Two Years Later: LAC and Russia’s War in Ukraine

Listen to a Twitter Space conversation on: LAC Fighters in Ukraine

While Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) governments may be geographically removed from what many regional leaders consider an internal European conflict, the region has not been spared from the war’s economic and geopolitical repercussions. In the two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many countries continue their pursuit of nonalignment, neither condemning Russia for the invasion nor fully supporting Ukraine. Some have sought to play a role in peace talks, while the Western Hemisphere’s three consolidated dictatorships (Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela) have found themselves squarely in Moscow’s corner. Russia has also stepped up its engagement with the region, hoping to throw the United States off balance with military cooperation and a ceaseless and effective disinformation campaign across the region. Finally, for a small but important segment, the war is anything but distant, as citizens from throughout the hemisphere have signed up to fight on the frontlines for both Russia and Ukraine.

Q1: How has Russian foreign policy toward LAC evolved since the invasion of Ukraine?

A1: Through his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, Vladimir Putin has called for greater Latin American representation in international structures such as the United Nations, the G20, and the BRICS group, as part of the Russian narrative on the emergence of a “more just” multipolar world. The Russians have used conferences and international organizations to further this message. In October 2023, they organized the sixth International Forum “Russia and Ibero-America in a Turbulent World” in Saint Petersburg, where deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov declared that LAC is important to Russian foreign policy and that they would continue the “marathon of actions to consolidate mutually beneficial relations and cooperation.” Lavrov said back in April that Russia would soon become an observer to the Central American Integration System, however there appears to be opposition from some member states. The Russian State Duma wants to join the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) as an observer. PARLACEN vice president Amado Cerrud Acevedo said he would work to hinder attempts by EU countries to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Russia is also keen to deepen military cooperation in the region, with “interested Latin American states, under pressure from the United States and its allies” (authors’ translation). A senior member of the Duma recently proposed that nuclear weapons be stationed in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. In a display of diplomatic contempt, a contingent of Russian soldiers participated in Mexico’s Independence Day military parade. In another territorial dispute with overtures of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the recent manufactured crisis over the Essequibo, the Russians supported the Venezuelan approach of compellence against Guyana, attempting to coerce the Guyanese government into a negotiation against Georgetown’s firm support for a binding resolution through the International Court of Justice. Moscow also criticized U.S. and UK support for Guyana, hypocritically asserting that Russia opposes foreign pressure and interference in the affairs of sovereign states.

Q2: What has the economic impact of the war been?

A2: In early 2022, low-income households in LAC were particularly affected by increases in global food prices, as wheat became more expensive, and key agriculture products like fertilizers reached record highs. However, although the cost of fertilizers remains high, overall commodity prices continue on a downward trend. This is primarily because many countries like Brazil have continued importing fertilizers from Russia despite U.S. sanctions. In 2022, Brazil’s agricultural exports had grown around 36 percent, Argentina’s profits grew despite a decrease in exports because of the higher market prices, and countries like Colombia and Mexico benefited from high oil prices.

Russia has moved to buffer some of the impacts of its war on its regional allies, officials, and businessmen. It signed several agreements with Cuba in May 2023 covering sugar and rum production, wheat, and oil shipments to the island, and support for modernizing tourism infrastructure and facilities. In June 2023, the Nicaraguan National Assembly unanimously approved a customs cooperation agreement with Russia to increase bilateral trade. In October 16, 2023, it signed 16 agreements with Venezuela, on issues ranging from oil and energy, to tourism, culture and education.

Although the negative economic effects of the war were felt most acutely by energy and agrifood importers, i.e., mostly in Central America and the Caribbean than in energy-rich countries in South America, the region in general did experience inflation more evenly. With inflation generally trending downward throughout LAC, a global market adjusting to fill the gaps left by Russia and Ukraine, the economic effects of the war appear to be reduced.

Q3: What role has Latin America played in negotiating peace?

A3: As a region, LAC has not been shy about its desire to see the war raging in Ukraine come to an end—even if on favorable terms to Russia. Consonant with its role as a leader in regional diplomacy, especially his country’s role in attempts at conflict resolution, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has been the most active Latin American head of state seeking peace. Through an “active and upstanding diplomacy,” and motivated by what he sees as Brazil’s rightful place on the global stage, Lula pushed to form a so-called peace club for Ukraine. The peace club would be comprised of “neutral” countries of the Global South, since Lula deemed the United States and Europe too involved in Ukraine to serve as neutral arbiters.

