Vladimir Putin was always considered disruptive to the West’s international security agenda; however, Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022 has drastically escalated tensions between the Great Powers. The scale of the economic and military resources allocated by the West to contain the Russian offensive is at unprecedented levels in the post-Cold War era, while the possibility of a direct conflict is reminiscent of the years when NATO and Soviet forces were on a permanent high alert.
The global consequences of the Ukrainian conflict, from a battery of Western sanctions against Russia, to a spike in commodity prices, a reshuffling of global supply routes, and increasing global food insecurity, particularly in the Global South, have had far-reaching consequences. Despite fragmentation and internal contradictions, Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries are facing these global tensions cautiously, trying not to get directly involved in competition among the Great Powers, and seeking to maintain maneuverability to navigate the consequences of the current economic situation and global security threats.
Latin America enters a turbulent world
The region generally perceives Russia as a challenging power because of its major military capabilities — especially in the nuclear and ballistic area — and its confrontational stance against the West, which has resulted in a de-stabilization in the international security agenda.
The depth of Latin American-Russian cooperation is related to different factors, but one of the critical ones is the type of approach Latin American countries choose towards the United States and vice versa. Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua have confrontational positions vis-à-vis the White House, so they have found a supportive and reliable partner in Putin’s Russia. On the other hand, those who have closer relations with the U.S. — Colombia and Costa Rica, for example — are usually reluctant to intensify relations with Moscow.
Washington is increasingly concerned about the security challenges in the so-called “Western Hemisphere,” especially those related to the emergence of illiberal regimes and the rise of external powers such as China and Russia, in addition to non-traditional threats such as illegal migration and drug trafficking. Russia’s strategic interests in Latin America are perceived with suspicion because of its ties with Havana and Managua and the presence of military advisors in Venezuela, although the scope of their involvement is perceived as limited compared with Beijing. With the Russian war in Ukraine, however, Washington has modified its strategic priorities and Latin America has been bumped up on the global agenda.
A clear example of Latin America’s growing influence is the story behind the Summit of the Americas, a forum organized by the U.S. that has brought together leaders from LAC and their White House counterparts every three or four years since 1994. For the IX Summit, held in Los Angeles in June 2022, the U.S. decided not to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua because of their lack of commitment to democratic standards. A group of LAC countries led by Mexico and Argentina criticized the measure and put the summit at risk. This kind of resistance arguably signals a decline of the U.S.’s regional hegemony, especially since the challenge came from someone other than Venezuela or Cuba. The Biden Administration managed to convince Argentina and Brazil to attend and presented an initiative called the Alliance of the Americas for Economic Prosperity that would counter China’s economic presence in the region and advance a more active role for the U.S. The proposal called for called for a reinvigoration of regional economic cooperation, the building of more resilient supply chains, and the advancement of a green economic agenda.
Amidst this latest escalation in the competition between Great Powers, Latin America is dealing with geopolitical irrelevance, recovery from the pandemic crisis, and high levels of political fragmentation. While the entire region is dealing with similar issues, the growing political divergence between countries is reflected in their individual decision-making process. This fragmentation is not new, but ideological and political differences in the last year have eroded regional institutions. A majority of members withdrew from the Union of South American Nations, and commercial tensions within the Common Market of the South are rising, with Uruguay and Brazil pressuring other countries to lower external tariffs and open up to the world. Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, also suspended his country’s participation in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the leading regional intergovernmental forum for high-level dialogue.
This diversity of opinion in the region also applies to Russia. When it comes to trade, for example, Mexico and Brazil both need to secure fertilizer from Russia, thus both countries have distanced themselves from the dispute between the West and Russia, even though Mexico is a key economic partner with the U.S. and Canada through the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Beyond the trade needs, Brazil has shown greater autonomy as part of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), an organization that is trying to shape a new global governance architecture and become an alternative to the West. Argentina is also looking into joining BRICS, and even pushed for a closer relationship with the Kremlin during the COVID-19 pandemic when President Alberto Fernández oversaw the approval of local production of the Sputnik V vaccine in 2021. Most tellingly, perhaps, has been the reaction by LAC countries to the war in Ukraine; while all LAC countries condemned Russian aggression, none of them supported arming Ukraine or the implementation of sanctions by the West.
