Russia has restored its Soviet-era global reach under Vladimir Putin, extending its influence all across the world. Because it fulfills the role of a strategic balancer, relationships with Russia are now more prized than ever as the world moves towards multipolarity. Certain contextual backgrounds make Latin America overly receptive to multipolarity and Russia’s grand foreign policy goals in this regard. Over the past decade, Moscow has spun a complex web of relationships to directly and indirectly extend its influence in the Caribbean and along both coasts of the South American continent. This strategy is not without risks, however, since all of Russia’s partners are vulnerable to various US-sponsored destabilizations. If managed properly, however, Russia’s return to Latin America can be a godsend for multipolarity, and it can even reverse the Pentagon’s strategic initiative and for once place the US on the defensive within its own natural sphere of interest.
(Due to its geopolitical peculiarities and unique historical and social relationship with the US, Mexico is excluded from the field of analysis, as it is more proper for one to analyze Russia’s ties with it on its own in a separate piece dedicated to the topic.)
Latin America as a whole is generally very sensitive towards any expression of American hegemony (be it economic, political, and especially military), and it is one of the most fertile regions in the world for anti-Western thought. This is largely attributable to the over 500 years of pillaging that occurred there by the hands of the Europeans and then the Americans, as eloquently catalogued in the renowned 1971 “Open Veins of Latin America”. Relatively speaking, as a result of its history with its larger American neighbor, Latin America may be just as opposed to its former hegemon as Eastern Europe is to Russia. This makes it a strategic geo-social location for working to upend unipolarity and helping to ease the creation of the multipolar world.
Such sentiment against the West and the US in particular led to the emergence of what has been termed “21st-century socialism”. Hugo Chavez was the face of this movement and its most vocal advocate, and he also imbued this socio-economic ideology with certain foreign policy facets that would eventually become the norm among its practitioners. Specifically, Chavez was ardently opposed to the US’ foreign policy, and as a consequence, Washington even engineered the brief coup that temporarily removed him from power in 2002. After recovering from the US’ covert offensive, Chavez democratically institutionalized his rule via the ballot box and began exporting his country’s regional influence through the multipolar-friendly ALBA organization that he founded. As a result of all of this, Chavez was very favorable towards Russia and would consequently serve as its opening back into hemispherical affairs.
Around this time, Russia was rising from the ashes of the Soviet collapse and finally returning to its Great Power status. It thus felt the need to expand its sway back into areas which it once held influence, and this of course included Latin America. Mutual visits, weapons deals, and energy contracts flourished between Russia and Venezuela since 2000, and both countries were already deep strategic partners by the time of Putin’s 2010 trip to Caracas. Military cooperation in the naval and aerial fields solidified the relationship and showed both sides’ commitment to one another. All of this influenced and has been in line with Russia’s 2013 Foreign Policy Concept, where the pursuit of multipolarity is taken as an assumed granted (having first been stated as an official foreign policy goal in 2000) and increased interaction with Latin America is emphasized. Importantly, this same document also differentiates between Caribbean and Latin American states, a distinction which will have prominence in the next section.
The Chinese Connection:
To conclude the contextual background of Russia’s current Latin American policy, the geopolitical seeds of the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership have finally ripened and bore fruit. China has opened important doors for Russia to cooperate with a few countries in the region, as well as importantly funding the revolutionary Nicaragua Canal. The Strategic Partnership is not the underpinning of Russia’s Latin American policy, but it is shaping up to become an important aspect of it in the near future.
Everything mentioned above relating to the contextual background, as well as the elevated role of Brazil and BRICS, made it so that Putin’s monumental return to Latin America a month ago was seen as a natural and logical progression of Russian global policy, as was Lavrov’s tour of the region two months prior to that.
The Venezuelan Fulcrum
Venezuela’s role in Russia’s regional policy is exceedingly important, with the country acting as a fulcrum between two strategic triangles of influence in the Caribbean and Latin America. To refer to Russia’s 2013 Foreign Policy Concept, Moscow sees these two regions as separate parts of a greater whole, so it is pivotal that Venezuela is Russia’s influence enabler between both. Caracas acquired this role as a result of its influence expansion through ALBA, its normative role as the 21st-century socialist regional leader, and the heavy economic weight it throws around due to its large oil reserves.
The first fulcrum that Venezuela fulfills is that of the leader of the Caribbean triangle between it, Nicaragua, and Cuba. The importance of Nicaragua and its Chinese-funded canal have already been established, but it is also important to mention the country is now ruled once more by former Sandinista Daniela Ortega. A significant regional figure and Moscow ally during the 1980s, he returned to the presidency in 2006. Not only is he a close ally of Russia and Venezuela, but he is also obviously on excellent terms with China and is even fostering stronger economic ties with Iran, thereby certifying his multipolar credentials. The third corner of the Caribbean triangle, Cuba, is important due to its geostrategic proximity to America’s southern shores and the symbolic role that its leadership has held in the region and the anti-Western world. Cuba’s location has once more acquired increased value in the eyes of Russian decision makers, as there have been recent reports that the Soviet-era Lourdes spy facility is to be reopened.
