Russia has been taking a keen interest in enhancing its relations with Latin America. With the ongoing Ukraine crisis, and in the backdrop of economic sanctions by Western countries, Russia seeks to reinvigorate its ties with several countries such as Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Brazil, to demonstrate its global political and economic engagement, circumvent sanctions and diversify its supply chains. It has sought to focus on improving trade and strategic cooperation to bolster ties. In April 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba and Brazil with an objective to strengthen relations. During his interactions, Foreign Minister Lavrov stressed on multipolarity and highlighted continuing the mutually beneficial relations.
In the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, Latin American countries with the exception of the Bahamas[i] have not imposed sanctions[ii] on Russia. Countries such as Chile, Brazil and Peru refused to send armaments[iii] to Ukraine despite assurances from the West to upgrade their arsenals in exchange for military assistance. From the perspective of the Latin American countries, the region seeks access to uninterrupted supply of fuel and fertilizers and to diversify their foreign and economic relations. Hence, despite the Ukraine crisis, relations between Latin America and Russia continue uninterrupted.
Russia’s engagement with the region can be traced back to the Cold War where it cemented relations with Cuba and some other countries and during this period, ideology played an important part. However, after the end of the Cold War and with the collapse of the Soviet Union its engagement was limited as the new Russian Federation focussed more on its immediate neighbourhood. It was in the 2000s when it identified key aspects of building ties such as economic, strategic and diplomatic approaches, marking a shift from its previous ideologically oriented engagement and since then its outreach has intensified. While Russia’s military and strategic engagements are stronger with Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba, its economic relations are prime with Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Ecuador. Russia is now a major exporter of petroleum and its subsidiary products, fertilizers, and coal while it imports sizeable quantity of agricultural products and other raw materials from the region. It must be noted that military and strategic cooperation with the region forms the bedrock of its relationships particularly with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
This paper will highlight Russia’s economic, military and diplomatic engagement with Latin America.
Bilateral trade between Russia and Latin American countries is currently around US $ 12 billion[iv] with Brazil[v], Mexico[vi] and Argentina[vii] being the main trade partners. Bilateral trade was around US $ 4.3 billion in 2016, and the improvement in figures can be attributed to increased trade in petroleum products, machinery, agricultural products and fertilizers. Russia’s main exports to the region are fertilizers[viii], mineral fuels, iron and steel. Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, and Argentina form its main trade partners which account for 60 percent of exports to Russia and 68 percent of imports[ix]. Latin America on the other hand exports agricultural goods, oilseeds, bovine meat, and soy. While Latin America accounts for 2 percent of Russia’s international trade, in return Russia accounts for 0.64 percent of Latin America’s total international trade in 2022. Russia’s trading patterns with Latin American countries vary to a great extent. For instance, fertilizers form important components of bilateral trade between Brazil and Russia while iron and steel are major components of trade between Mexico and Russia. In comparison to China, Russia's trade with the region is restricted due to its late entry into the World Trading Organisation in 2012 and because its focus is predominant in its immediate neighbourhood. Logistical issues and geographic remoteness in addition to competition from others such as China, Japan, and the US are other reasons for restricted trade relations.
In terms of investments, it is low as compared to China and the US as Russia’s total direct investment in the region does not exceed US $ 40 billion till 2022. The major recipients of investments from Russia are Peru at US $ 15 million, Brazil and Ecuador at US $ 9 million each, and Colombia at US $ 6 million[x]. These investments are mostly in extraction sectors such as minerals, oil, and gas. In Venezuela for instance, which has the largest proven global oil reserves, Russian investments in the oil and gas sector amount to more than US $ 4 billion in 2022. Russian energy companies such as Rosneft, Zarubezhneft, Lukoil, and Gazprom are active in the energy sector in countries such as Mexico, Bolivia[xi] and Venezuela. Similarly, Russian investments in the oil and gas sector in Ecuador amount to US $ 1.5 billion.
In terms of cooperation in civilian nuclear energy, Russia has entered into agreements with Brazil, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Chile to enhance cooperation. While Russia plans to build a nuclear power plant in Argentina since 2015, it has already completed the test assembly of a nuclear reactor for Bolivia[xii] which can be operated at higher altitude.
Apart from these, there are investments in automobiles, Information Technology, and aerospace in Peru, Jamaica, and Guyana. There has been a gradual expansion in investments in the chemical industry particularly in Brazil, Guyana and Jamaica[xiii] since 2014, however, in sectors such as telecommunications apart from Nicaragua[xiv] there is no significant presence.
An important pillar of Russia’s engagement in the region is military cooperation with various Latin American countries. Moscow sees the region as a counterweight to the US-led NATO activities in Europe which Russia sees as detrimental to its interests. Military cooperation may be considered to an enterprise which leads to economic benefits for Russian firms and to the development of relationships with certain countries that have contrasting interests with the US. Notably, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua[xv] are the three main countries with which Russia has developed close military ties. Russia’s visible military engagement comprises of sale and expansion of military hardware, service contracts, training of military personnel from Latin American countries, joint military exercises, and upgrading equipment. This also includes cyber capabilities, information dominance and surveillance.