Russia in Latin America: “Symbolic Reciprocity”
In addition to diversifying its relations beyond the West and advancing a concrete economic and strategic agenda, Moscow’s ties with LAC are a vehicle to strengthen its status as a global power. The regions have deep historical ties dating back to Catherine the Great, but the relationship has become closer than ever in the last two decades. The Putin government has pushed for closer political and economic ties in the region and has diversified its approach on a country-by country basis: Russia has highlighted its political affinity with Venezuela; with Brazil they share an alternative vision for international order; and with Argentina they have made common cause of a pragmatic agenda based on mutual benefit.
Moscow perceives itself as a great power in a polycentric world, and they see a role for Latin America as an autonomous ally in an increasingly multipolar, post-hegemonic, post-American order. The logic of symbolic reciprocity is the key to understanding Russia’s actions in the region, according to Vladimir Rouvinski, the director of the Laboratory of Politics and International Relations at Icesi University in Colombia. Symbolic reciprocity means that a “good part of the elites that govern Russia today continue to view the entire Western Hemisphere as Washington’s priority area of concern,” Rouvinski notes, adding that “Russia must maintain its presence in Latin America as a reciprocal action.” Whether it was sending Tu-160 strategic bombers to Venezuela in 2018 or performing joint naval exercises with the Venezuelan Navy in the Caribbean in 2008, Moscow’s moves in Latin America are usually in reaction to U.S. and NATO actions in Russia’s “near abroad,” such as their support for “Colour Revolutions” in the post-Soviet space, NATO enlargement, and the deployment of military infrastructure close to Russia’s borders.
Putin has tried to improve his diplomatic and strategic leverage by broadening the agenda beyond the logic of symbolic reciprocity. Russia is not a novel partner in Latin America, and the deployment of the military is not the only tool they use. Moscow has developed an important foothold in the region. They have made many high-level visits, negotiated economic cooperation and energy investments — especially in Venezuela — and helped to develop a Spanish-language version of the Russia Today broadcast news network. As Western-Russian relations continue to devolve, however, these ties with Moscow will bring additional costs, which will hinder regional autonomy in international affairs.
Winter is coming: Latin America and the Caribbean prospects for global cooperation
Latin America has been portrayed as a “zone of peace” in which interstate war is a rare phenomenon, and therefore the region is not a major consumer of international security. The new Great Power competition, however, raises economic and security concerns that pose a risk to regional stability.
Historically, the region has been a global commodities provider. Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia are major producers of crude oil; Mexico, Bolivia, and Argentina lead gas production rankings; Brazil and Argentina play an important role in the global food chain, especially for products such as wheat, soybeans, meat, and corn; and several Latin American countries are key providers of silver, lithium, copper, zinc, and iron ore, among others. Not all countries have an equal distribution of these resources, however, so global supply chain disruptions and rising energy and food prices are impacting each individual country differently. The economic fallout from COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine have also affected government finances, and many economies have not yet recovered. In the past five years, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador have seen widespread protests and social unrest.
Despite the difficulties, the current global economic crisis also offers opportunities for LAC countries. Prices for primary products, for example, have risen, with the S&P Goldman Sachs Commodity Index increasing almost 30% between August 2021 and 2022. Oil prices have surpassed US$100/barrel several times during the year despite drawbacks in the industry due to mismanagement. While the coming winter in the Northern Hemisphere looks to be complicated, the impact in the LAC region appears to be much less. That said, global inflation has reached Latin America, and the inevitable rise in subsidies will surely affect limited national budgets. Should a country look to external loans to meet their budget shortages, it will face increased interest rates in the Global North. The result of these dynamics in Latin America is mixed; Venezuela has an opportunity to stabilize its economy, while Argentina faces serious financial troubles with a sharp currency devaluation and an expected inflation of above 80% in 2022.
Threats to the “Zone of Peace”
Russia and Ukraine are at war. War drums pound around the Taiwan strait. The Nagorno-Karabagh conflict in the South Caucasus region is flaring up. A high-ranking officer from Iran said the country “has the ability to build a nuclear weapon.” In a more dangerous world, Latin America and the Caribbean seems an oasis of peace and stability, but can it be sustained? There are three systemic threats to the regional “zone of peace.”
- More assertive responses by Russia to answer the U.S. and NATO’s actions in the Ukrainian war that go beyond traditional “symbolic reciprocity.” This could involve the deployment not only of military personnel, but also advanced weapons systems to Latin America and the Caribbean.
