On 21 February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine as independent states. Two days later he ordered a large-scale invasion of Ukrainian soil. The move, labeled by the Kremlin as a “special military operation”, was allegedly designed to “demilitarise and denazify” Ukraine. In Europe and North America, the invasion met harsh criticism and led to the imposition of severe sanctions by many governments. Elsewhere, however, reactions were not as unified.
Latin America is a geographically distant and mostly relatively detached region vis-a-vis Russia, politically and economically. Although there has been a relatively recent renewed interest from Moscow in the region, by and large, Moscow still holds little leverage for cajoling governments in the region to support its military adventures. The recent invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, 2022, reinforces this perception. Despite the exception of a few unsurprisingly friendly words from allied governments and some ambiguous reactions from regional sympathizers, Moscow’s actions were met with widespread condemnation in Latin America. Illustrative of this, on March 2, 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution ES-11/1, which condemned Russia’s military actions and reaffirmed the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Ukraine, with all but four Latin American countries voting in favor of the draft.
Latin American governments, by a large majority, criticized Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. Collectively, they voted in favor of resolutions condemning the invasion not only in the UN but also in the Organization of American States, where a US-sponsored draft was approved on March 25, 2022, with 28 votes for, zero votes against, and five abstentions. Among the five abstentions, two countries that had already abstained during the UN vote (Bolivia and El Salvador) and three countries that had voted in favor of the UN resolution (Brazil, Honduras, and Saint Vicent and the Grenadines). Individually, many countries were extremely vocal in their criticism. For instance, Colombian President Ivan Duque labeled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a threat to world peace, while Chile supported international sanctions on Russia and withdrew an invitation for Russian companies to participate in a defense-related event in Santiago.
Furthermore, Latin American leaders from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Uruguay signed a joint letter denouncing the invasion.
These reactions are very much in line with two values deeply entrenched in the Latin American political tradition: sovereignty and peaceful settlement of disputes. The former value exists because of the collective struggle against colonial powers (Legler, 2013). The latter proves why, between 1816 and 2007, only 8 out of 227 wars worldwide were fought in Latin America (Franchi, 2017).
In contrast to its critics, Russia has received vocal and adamant support from its three main allies in the region: Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. The trio was quick to portray Russia’s incursion as nothing more than a rational and warranted reaction to allegedly invasive and hostile actions of NATO and the U.S.
Of course, support from these countries came as a surprise to no one, considering that they have had close ties with Russia. Moscow has been committed not only to the development of closer ties with Caracas, Havana, and Managua but to the ultimate survival of these regimes.
In Venezuela and Cuba, Russia is a promoter of stability both through the deployment of military forces and diplomatic support. For instance, as recently as 2019, Russia sent troops to Venezuela to help control unrest against Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. It also sold 36 Russian fighter jets for $10 billion and injected $1.1 billion in oil field investment from Russian companies. In Cuba, Russia emphatically advocated in favor of the Cuban Communist Party’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, when the party came under attack from protests erupting over shortages of food and medicine in July 2021. Regarding Nicaragua, Russia maintains strong diplomatic support for President Daniel Ortega’s handling of political opposition.
Lastly, there were at least three countries where reactions to the Ukrainian conflict were mixed, or at least, ambiguous: Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has maintained neutrality. During a press conference, he stated, “we are not going to take sides. We are going to continue to be neutral and help however possible to find a solution”. He noted Brazil’s ties to Russian oil and fertilizers. “Peace is the best option to avoid price spikes,” he said. However, Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, especially through its mission to the UN, has proffered a tougher position against Russia. On February 24, the Ministry expressed its “grave concern for the outbreak of military operations by the Russian Federation against targets in the territory of Ukraine”.
In Argentina, President Alberto Fernandez, in a meeting with Putin three weeks before the start of the conflict, offered Argentina as a “point of entry” for Russian engagement with Latin America. Fernandez was very hesitant to condemn Russia, leading both opposition lawmakers and the Ukrainian Embassy in Buenos Aires to call on Fernández to take a stronger stance against Moscow. After weeks of pressure, he conceded and decided to call out the invasion.
Lastly, in Bolivia, President Luis Arce also came under heavy criticism for the fact that his country was the only one in the region, besides the three aforementioned Russian allies, to abstain during the UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russia.
STILL LACKING SOFT POWER: THE RECENT HISTORY OF RUSSIA-LATAM RELATIONS
After decades of a meteoric rise in Soviet influence in Latin America during the Cold War, the collapse of the USSR brought a much more distant relationship between the Kremlin and many governments in the region.
Embroiled with enough domestic problems, 1990’s Russia had to renege much of its political and economic support to its allies in an otherwise strong sphere of American influence. For instance, after years of staunch support for the left-wing Sandinista government, in Nicaragua, Moscow refused to commit much funding for the campaign of Sandinista Daniel Ortega ahead of the 1990 Nicaraguan general elections. After Ortega lost to oppositionist Violeta Chamorro, the Kremlin swiftly recognized the results of the elections and called for a peaceful transition. Likewise, Moscow drastically cut its economic assistance to Havana and in 1991 announced the withdrawal of its military brigade from Cuba.
But after years of dwindling influence, or even neglect, towards LATAM, Russia started making a comeback to the region, both economically and politically, especially during the 2010s. In the economic area, Russia has successfully pursued new commercial opportunities in Latin America. Despite Russia’s sluggish economic growth, its commercial presence in Latin America has expanded: from 2006 to 2016, Russia’s trade with Latin America increased by 44% to $12 billion, and approximately half of Moscow’s trade deals were concentrated in Brazil and Mexico. In the political arena, Russia has advanced a sovereignty-focused normative agenda that appeals to countries throughout the region. Particularly, the country has been a strident supporter of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela governments, underscoring its great power aspirations in the region.
Russia’s resurgence in Latin America has also been thwarted by a considerable soft power deficit. A February 2020 Pew Research Survey revealed that confidence in Vladimir Putin’s leadership stood at just 34% in Brazil, 36% in Argentina, and 39% in Mexico. A 2017 Pew Research Survey similarly revealed that favorable perceptions of Russia range from 27% in Argentina to 41% in Peru. This soft power deficit can be explained by the overhang of Cold War-era anti-communist sentiments and the unpopularity of Putin’s governance model. The coronavirus pandemic gave Russia an opportunity to reverse this trend, but Moscow’s Sputnik V deliveries in Latin America have fallen short of expectations. Guatemala’s cancellation of Sputnik V imports on July 28th, which was triggered by Russia’s delivery of just 550,000 doses instead of the 8 million promised, is emblematic of the failure of Moscow’s vaccine diplomacy in Latin America.
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- Franchi, Tássio, Eduardo Xavier Ferreira Glaser Migon, and Roberto Xavier Jiménez Villarreal. “Taxonomy of interstate conflicts: is South America a peaceful region?.” Brazilian Political Science Review 11 (2017).
- Legler, Thomas. “Post-hegemonic regionalism and sovereignty in Latin America: optimists, skeptics, and an emerging research agenda.” Contexto internacional 35.2 (2013): 325-352.