recently criticized the US and European Union (EU) position on the war, holding both sides responsible for fueling the conflict by continuing to supply Ukraine with arms.

In a joint press conference with his Brazilian counterpart, Mauro Vieira, Russia’s foreign minister said the two countries have "concurring positions on the current events in the world." He also said his government is "grateful to our Brazilian friends for a correct understanding of the genesis of the situation and their striving to contribute to a search for ways of settling it." The Brazilian president’s statements displeased Washington, which said, through National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, that "Brazil is parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda without at all looking at the facts."

4. Alleviating Western isolation of Moscow: The Latin American and Caribbean region, with a population of 564 million people in 2021, is an important trade and economic partner for Russia. Before the Ukraine war broke out, trade between Russia and Latin America was limited, making up only 0.64% of Latin America’s total foreign trade. However, as the war progressed, international sanctions on Russia’s energy sector accelerated Moscow’s interest in the region’s markets. At the height of the energy crisis in summer 2022, Brazil increased its imports of Russian diesel by 15%, while Cuba and Venezuela continued to import oil derivatives from Russia.

By refusing to condemn Russia’s position outright, Latin American countries left the door open to trade cooperation with Moscow. Some countries, such as Argentina and Brazil, are looking to increase wheat production to fill the void left by Russian and Ukrainian whet, as both rely on Russian fertilizers. At the same time, the presence of 33 Latin American countries in the UN General Assembly forms an important voting force for Russia, which faces increasing pressure in international forums. In one indicator of Moscow’s growing influence in Latin America, four countries—Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and El Salvador—abstained from voting on a UN resolution condemning Russia for its war in Ukraine in March 2022. Venezuela was not able to vote for financial reasons, while Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico voted in favor of the resolution.

Diverse Tools

In its efforts to expand its presence in Latin America, Moscow has relied on a package of tools and adopted a set of strategies, including:

1. Strengthening political dialogue: Moscow relies upon personal diplomacy to strengthen ties with Latin American countries. Just before the Ukrainian war broke out, Russia received the presidents of both Argentina and Brazil. Prior to that, the Russian president spoke by phone with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega for the first time since 2014.

Early last March, Vladimir Putin’s chief security advisor and secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, flew to Havana after visiting Caracas. A few days before the war began, Russia sent Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov on a visit to Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua to rally support for Moscow’s position amid strained relations with the West.

During his latest tour of Latin America, Russia’s foreign minister emphasized that his country would support regional organizations such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CALC), which is perceived as opposed to US interests. He also stressed that Russia supports a proposal by Brazil’s president to reduce the dependence of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) on the US dollar in their trade transactions. Russia contends that it has "never participated in colonizing the region, exploiting the peoples who live in it, or in any conflicts, wars, or any other forms of the use of force," upon which it bases its relations with the countries of the region.

2. Employing soft power tools: Moscow uses its sources of soft power to mobilize support for its international positions within the Latin American region. In particular, it relies on Russian media aimed at Latin American peoples in Spanish and Portuguese. This includes Sputnik and Russia Today, which have several offices in the region and have played a pivotal role in spreading Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine.

At the same time, Russia is engaged in a wide range of cyber and information activities, both as part of its strategy to reduce support for the US among the region’s countries and as a means of mobilizing support for its military activities in Ukraine. Some US reports indicate that Russia is spreading disinformation in an attempt to provoke protests and unrest in some regional countries ruled by right-wing leaders, as well as trying to influence the outcome of presidential elections in some countries, including Colombia.

3. Activating economic and trade partnerships: Moscow showed notable interest in developing its economic partnerships with countries in the region during the foreign minister’s recent visit. In Caracas, Lavrov announced interest in strengthening Russian-Venezuelan cooperation in oil and gas production, as well as agriculture and new technologies.

In Brasilia, the economic agenda focused on agreements related to Brazilian beef exports to Russia and Russian fertilizer imports to Brazil, which accounts for 20% of its total fertilizer imports. Trade between the two countries reached an all-time high of $9.8 billion in 2022, and Russia is Brazil’s 13th-largest trade partner.

In Cuba, the Russian foreign minister stressed his country’s interest in restructuring Cuban debt, and agreeing to grant the country a special loan for additional wheat supplies from Moscow. Russia is one of Cuba’s top-10 trading partners, and last year agreed to postpone debt payments owed by the Caribbean island nation until 2027.