- The expansion of the transatlantic military alliance beyond Europe or increasing security cooperation to counter China may impact LAC. At the moment, the U.S. designates Colombia, Brazil and Argentina as “major non-NATO allies,” although their commitment varies in relation to the incumbent government. For example, Bogota remains the key U.S. security partner in the region since the start of the Plan Colombia in the late 1990s, which provided critical U.S. support for the Colombian fight against guerrillas and drug cartels. The 19 June 2022 election of Gustavo Petro to the Nariño’s Palace, however, raises doubts in Washington as to the continuity of the strategic partnership as Petro’s politics are considered left-wing. Countries such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, or Cuba can offer to help China or Russia establish a military footprint in Latin America to counter a threat from the U.S. and its allies. Russia and China might alternatively push their allies in LAC and look for a forward presence in the U.S.’s “backyard” – though this is still a remote possibility given that Washington’s strategic priorities are the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe.
- Non-proliferation could become an issue. At the 10th Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in August, President Gustavo Zlauvinen argued that the “threat posed by nuclear weapons has returned to levels seen during the Cold War.” This statement reflects high-level concerns about the responsible handling of nuclear devices and a renewed fear of the spread of nuclear technology or the alteration of nuclear programs currently being used peacefully in nuclear power plants and uranium enrichment facilities. Latin America and the Caribbean are nuclear-weapon-free zones, and this commitment, which was codified in the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco, has been re-endorsed by all independent LAC countries. This strong commitment to non-proliferation by Argentina and Brazil, the major nuclear powers in the region, could be challenged should extraterritorial countries such as China, Russia, or North Korea attempt to transfer nuclear technology to U.S. foes in a situation of direct confrontation.
A new era: To align or not to align
The war in Ukraine is the focus of foreign policy debate in most of Latin America, but how to deal with the rise of China is also the subject of much discussion. Among scholars, experts, and decision makers, there are four broader options within an increasingly multipolar world: active non-alignment, active neutrality, strategic autonomy, and alignment. The first option calls for a equidistant position between the U.S. and China and looks both for deepening regional integration and more active diplomacy in the Global South. The second perspective calls for taking economic advantage of the Sino-American competition by focusing on a neoliberal, open, regionalist approach. The strategic autonomy approach emphasizes diversification, regionalism, promotion of democracy, multilateralism, and soft-power-based policies. These foreign policy options differ in tone, but not in the substance of the matter. There is a near consensus in the region about not getting involved in the new Great Power Competition, while looking for opportunities for economic development and strategic alliances with other countries. Finally, the alignment approach would require choosing one side of the Sino-American strategic competition. Strong ideological affinities would generally favour the U.S., but there are also increasing pro-Chinese sympathies, for example, in Venezuela and some sectors of Latin American leftist movements.
The Russo-Ukrainian War has been a crucial test of LAC responses to a new international environment. The principles of sovereignty and non-intervention have characterized the basis of Latin American diplomacy regarding conflicts in the Post-Soviet space, and the ongoing Ukrainian conflict was no exception. A couple of weeks before the war, the presidents of Argentina and Brazil visited the Kremlin. Fernandez offered up Argentina to Russia as “the gate of access” to the whole region, while Bolsonaro discussed sensitive issues related to cooperating on a Brazilian nuclear submarine project and getting Russia to guarantee the importation of fertilizers.
Both countries initially hesitated to publicly condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine, something they would normally do through multilateral channels. In responding to the attack, Latin American countries did not coordinate a common response, and individual responses were not unanimous. Some condemned the attack in fora such as the Organization of American States and the United Nations General Assembly, while the pro-Russian bloc of Latin American countries decided not to denounce the attack at all. They neither backed the Western sanctions on Russia nor supported the Western-led initiative to isolate Russia from international fora, especially the G20. For the biggest Latin American players — Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico — the war is something to condemn, but the question of economic and political ties with Moscow is written on a different page.
The Russo-Ukrainian War has presented LAC countries with a series of economic and security challenges that require prudence. The commitment to condemn unjust wars continues, but so too does the search for international autonomy and the support for multilateralism. In an increasingly complex and competitive global environment, these countries have followed positions based on their own agenda and tried to avoid taking sides.
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