Russian Invasion of Ukraine Should Force a Rethink about Russian Presence in the Americas

Given the global revulsion toward Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, governments in Latin America and the Caribbean should rethink their relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. There should be a price to pay electorally, diplomatically, and commercially for being too close to Putin. It is likely that the significant sanctions on Russia will have spillover effects on Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua—the three countries closest to Russia in the region. The brutality of this invasion should make Argentina and Brazil, two countries flirting with Putin, think twice about a deeper partnership with the Kremlin. The rest of the region should see Russia’s invasion as a wake-up call and reduce their ties in the coming weeks and months.

In recent years, Russia brought its “Kremlin playbook” to the Western Hemisphere, interfering in elections not only in the United States but also in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Russia, through overt and covert means, has sought to undermine democratic processes by subverting, delegitimizing, or otherwise frustrating the political opposition in much the same way that Russia attempted to influence the United States’ 2016 and 2020 elections.

Russia Today (known as RT) has a major presence in Latin America in Spanish, not only on television, which remains a major source of information in the region, but also via digital platforms. If RT is not providing disinformation, it is at the very least providing Kremlin propaganda.

Russia seeks to project military power in the region in an attempt to “balance” NATO’s own eastward movement into Russia’s “near abroad.” Russia has a consistent presence in the region in the form of listening posts, special forces deployments, and military and intelligence training and support. Russia has periodically deployed strategic bombers and naval forces in the hemisphere to remind the United States and its allies in the region that it too can project power in the hemisphere.

Russia has offered its Sputnik V vaccine in a number of countries on the continent. The vaccine is not as effective as Western vaccines or even those offered by China. However, if Guatemala, led by a friend of the United States, must wait at the back of the line for the “top-shelf” vaccines made in the United States or Europe, then Guatemala is going to buy the Sputnik V vaccine or remain unvaccinated.

The leftist governments in Peru, Chile, and Bolivia (and possibly incoming governments in Colombia and Brazil) would have been tempted to be more “Putin curious” in the past. Working with Putin should now become untenable, especially for those governments that lead with a human rights platform.

Russia will likely seek diplomatic or material support from the region and will likely work with actors in the region to try to work around sanctions. Russia has sought to build a collective resistance to sanctions. For example, with the help of China, as well as Russia and Iran, Venezuela’s oil company, PDVSA, has successfully sold millions of barrels of “sanctioned” oil via tankers primarily destined for China and with financial support from Russia. Countries under sanctions in the Western Hemisphere know that they can count on help from their allies when sanctions are imposed. For example, Maduro routinely ships sanctioned oil and diesel (and even food) to Cuba while his own people remain undernourished.

Russia has spent years trying to create an alternative to SWIFT that Russia’s partners in the region could adopt to erode the West’s ability to influence behavior through financial sector sanctions. As the SWIFT sanctions bite in Russia, expect to see Russia’s allies join a Russia-led alternative to SWIFT.

The following is a brief inventory of some of Russia’s activities in the region.

Nicaragua: In Nicaragua, Russia has been a major supporter of Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian regime, providing military assistance, intelligence, and noteworthy investments. Deemed as “Russia’s entry point into Central America,” Nicaragua is a frequent purchaser of Russian arms. In 2016, Ortega spent $80 million on battle tanks alone. Nicaragua’s has strongly supported Putin’s actions and asserted that currently, “Russia is simply defending itself” and that Nicaragua will continue to support its ally. As time goes on, one could imagine a destabilizing scenario where a naval flotilla from Russia sets sail to Nicaragua.

Venezuela: Another longtime beneficiary of the Russian regime is Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela. Maduro has also declared his absolute support for Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine. The war in Ukraine has raised the prices of oil and gas, which provides windfall funds to the Maduro regime. Like Nicaragua, Venezuela benefits from Russian support for the Venezuelan military (the National Bolivarian Armed Forces, or FANB), such as in Apure State along the border with Colombia. Russian support for the FANB translates into support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), which receive shelter in Venezuela. One could imagine a scenario where Russia decides to “support” Venezuela’s vocal calls for annexation of Essequibo in Guyana.

