Russia’s Latin American Policy and the June 2023 Rebellion

Russia underwent considerable political upheaval in late June 2023 as the Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group briefly threatened President Vladimir Putin’s hold on power... Russian relations between Russia and Latin America are a marriage of convenience. Both sides need and want a diversified set of trade relations, share an interest in advancing some type of multipolar global order, and have a complicated relationship with the United States.


Source: Reuters.

Russia underwent considerable political upheaval in late June 2023 as the Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group briefly threatened President Vladimir Putin’s hold on power. While the rebellion failed, the future trajectory of Russian politics and Putin’s role suddenly looked less certain. That has implications for Russian foreign policy. In the case of Latin America, the rebellion is not likely to change Moscow’s policy direction, but it does raise questions over the long-term reliability of Russian policymakers to focus on the region, which has grown in importance since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War in February 2022. In many regards, Russian relations between Russia and Latin America are a marriage of convenience. Both sides need and want a diversified set of trade relations, share an interest in advancing some type of multipolar global order, and have a complicated relationship with the United States.

One of the central narratives in Latin American geopolitics is Russia’s return to Latin America. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the major rival of the United States, focusing on keeping Cuba’s Castro regime in power, providing assistance to Central America’s revolutionary movements in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and opportunistically poking at Washington’s “near abroad,” similar to Russia’s near abroad in the Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, Moscow made a rapid retreat from Latin America, a transition that was particularly brutal in Cuba.  

The geopolitical landscape changed in 2007 when Putin made a sharp foreign policy turn. Speaking in Munich, Germany, he served notice that Russia was back as a great power, that U.S. global hegemony was bad, and the new world order should be multipolar. Indeed, the Russian leader accused the United States of creating a unipolar world “in which there is one master, one sovereign.” To emphasize the change in foreign policy direction, in 2008 the Russian military intervened in Georgia in a brief war to punish the small Caucasus nation for becoming too close with the West and in 2014 annexed Crimea from Ukraine as well as carved out two satrapies in eastern Ukraine.

In the face of the U.S. and European economic sanctions, Russia paid closer attention to Latin America. While Russia maintained a core set of relations with leftwing authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, it gradually broadened its trade relations with other states, including Argentina and Brazil, both of which became dependent on Russian fertilizer needed for their economically important agricultural sectors. Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 only heightened Latin America’s attractiveness.  

Russia also became active in Latin America seeking to cultivate a positive image while undermining U.S. interests. In this, significant resources were poured into strategic communications through media platforms such as RT and Sputnik, which cast themselves as alternative sources of information. This is part of an active campaign of using misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda to undermine the role of the United States in the region and target its regional allies. Russia’s strategic design vis-à-vis Latin America also includes the sale of weapons, providing advisors and technicians, and visits by high-level military and top policymakers.

Many of the above themes were evident during the April 2023 visit of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to the region. In Cuba, Lavrov asserted, “We cannot agree that the world should continue to live permanently according to these American ‘rules.’ Tensions are being escalated in the international arena, and the West’s attempts to dictate its will and ignore the legitimate positions of others not only persist, but are growing.” A few days after the June 2023 rebellion, Lavrov accused the West of putting “brazen pressure” on countries in Africa and Latin America to comply with measures taken against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s Latin America diplomacy since its invasion of Ukraine has been relatively successful. Although most countries condemned the invasion, the majority have not followed the West in imposing economic sanctions. Russia’s growing regional role would not be possible without a relatively positive response from local governments, most of which prefer nonalignment as a means of hedging against U.S. hegemony. Moreover, many Latin American countries are uncomfortable with the idea that the international system is increasingly defined by two blocs of countries: one that is liberal democratic and rule of law-based; and the other that is authoritarian and gaining influence by state-driven economic statecraft. Russia has more recently been stressing that unlike the United States and Europe, it was never a colonial power in Latin America—a claim which has had a positive response, especially on the local left. This, of course, overlooks Russia’s own often brutal imperial history in Eastern Europe and Asia.

The economic factor is also important. Although Russia’s economic relationship with Latin America lags well behind that of the United States, Europe and China, it has been more targeted to places which need what Russia can produce, which broadly defines its relationships with Argentina and Brazil. Moreover, Russian companies, like Gazprom and Rosneft, are active in the energy sector in Cuba, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela. Considering that many Latin American countries are struggling economically, picking a side in the West-versus-Russia competition or for that matter in the “new” Cold War between China and the U.S. would put them in a difficult position.  

Like many other countries, Russia is also pushing into Latin America’s critical metals sector. While the world was transfixed by the Wagner rebellion, Bolivia quietly announced that had granted Russia’s state-owned Rosatom an opening in its lithium sector, which could see an investment of USD 600 million in the Andean country.

Latin America’s relationship with Russia is not without complications. This was recently evident in the flap over Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s support for a multipolar world order with more emphasis of the Global South. This, among other items, included visiting President Xi Jinping in China, advancing a peace plan for the Russo-Ukrainian War, announcing that Ukraine and Russia equally shared the blame for Russia’s invasion, advocating the dethronement of the U.S. dollar, permitting Iranian warships to stop in Brazil, and giving a well-publicized and loving embrace of Venezuela’s dictator and Russian ally Nicolás Maduro on his visit to a Latin American leaders summit in Brazil.

Sensitive to Russian inroads in Latin America and the Caribbean, the U.S. has indicated its displeasure with Latin America’s seeming ambiguity over the war and picking a side in the struggle between liberalism and autocracy. Indeed, the Biden administration’s response to Lula’s comments that suggested that the West had been “encouraging” war by arming Ukraine accused the Brazilian leader of “parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda without looking at the facts.” At the same time, the U.S. has increased its visits of top diplomats to the region, including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s June 2023 meeting with CARICOM leaders in Trinidad and Tobago and Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Green to Brazil in May.

Although the June 2023 Wagner Group rebellion was dramatic and underscored Putin’s tenuous hold on power, Moscow will likely continue to push ahead with targeted economic engagement, aggressive propaganda, and closer ties with its regional allies, like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Russia will also calculate which other countries could be susceptible to strategic communication disruptions with an eye to maneuvering more pro-Russian candidates into office. Latin America remains attractive as a place to strike at the U.S. in its strategic underbelly, and how this unfolds will depend on the United States’ response. Despite efforts to be more proactive in Latin America, Washington is finding that most Latin American governments do not see their national interests served in abandoning nonalignment, preferring to keep their options open. Barring a major reversal on the battlefield in Ukraine or a successful rebellion, Russia, along with China, India, Iran, and Turkey, offers Latin America another option from the traditional choices of the U.S. and Europe.

Scott B. MacDonald is Chief Economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings, Research Fellow at Global Americans, and Founding Member of the Caribbean Policy Consortium. His latest book, The New Cold War, China and the Caribbean, was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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