To do so, Lula sought to prove his neutrality by publicly distancing himself from Ukraine in ways that would attract support from the Global South. However, these actions both curtailed his ability to lead the proposed peace club, and perhaps more importantly, imperiled greater strategic priorities with key actors such as the European Union. For instance, Lula ascribed equal blame to Ukraine for Russia’s unprovoked aggression, punctuating his comments by accusing the United States of actively “encouraging” the continuation of the war. Lula repeated his two-sides narrative on an important diplomatic roadshow in China and the Middle East. This earned a rare rebuke from the White House, where a National Security Council spokesperson accused him of “parroting” Russian and Chinese propaganda.

Given Brazil’s lack of equities in Eastern Europe, earning China’s trust for his pursuit of the peace club proved an insurmountable hurdle for Lula. Earlier, on a trip to Moscow, Xi Jinping had proposed his own version of a peace plan, which would have essentially frozen Russian gains in place without requiring Putin’s troops to withdraw from Ukrainian territory. Lula reportedly pressed Xi to endorse Brazil’s version of a Peace Club in an April 2023 visit to Beijing—to no avail. In one of the most contentious moments of his efforts, Lula returned from China and Brazil’s foreign minister promptly received Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, allowing the two countries to expound upon their purportedly “similar approaches” to the war in Ukraine and their broader attempt to build “a more democratic . . . world order.” Returning empty-handed from Beijing and with diplomatic bruises to boot, Brazil’s controversial peace club slowly faded from Lula’s public comments, especially after the eruption of the Israel-Gaza conflict in October 2023. Nevertheless, with Brazil now leading the G20, Lula could leverage this platform to push again for an end to the war in Ukraine.

Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) also made an effort to flex the country’s diplomatic muscle. The Mexican president called his effort the High-Level Caucus for Dialogue and Peace in Ukraine. The caucus would be housed under UN leadership, elevating Secretary General Antonio Guterres to a prominent role. Mexico sought the leadership of Narendra Modi and Pope Francis as major voices alongside the UN Secretary General in seeking peace through confidence-building measures, brokering dialogue, and eventually, a durable ceasefire. Yet Mexico’s plan was also pilloried for locking in Russian gains, and AMLO’s credibility was further damaged when he criticized U.S. support for Ukraine as “irrational” shortly after allowing Russian troops to march in the country’s yearly Independence Day parade.

Q4: How do U.S. and LAC approaches to Ukraine differ?

A4: The occasionally perplexing peace overtures put forward by LAC countries underscore a divergence in foreign policies between the United States and the region. Whereas the Biden administration has been full-throated in its support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia, several LAC countries have attempted to strike positions of neutrality on the conflict following what policy scholars call active nonalignment.

For a handful of countries, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, war in Ukraine has fostered greater alignment with Moscow. Cuba has emerged as a source of foreign fighters to help fill Moscow’s ranks, and in July 2023 hosted the Russian navy ship Perekop. In Nicaragua, the Ortega regime has consistently parroted Moscow’s position on Ukraine, while signing a deal authorizing Russian military deployments on Nicaraguan soil “to develop cooperation in various areas.” For years, Nicaragua has recognized Russia’s claim on Crimea, even opening a small consulate there. Venezuela, for its part, has used rhetoric eerily reminiscent of Russian revanchist claims to Ukraine over the Essequibo territory, administered by Guyana but claimed by both countries. Recent Venezuelan provocations on this border suggest Caracas may be playing a dangerous and potentially escalatory game, which further undermines international law.