As for Nicaragua, the trade volume between it and Russia came to $160 million in 2022: more than double what it was in 2019. The two countries have agreed to cooperate in the healthcare field for vaccine production, and to jointly introduce new technologies in agriculture and medicine.

4. Intensifying military and intelligence cooperation: Russia has played a key role in arming its closest allies in Latin America in recent years. Moscow has provided weapons and tanks to Cuba and Nicaragua, and exported $11 billion of military equipment to Venezuela between 2006 and 2015, including planes and missile defense systems.

Some studies indicate that there are about 400 Russian helicopters in the region, making up nearly 25% of Latin America’s military fleet. In addition, Russia has recently deployed military equipment and forces—including advisers, military experts, computer scientists, intelligence officers, and a number of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group—to assist the leader of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro. It has also built GLONASS, a global satellite navigation system, to track military and civilian users, with approximately four tracing bases in Brazil and one in Nicaragua, located near the US embassy in Managua.

In February 2022, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov signed an agreement to increase military cooperation with Venezuela and Nicaragua. In June 2022, Nicaragua reauthorized the entry of limited numbers of Russian forces and equipment to the country for training missions and other forms of support. Negotiations are currently underway between Russia and Cuba to reach an intelligence cooperation agreement, in light of Moscow’s attempts to reopen a Soviet-era intelligence base in Cuba.

Ruling Parameters

The US has real concerns over Russia’s growing presence in Latin America, for fear it could limit its influence in bilateral security cooperation and within multilateral forums in Latin America. However, there are several limitations that could hinder Russia’s aspirations to intensify its involvement in regional affairs, and which shape the future of Russia’s role:

1. Orientations of ruling Latin American elites: Through its persistent moves to revitalize relations with Latin American countries, Moscow has managed to achieve tangible gains in the form of some countries supporting its stance on the Ukraine war and opposing the sanctions imposed on it. These gains have grown with left-wing governments recently coming into power in several Latin American countries, opening the door for Russia to offer an alternative to Washington as these countries work to strengthen their international independence.

At the same time, the refusal of the main countries in the region—including Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and Colombia—to provide military assistance to Ukraine is a real setback for US policy in the region and its efforts to bring its countries into the international coalition supporting Ukraine.

2. Russian military and economic limitations: Moscow’s efforts to boost its military and economic presence in the Western Hemisphere face several problems, given the restrictions on its military strength at the present. Russia has channeled the bulk of its capacities into the war in Ukraine, which could reduce Moscow’s ability to provide defense sales and trainings to Latin American countries in the near future. On top of that, the high economic cost of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, as well as the international sanctions harming its economy, are likely to weaken its capacity to provide financial and economic support to its friends in the Western Hemisphere.

3. Importance of Latin American relations with Washington: Even before the Ukraine war, Russia had a limited economic presence in Latin America. Its presence was concentrated among a limited group of partners, and in specific economic sectors. Foremost of these was the oil sector, as several cooperation agreements were signed with regional countries to provide or support energy production and mining.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Russia’s bilateral trade with Latin America and the Caribbean amounted to $10.8 billion in 2021, compared to $350.9 billion in Chinese trade and $796.6 billion in US trade.

When Latin America looks to its important markets, it is worth noting that in 2021 Russia only purchased about $5.6 billion in goods and services from the region, while China bought $170.7 billion and the US bought around $513.1 billion. The US is a primary partner for a number of countries in the region. Accordingly, it was no surprise that Brazil’s president recently walked back his criticism of Washington for its military support of Kyiv, saying that his condemnation was of "the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity." The US is Brazil’s second-largest trade partner, and cooperates with it on many issues, including climate change.

From the above, it can be said that Moscow has worked to strengthen its presence in Latin America in recent years by supporting allied regimes and trying to consolidate its relations with some of Washington’s traditional friends—such as Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina—to undermine US influence and interests in the region. However, while Russia has deepened its participation in Latin American affairs over the past decade, it has struggled to turn its rising position into real influence. Russia’s limited trade presence outside the energy sector and its dwindling weapons sales are likely to make it a spoiler of US interests in Latin America, not a strategic competitor, at least in the near term.