Pertaining to the Latin American continent, Venezuela helps Russia in its political outreach to Ecuador and Bolivia, both countries with vehemently anti-Western leaders. Ecuador has rapidly become a vital Russian ally in recent years, with Medvedev remarking in late 2013 that it has become one of its “most important partners in Latin America.” During that same visit, Russia announced that it would be investing $1.5 billion into Ecuador’s energy sector. Moscow and Quito’s close cooperation was on full display for the world earlier this month, when President Rafael Correa publicly rebuked the EU’s desperate plea to not trade with Russia. Cooperation with Bolivia, however, is more muted, but Russia has lately stepped up its energy cooperation with the country, which has the continent’s second-largest gas reserves. Bolivia is currently more important from a geopolitical point of view and as a strong ideological proponent of multipolarity.
Russia and Venezuela have a profitable relationship with one another, and in exchange for the large-scale assistance that Moscow provides to Caracas, it has been given privileged access to critical countries in the Caribbean and Latin American regions. Per the former, Russia already had an historical legacy of cooperation there, but the Venezuelan factor reinforced the existing ties even deeper and gave them an extra layer of ‘regional credibility’. Shifting to South America, one can attribute Russia’s foreign policy successes with Ecuador and Bolivia as being strongly facilitated by its strategic relationship with Venezuela. Russia did not have the degree of influence in these countries in the past similar to what it has today, and this is a tangible outcome of the Russian-Venezuelan friendship. Thus, one can see that Venezuela is Russia’s primary political enabler in the region and one of its centers of strategic gravity.
Brazil and Argentina
No less important than its ties with Venezuela are Russia’s relationships with Brazil and Argentina. These two countries function as a de-facto pair in relation to Russia’s South American strategy, and they allow it to exert influence in the Southern Atlantic. Brazil and Russia are both members of BRICS, and this organization, according to Putin, “is a key element of the emerging multipolar world.” Therefore, the cooperation between the two is supra-regional and extends across the world, but it is still important to remember that each of them assists the other in establishing a strategic foothold in their respective corner of the world. This accordingly gives Russia a firm outpost in South America and Brazil one in Eurasia, thereby unrolling the red carpet of economic potential for both.
Relations with Argentina are more complex than with Brazil, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t nearly as close. Argentina is officially a major non-NATO ally, having received the designation in 1998. This grants it a privileged military relationship with the US and makes it the only state of this category to be located in the Western Hemisphere. Much to Washington’s dismay, however, this ‘rewarding’ categorization may have been premature, as Argentina has dramatically drifted into the anti-Western political camp ever since its economic collapse over a decade ago. It openly challenges the UK’s claims to the Falkland/Malvinas Islands and loudly accuses the US of conspiring to destabilize its economy, behavior which makes it visibly stand apart from other major non-NATO allies such as Israel and Australia. It is within this political environment that Argentina has moved closer to BRICS, with Russia having invited it to attend the Brazilian summit last month. There were even rumors even abounding that it may try to join the organization sometime in the future, further showing its leadership’s intention to economically break with the West. Most recently, Argentina has eagerly volunteered to increase food shipments to Russia to make up for the void left by the counter-sanctions against EU products.
Brazil and Argentina thus form chief centers of Russian influence in South America. It should go without saying that constructive ties with both of these economic giants inevitably lead to positive relations with their lesser neighbor Uruguay, which has also jumped on the counter-sanctions bandwagon to increase agricultural exports to Russia. When referencing a map, these three countries constitute the majority of the continent and have amazing economic, human, and natural resource potential, thus proving that even if they were Russia’s only partners in the hemisphere, that solely through them, Russia has already established a solid strategic footing in America’s backyard.
The third vector of Russia’s Latin American policy is directly aided and abetted by the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership. China is an economic mammoth in the world, especially in the Pacific Rim, and it exerts immense influence through its trade ties with other states. Being in APEC, it has the opportunity to meet and conduct high-level talks with its partners on the Latin American side of the Pacific, specifically Peru and Chile. Both of these countries happen to also be American allies and members of the Pacific Alliance, a neo-liberal trading bloc that also includes Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico. Most of these states are also engaged in talks with the US over the Washington-led Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Despite this, Russia has interestingly been able to court closer relations with Peru and Chile, in particular. Then-President Medvedev visited Peru in 2008, the first such visit by a Russian leader in history, where the two countries signed defense industry, economic, and anti-drug cooperation agreements. Putin followed this up by meeting with Peru’s president on the sidelines of the 2012 APEC summit held in Vladivostok, in a clear sign that Russia is interested in boosting its relations with the country. Ties have indeed been strengthened, as there are now plans for Peru to jointly manufacture Russian helicopters in the country, and Peruvian seafood companies are now slated to replace the European ones affected by sanctions.