Apart from the three countries, Russia has also to some degree engaged with other countries such as Peru, Argentina, and Mexico[xvi]. Total arms sales from Russia including upgradation of equipment amount to more than US $ 4 billion in 2022[xvii]. Russian equipment sales in the region range from small arms, and assault rifles to highly specialized armaments such as fighter planes and helicopters[xviii]. Russia has conducted military exercises with Venezuela in 2008 and had deployed two TU-160 bombers apart from conducting naval drills in 2013 and 2018. In July 2023, the Russian navy training ship, Perekop paid a visit to Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela to conduct drills with the navies of these countries. The Cuban and Russian defence ministers held discussions on military and technical cooperation in Moscow in June 2023 with an aim to increase bilateral strategic and military cooperation and Russia also seeks to establish a permanent military presence in Cuba akin to Nicaragua where since 2014 a small number of Russian military personnel are engaged in training programmes.
However, the main impediment to military cooperation is political change within governments in Latin America. For instance, negotiations were in process over the delivery of Su-24 fighter aircraft to Argentina, but the subsequent election of Mauricio Macri, a conservative as the President of the Argentine Republic witnessed the deal falling through. Along similar lines, Russia’s proximity with Venezuela resulted in difficulties in fostering ties with Brazil under the Presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.
Although during the phase of the Cold War, the former USSR had established diplomatic relations with most of the countries in Latin America, Cuba remained the only major ally of Moscow. In the post-Cold War scenario, ideology played a diminished role while preference for building relations was prioritised with those countries that had differing views with the US. Russia also took the opportunity to economically and diplomatically engage countries in the region to increase its presence. In 1997 the then Russian Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov’s[xix] visit to Latin America reignited Russia’s interests in the region. In an increasingly multipolar world, Russia gradually enhanced its engagement with these countries especially after 2004 to entrench itself geopolitically in the region as a counterweight to the US[xx], and to develop bilateral relations.
Since 2008 bilateral diplomatic engagements have intensified with high-level visits such as visits to Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, and Nicaragua in 2010 and Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Peru in 2014. The 2016 Foreign Policy Concept of Russia discussed its commitment to strengthen bilateral relations with partners in Latin America and the Caribbean and was followed by the Concept of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation in 2023[xxi] that mentions a multipolar world and active cooperation between Russia and Latin America as one of the components[xxii]. Hence, for Russia maintaining cordial relations in Latin America is a means to gain strategic depth in the vicinity of the US and to diversify its foreign policy relations.
Apart from official diplomatic relations, Russian media houses such as Russia Today and Sputnik[xxiii] are quite active in the region which engage in delivering news and information regarding Russia and form narratives that favour Moscow and its allies in Latin America. Russia Today and Sputnik are also active in collaboration with Telesur and HispanTV in the region.
While Russia’s position in the region depends on ideological leanings of Latin American governments and their relations with the US, to some extent it has managed to circumvent these issues by developing relations with various countries and by focussing on economic, strategic and diplomatic components. For instance, in 2014 a UN vote on Ukraine and Crimea led to Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela voting against the resolution. On similar lines, the UN vote in 2022 regarding Ukraine witnessed abstentions from Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Cuba, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Notably, Latin American countries with the exception of the Bahamas have not joined sanctions against Russia[xxiv], keeping in mind their economic interests and balanced approaches. Russia, after the start of the Ukraine crisis has stressed on the need for Latin American countries to resolve issues independently and maintaining diversity in their foreign policy options[xxv], while focussing on the region’s prominence in global politics. Apart from that Russia has also maintained the need to use national currencies without depending on the US Dollar for transactions given the possibilities to enhance mutual benefit. For Latin American countries, while Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela[xxvi] have stronger partnerships with Russia owning to ideological and strategic convergences, others such as Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Mexico are willing to engage extra- hemispheric partners such as Russia in a multipolar world.
Although Russia has increased its engagement across Latin America, it has deeper relations with Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela which have divergences with the US. Russia’s intentions in Latin America are to develop economic and strategic partnerships with countries and to carve a niche for its strategic interests and act as a counterbalance to the US. However, its economic approaches are of a limited nature owing to logistical issues and geographical remoteness. Russia’s approaches towards Latin America are based more on military and strategic cooperation which forms a critical part of its outreach. In the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine, Russia has intensified its approaches towards the region to seek support and avoid international isolation. Despite limitations, Latin American countries by and large have maintained contact with Moscow to expand their foreign policy options in a multipolar world. Hence, Russia and its relations with Latin America continue in the presence of challenges.