Cuba: Cuba-Russia relations are long-standing. Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel has demonstrated the importance of a strategic partnership with Putin, and the Cuban foreign ministry has criticized the U.S.-imposed sanctions that are unfavorable to Russia. Russia has supported Cuba by postponing debt payments owed by the island until 2027. Russia has been a key factor in the provision of public goods and supplies to Cuba.

Argentina and Brazil: The leaders of Argentina and Brazil had the poor judgment to visit Russia in February and seek commercial ties and make statements of support for Russia. President Alberto Fernández of Argentina met with Putin and enthusiastically offered Argentina as a “gateway to Latin America.” Argentina has not supported actions against Russia in the Organization of American States (OAS) and until now has not called Russia’s actions an invasion. Russia has nuclear cooperation and potential mining interests in Argentina. Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, also visited Russia, where he reasserted his “solidarity” with Putin. After the invasion of Ukraine began, Bolsonaro did not explicitly back Putin’s decision, but his tacit “disauthorization” of Brazilian vice president Hamilton Mourão for stating that Brazil was against Russian attacks on Ukraine will be remembered as a grave error.

What should the United States and its allies do?

First, the United States needs to raise the price of engaging with Russia in the region. The longer this crisis lasts, the more Russia will look for friends wherever it can find them, both for diplomatic support and for assistance in dodging the sanctions. A full-court diplomatic press will be required to ensure Moscow doesn’t find any new supporters. It is possible that harsh Western sanctions on Russia might help some Latin American countries (e.g., Venezuela) in terms of commodity prices like oil, but it is more likely that the crisis will drive inflationary pressures and economic disruptions in the region. The United States, Europe, Canada, and others should seek to bolster the region with economic assistance to countries particularly hard hit by sanctions backlash.

The United States should also increase its engagement in the OAS and consider a capital increase for the Inter-American Development Bank. The crisis will also impact how the United States uses the Summit of the Americas that it is hosting in June in Los Angeles.

Second, Putin may be bluffing, but he could deploy forces to the region. Russia has threatened to send military assets to the Western Hemisphere during this crisis. With oil at $100 a barrel, Putin will have resources at his disposal, but sanctions may also curb his ability to spend this money.

If the crisis in Ukraine drags on and Russia sees U.S.-led sanctions as tantamount to “acts of war,” Putin might try anything. Strong statements to the Kremlin from the United States and its allies that they will oppose such deployments will be required. On the other hand, the invasion of Ukraine may leave Russia too distracted, too economically weak, or too overstretched to effectively assist client states such as Nicaragua, Cuba, or Venezuela.

Third, the United States should be prepared for a change in leadership in Moscow or a Kyiv quagmire scenario that causes Russia to disengage with the Western Hemisphere. The United States should be ready to fill a void left by a weakened Russia so that China does not fill that void instead.

Fourth, the United States needs a new strategy in the hemisphere on energy and mining. In addition, the United States needs a new global strategy on nuclear power and the minerals needed for nuclear power. Russia is working closely with several countries on nuclear power solutions and is actively seeking opportunities in minerals including uranium. Latin American countries are planning to develop more nuclear power. The United States should help these countries, and this may mean rethinking rules about how the Development Finance Corporation, the Export-Import Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank support mining, energy, and nuclear power. The United States should increase its exports of natural gas and help Latin America develop its energy resources, including oil and gas.

Russia takes advantage of vacuums: vaccine vacuums, security vacuums, economic partnership vacuums. If the United States does not meet the hopes and aspirations of countries, they can take their business to China and Russia. The United States needs to stop leaving vacuums for Russia to exploit. It should raise the costs of aligning with Russia after last week. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine should put Russia’s activities in the Western Hemisphere in a more menacing light.

Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development and Americas Program, and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

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Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development