By: Alessia Cappelletti
Though Russia is known to be active in seeking control over neighbouring countries, its interests extend well beyond geographical proximity. In a region where US presence is a controversial topic, and Chinese influence is mainly manifested through business practices, Russia has plenty of opportunities to be the ‘alternative’ to US power.
In order to analyze Russia’s interest in Latin America one has to consider three aspects: the economic, social, and geopolitical ones. The economic aspect clearly stands alone in that Latin America is an attractive, relatively new, and highly profitable environment, which would help Russia to diversify its portfolio.
However, states are not businesses and never act on economic principles alone. The geopolitics has much to do with the closeness to the United States and European and US sanctions on Russian goods. The social sphere, instead, deals with Russia’s strategic communication and the use of soft power.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and during the late 1990s and early 2000s Russia was virtually absent from the Latin American scenario. Moscow and its Hispanic counterparts started a deeper collaboration only in the late 2000s. This collaboration has seen import-exports to and from the region increase, focusing on bilateral agreements.
Imports and exports of goods between Russia and the Hispanic region were around 2180 million dollars in 2000 and increased to 12,106 million in 2016, after reaching an all-time high in 2013 with 18,659 million dollars of goods being exchanged between the two regions. Still, trade between Russia and Latam is still relatively low, representing only 2,3% of the total Russian trade of 2016 .
Throughout academic and journalistic literature, it is accepted that Russia’s stance throughout Latin America follows a pragmatic doctrine aiming at “becoming a major power in a multipolar world” . Moscow wants to leave behind an EU and US-centered world and aims at forming its identity as an ‘alternative’ to Western power, therefore originating from a binary tension. However, the days in which the world was polarized solely between the US and Russia are gone.
A changing world
China is a powerful new player that Russia must consider and growing regional powers should also be closely monitored. However, while China is affirming itself as an international economic power and relatively adhered to a line of non-interference , Russia has always meddled widely in world matters and continues to do so. Given its impossibility to contrast China commercially, Russia is likely to use trade as an opportunity to strengthen its print on the region.
Economic powers are also on the rise in Latin America, with Brazil and Russia both being part of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). On the economic level, they (should) operate as peers. With the dominant economies of Latin America (Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina), the Kremlin plays a careful game that is based on creating economic interest and tries to break away from western dependence. After the EU and US’ economic sanctions against Russia, the Kremlin had to start scouting for trading partners finding Latin American countries interesting allies, as the majority abstained from implementing said sanctions.
Looking at the future, the Kremlin must also consider the end of Trump’s presidency. Political relations with the Americas deteriorated under Trump. In Latin America Trump left a political void, at times filled with insensitive statements and clear anti-immigration rhetoric, that Biden will have to rescue promptly. The world will see the United States trying to assert themselves more on the international stage, which could mean reversing the gradual escalation of Russia in Latin America, or their relation turning sourer than before.
Strategic Communication and Soft Power
The Kremlin is also implementing a carefully curated communication strategy in Latin America, which in some instances has been directly compared to the one of Daesh . Since 2010, for example, Russia Today (now RT) started to broadcast in Spanish, signaling a wish to expand its influence over the continent. RT is a state-owned company that broadcasts in various languages, including Arabic, and a brand of TV Novosti later demarcated as an organization of “strategic importance for Russia” by Vladimir Putin.
Results of the effectiveness of this practice are quite visible with the Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19. Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela already registered and received the vaccine, alongside countries like Iran, Palestine, and Armenia. Brazil will start producing the Sputnik V shortly, whereas Mexico approved the vaccine on February 2, and bought millions of doses after showing the highest rate of awareness worldwide regarding the Sputnik V .
In the worldwide race to get out of the covid crisis, western-manufactured vaccines have been almost entirely bought by richer countries leaving little for the rest of the world. Russia’s Sputnik V has the opportunity to be the leading vaccine for lower-income countries, together with Chinese Sinovac. In that way, the two countries may exploit the vaccine distribution to gain significant soft power among non-western countries (and western too, as Hungary). Even more so the Sputnik V, being the first vaccine to be approved worldwide.
Away from profit and interests: The case of Venezuela
Despite the claim about Russia's investments in Latin America being ‘pragmatic,’  in Venezuela another storyline is visible. Russia also largely and controversially invested in Venezuela’s oil apparatus which was debated as it was seen as short-lived. Indeed, according to Reuters’ investigation, the Russian Rosneft oil company invested billions of USD in its Venezuelan counterparts, state-owned PDVSA. However, Reuters analyzed documents and communications that showed the internal auditor’s worries about the investment.  It is then clear that the project was political and directly contrasts the ‘pragmatic’ view that researchers tend to take when observing Russian interests abroad.
In March 2020, after the US released a 15 million USD bounty for the capture of President Maduro for narco-terrorism charges, Russia apparently retired their economic investments into the country. This also coincided with the fall of oil prices after the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, which made recovering Rosneft’s investment virtually impossible.  However, Russian hegemony over PDVSA is far from being over, as Rosneft simply sold the related shares to another Russian state-owned oil company, this time fully under the control of the state (Moscow only owns 40% of Rosneft). Therefore, the Kremlin still has a key role to play in managing Venezuela’s rich resources .
The Research Project
Clearly, Russia did not completely abandon its wish to become a world power, that much echoes that of the USSR. Being close to Washington but far away from Moscow, Latin America is both a difficult challenge and a priceless outpost to achieve such a wish. It has become clear that Russia is actively taking steps to ‘come back’ to the region, however, the story of its strategic interests in Latin America is not a linear one and ought to be explored with different geopolitical angles.
The Russian ‘pragmatism’ in the region does not manifest in Venezuela and the trade between the countries is too insignificant to be the main strategy used by the Kremlin throughout the whole region. Therefore, Russia is seemingly implementing different strategies that vary per country, depending on political affinity (Venezuela and Nicaragua), closeness to the US (Colombia), and economic potential (Mexico and Brazil). As there is no coherent document that discusses different foreign strategies implemented by Russia in Latin America, this report aims at monitoring Russian strategy and highlighting observable trends.
This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group, as part of the ‘Russian Strategic Interests in Latin America’ research project led by Alessia Cappelletti and Isabel Oriol.
For source references, please download the PDF version.
About the Author:
Alessia Cappelletti is a Global Security Analyst and Program Manager of DEWIS. She has field experience in South America, Colombia especially, which makes her largely acquainted with the security challenges of the Latin American context. Her expertise includes conflict analysis and investigation, human rights protection, and criminality.