Concerning Chile, the country has long been a strident American ally, but the recent election of leftist leader Michelle Bachelet could make the country more multipolar. It has already initiated visa-free travel for Russian citizens and it looks ready to fill Norway’s void in supplying Russian salmon. One must remember that the EU recently issued a pathetic plea for Latin American countries not to trade with Russia and take advantage of the counter-sanctions at Brussels’ expense. With Chile being a close American ally and a member of the Pacific Alliance, it is unexpected that it would defy the West in such a way, especially when there is a ‘New Cold War’ ongoing. This could potentially be explained by Chile and China signing a free trade agreement in 2005, set to come into full force by 2016. In the years since, China has secured such an economic foothold in the country that it is now its largest trading partner. Thus, it increasingly looks as though Beijing used its economic influence over Chile to assist Moscow in this case, per the global Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership.
Overall, in relation to Peru and Chile, China does hold all the economic cards. It even signed a free trade agreement with Peru in 2009 too, also becoming its largest trading partner and investor two years afterwards. Of course, Russia was already making advances towards Peru prior to this, but it is likely that Chinese behind-the-scenes involvement helped clear the way for where relations are today. Therefore, in the larger context of Russia’s Latin American grand strategy, the cases of Peru and Chile serve as strong reminders of the global reach and effectiveness of the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership in forwarding Moscow’s regional ambitions.
The American Pushback
The United States, endowed with the hubris of American Exceptionalism and jealously guarding the restrictive dictates of the Monroe Doctrine, is not one to take Russia’s Western Hemispheric advances lightly. In fact, the US is completely opposed to what Russia is doing, and it earnestly wants to roll back its recent gains. Per the Wolfowitz Doctrine of preventing any country from challenging the US, the Pentagon fears the consequences not only of Russian influence in Latin America, but of the overall resistance and defiance of many of its leaders. One can thus explain the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez in this light, as well as the 2009 covert overthrow of Honduras’ left-leaning and pro-multipolarity Manuel Zelaya. Dr. Paul Craig Roberts observed that contemporary US policy is to set in motion a domino effect of destabilization to overthrow Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and finally, Brazil. Considering the US’ history of coups and Color Revolutions, this does not seem to be an unrealistic assertion.
There are thus three categories of destabilization vulnerabilities that each of the earlier examined states fall into:
The US recognizes that two of its traditional allies, Peru and Chile, are being tugged away from its unipolar orbit and into the sphere of the multipolar world. Since it needs these two states to be relatively stable in order to pursue its long-term trans-Pacific plot of splitting South America, it is not likely to immediately enact traditional destabilization measures against them. Instead, it will likely try to pressure them from afar via economic and political means, remaining hesitant to prematurely upset the future regional balance that it envisions. It remains to be seen exactly which forms these take, but it can be certain that Washington will respond in one way or another towards its proxies’ disobedience.
The next level of intensified destabilization is envisioned as being directed against Brazil and Argentina. These countries are obviously larger than their Latin American counterparts and thus less susceptible to simple economic and political pressure. Their systems of governance are also not currently as vulnerable to a traditional military coup, thus increasing the appeal of scaring their leadership with the threat of a playbook Color Revolution. Therefore, the US will likely expand its economic aggression against Argentina and quite possibly target Brazil in the future. It can also resort to underhanded methods of organizing anti-government ‘resistance’ leaders to mobilize and misguide the masses into large-scale protest sometime in the future. The purpose here is to tangibly demonstrate to Brazil and Argentina that the US has the tools to exacerbate existing domestic economic and social cleavages to pose a threat to their leaderships.
Outright Coup Attempts
The third and most intense category of destabilization occurs when the US tries to outright remove the legitimate governments of targeted states. The countries falling into this category are Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, all of whom the US has a history of trying to topple. The US government despises the leading personalities and policies of these Resistant and Defiant (R&D) states, and it will more than likely resort to continued covert methods to try to subdue their recalcitrance. Therefore, one can expect some degree or another of aggressive American-engineered destabilization to strike these countries in some form or another in the near future.
When one steps back and analyzes the full picture, Russia has made extraordinary geopolitical gains in Latin America since the end of the Cold War, with the overwhelmingly clear majority of them having occurred after Putin came to the presidency. It is now evident that Russia is involved in a complex web of associations in America’s backyard, with Venezuela and the Brazil-Argentina axis being the focal points of its hemispheric strategy and leading the way in multipolar resistance. With China’s help, Russia is chipping away at the once blind loyalty of traditional American allies, thus showing that it truly is able to make itself attractive to the previously ‘untouchable’ countries of the region. Although being fraught with risks, all of the examined states are willingly choosing to cooperate with Russia regardless, showing that they understand the importance of managing pragmatic relations with Moscow. Additionally, the very fact that the US must respond to Russia’s moves in Latin America in the first place shows that the strategic initiative is shifting against the Pentagon, implicitly placing it on the theater-wide defensive in a development that has not occurred at any time in its history. Overall, Russia’s role as a global strategic balancer and irresistible economic partner is now clear to all in the hemisphere, and it is rapidly creating a new geopolitical reality in the US’ backyard that could slam the nail in the coffin of unipolarity.