However, there are signs that the consensus on neutrality in the region may be fraying. Argentine president Javier Milei agreed to donate two of its Russian-made Mi-171E helicopters to Ukraine during President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to his inauguration ceremony in December 2023. Ecuadorian president Daniel Noboa also proposed a deal wherein Ecuador would sell off legacy military equipment to the United States, with Ukraine as the final destination, in exchange for $200 million in new equipment to assist in Noboa’s war on criminal groups. The proposal sparked fierce opposition from Russia, which announced a halt to banana exports from Ecuador, ultimately prompting the Noboa government to walk back its offer. This episode captures much of the disconnect between the United States and LAC governments, as well as the underappreciated influence Moscow still wields within the region. While Ecuador’s about-face is disappointing from a U.S. perspective, it may still provide valuable lessons for Washington on how to engage reluctant partners and insulate them from Russian pressure campaigns.

Q5: Is Russia winning the information war?

A5: While Russia’s physical presence in the hemisphere is minimal, its media presence and influence are unmatched. Russia Today (RT) en Español and Sputnik Mundo have about 32 million regular listeners and have more followers than any other Spanish-language international broadcaster on Facebook, a platform still favored by people in LAC. In emerging platforms like TikTok, Actualidad RT boasts 2.2 million followers compared to DW en Español’s 356 thousand, for example. Russia’s ability to rapidly adapt to social media trends like short videos on TikTok or nonstop streaming on X (formerly Twitter), are also increasingly effective in getting a pro-Russia message before the eyes of the LAC public.

The reach of Russia’s technique has proven to be effective. Recent polls in countries like Mexico, for example, show that 73 percent of the population believe Mexico should “remain neutral.” This validation of nonalignment is also true in the case of Chile, where the public does not share President Boric’s outspoken support for Ukraine. In the case of Chile, an analyst reports, Chileans suspect that “Ukrainians are trying to manipulate the media to look like victims.”

Actualidad RT and Sputnik Mundo have become so mainstream in LAC, that in December 2022, RT Spanish won three prestigious Mexican journalism awards for their coverage of the war in Ukraine. The content shared in Actualidad RT and Sputnik Mundo ranges from propaganda clips of President Putin to clips of U.S. congressmen dissenting against sending aid to Ukraine. Other common narratives include conspiracy theories such as the view that the United States caused the conflict to sell military weapons to Ukraine, or that it seeks to benefit from a global food crisis created by sanctions on Russian fertilizer.

Q6: Are LAC citizens fighting in Ukraine?

A6: Citizens from LAC countries have also played a more direct role in the conflict as foreign fighters for both sides. Neither Moscow nor Kyiv publish exact data on the number or nationality of LAC fighters who join their ranks, but estimates range from several hundred to more than a thousand fighters total spread across each front.

In January 2024, both Putin and Zelensky supported fast-tracking citizenship for foreigners who enlist in the war. In September, Havana claimed to have cracked down on deceptive Russian recruiters operating on the island which offered Cubans more than 100 times the average monthly state salary. However, the country’s ambassador to Moscow later told state media that Russia has “nothing against Cubans who just want to sign a contract and legally take part in this operation.” Russian private military contractors like the Wagner Group operating in Ukraine recruit from their networks in organized criminal groups and retired military across LAC. 

On the Ukrainian side, Venezuelan-born José David Chaparro fled Venezuela to Ukraine in 2013 amid worsening economic crisis and political persecution by the Maduro government. Chaparro enlisted in Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, where he took charge of welcoming and training thousands of Spanish-speaking volunteers. In August 2023, he and another Venezuelan national cofounded the Bolívar Battalion, a group “open to any man or woman from Spanish-speaking countries, and to any other free-thinking and democratic citizen of the world who feels close to us.” Formally integrated under the umbrella of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, the battalion uses social media to highlight the close military and economic ties between the Maduro and Putin regimes that fuel Russia’s war effort.

Ukrainian embassies in Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia offer 3,000 euros, a temporary passport, and free airfare for those willing to fight, along with competitive salaries. While most LAC fighters are motivated by financial incentives, others see common cause with the Ukrainian struggle against Russian authoritarianism.

Ryan C. Berg is director of the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Christopher Hernandez-Roy is the deputy director and senior fellow of the CSIS Americas Program. Juliana Rubio is an associate director with the CSIS Americas Program. Henry Ziemer is the research associate with the CSIS Americas Program. Rubi Bledsoe is the program coordinator with the CSIS Americas Program. Nathaniel Laske is an intern with the Americas Program.

Nathaniel Laske

Research Intern, Americas Program