*Dr. Arnab Chakrabarty, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Jasper Ward. (13th March 2022). Bahamas orders halt to financial operations with sanctioned Russian entities. Reuters. Accessed 11th September 2023. https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/bahamas-orders-halt-financial-operations-with-sanctioned-russian-entities-2022-03-13/#:~:text=NASSAU%2C%20March%2013%20(Reuters),regulators%20said%20in%20a%20statement..
[ii] Countries from Latin America that voted in favour of the Draft Resolution A/ES-11/L.1 on Ukraine were Argentina, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay. Countries which abstained were Bolivia, Cuba, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Venezuela could not vote owing to cessation of its voting rights.
[iii] Latin American countries such as Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico declined sending armaments to Ukraine despite assurances from the US in replacing them with American made weaponry. The arsenal of these countries have Russian armaments such as Surface to Air Missiles, Fighter Aircrafts and Small Armaments.
[iv] Evan Ellis. (20th July 2022). Russia in the western hemisphere: Assessing Putin’s malign influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. CSIS. Accessed 10th September 2023. https://www.csis.org/analysis/russia-western-hemisphere-assessing-putins-malign-influence-latin-america-and-caribbean.
[v] Russia’s main exports to Brazil are Nitrogenous fertilizers, Potassic fertilizers, refined petroleum, mixed minerals and chemical fertilizers while Brazil’s main exports to Russia are Soyabeans, coffee, meat and nuts.
[vi] Mexico’s main exports to Russia are cars, motor vehicles parts, medical instruments while Russia’s main exports to Mexico are fertilizers, vaccines and medicines.
[vii] Russia’s main exports to Argentina are vaccines, chemicals, nitrogenous fertilizers and vaccines while Argentina’s main exports to Russia are soyabeans, soyabean meal and crustaceans.
[viii] Russia is a major producer and exporter of fertilizers and some of the highest importers are in Latin America such as Peru, Brazil, Suriname, Argentina, Mexico and Colombia.
[ix] L. Yana. (2023). Russia’s Economic Outreach in Latin America. Accessed 11th September 2023. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://irp.cdn-website.com/7781f760/files/uploaded/Yana_Russia_Latin_America_Final.pdf.
[x] A.V. Kuznetsov. (7th March 2023). Russian Direct Investment in Countries of Latin America. Accessed 10th September 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9988359/.
[xi] In June 2023 Russian State Nuclear Firm, Rosatom signed a US $ 1 billion lithium exploration deal with Bolivia.
[xii] Julieta Pelcastre. (20th June 2023). Russia gains foothold in Bolivia with nuclear plant project. Dialogo Americas. Accessed 20th September 2023. https://dialogo-americas.com/articles/russia-gains-foothold-in-bolivia-with-nuclear-plant-project/.
[xiii] RusAl, a Russian company has engaged in bauxite mining in Jamaica and Guyana.
[xiv] Nicaragua uses Russian satellites for communication and the Russia telecommunications brand Yota functions in Nicaragua as a provider of services.
[xv] In Nicaragua, Russia operates a counternarcotics training centre since 2014 and in the same year Nicaragua opened its military vehicle maintenance facility with the help of Russia. Strategic and military cooperation began in 2008 and in 2013 an agreement on military modernization was agreed upon with Russia. It has also enabled the use of the GLONASS navigation system in Nicaragua.
[xvi] While Venezuela comprises 73 percent of arms import from Russia, others such as Mexico 9 percent, Peru 8 percent and Colombia 3 percent make significant figures.
[xvii] Douglas Farah & Marianne Richardson. (December 2022). Dangerous Alliances: Russia’s Strategic inroads in Latin America. INSS. Accessed 18th September 2023. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/stratperspective/inss/strategic-perspectives-41.pdf.
[xviii] Some of the significant Russian weapons sold to Latin American countries are, Sukhoi Fighter Jets, S-300 Surface to Air Missile Systems, Combat Helicopters such as Mi 35M and Mi 26 and T-72 tanks.
[xix] The 1996 Primakov doctrine outlines Russia’s belief that it must make inroads towards areas which are near to the US to establish itself strategically.
[xx] Vladimir Rouvinski. (February 2017). Understanding Russian Priorities in Latin America. Wilson Center. Accessed 17th September 2023. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/publication/ki_170117_cable_russia_latin_american_v1.pdf.
[xxi] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (31st March 2023). The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation. Accessed 14th September 2023. https://mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/fundamental_documents/1860586/.
[xxii] Russia hosted the first International Parliamentary Conference themed “ Russia and Latin America: Cooperation for a Just World for All” between 29th September and 2nd October 2023, to boost interaction across legislative levels.
[xxiii] Mark A. Green. ( 18th July 2023). Latin America Loves Russia Today Publication. Wilson Center. Accessed 18th September 2023. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/latin-america-loves-russia-today-publication.
[xxiv] Castellum. (2023). Russia Sanctions Dashboard: Countries Sanctioning Russia. Accessed 16th September 2023. https://www.castellum.ai/russia-sanctions-dashboard.
[xxvi] These countries also depend on Russia’s veto in the UNSC.