Author: David J. Kramer, Executive Director at the Bush Institute

For years, Russia has maintained strong ties to authoritarian regimes around the world, including three countries in Latin America. The leaders in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have become heavily dependent on Moscow for political, economic, and security assistance, without which they would struggle to stay in power. For decades, Russia has maintained strong ties with Communist Cuba and with the Ortega regime in Nicaragua. Russian support for Venezuela’s illegitimate leader Nicolás Maduro, and before that Hugo Chávez, has been key to propping them up in power, too.

Nicaragua relies heavily on Russia for military support, including refurbishing of its armed forces, while Russia operates a large, high-tech communications facility on the outskirts of Managua. In June, Nicaragua’s authoritarian leader Daniel Ortega reauthorized Russian troops, planes, and ships to deploy to Nicaragua for purposes of training, law enforcement, or emergency response. He also permitted small contingents of Russian troops in Nicaragua for “exchange of experiences and training.” Venezuela and Cuba maintain similar dependence on Moscow for military and security assistance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is not content with aligning solely with these like-minded regimes in the region. He seeks to extend Russia’s influence to other Latin American countries and undermine America’s influence in the Western Hemisphere. He proudly hosted two leaders – Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro – soon before he ordered the re-invasion of Ukraine.

In Latin America, shortly before the invasion and even in the weeks afterward, it initially appeared that Moscow might be able to maintain influence in the region, as evidenced by the ill-conceived visits to Moscow by Fernandez and Bolsonaro. The outreach to those two leaders may have influenced their decisions, along with that of Mexico’s leader, not to join other democracies in imposing sanctions on the Putin regime.

In Mexico, MORENA, the party of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, launched a Mexico-Russia “Friendship Committee” in March, i.e., after Russia’s invasion; López Obrador declared, “Our posture is neutrality.”

In late April, all three countries abstained on a resolution in the Organization of American States (OAS) that suspended Russia as a permanent observer of the 34-country group; 25 countries voted to do so. In a later vote in early October, the OAS passed a Guatemala-led declaration calling for “the end of Russian aggression in Ukraine.”

Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina once again did not sign onto the declaration. Soon after, Brazil abstained from a U.N. Security Council vote condemning Russia’s annexation of occupied territories in Ukraine’s east.

At the same time, the picture was not all positive for Moscow. Most countries in Latin America – including Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico – voted to condemn the invasion in a March 24 vote before the United Nations General Assembly. No Latin American and Caribbean countries voted against the resolution, though four Latin American countries – Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and El Salvador – voted to abstain.

Another test came a few weeks later, when the General Assembly voted to expel Russia from its seat on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Nineteen countries from Latin America and the Caribbean voted in favor of expulsion; Cuba joined Bolivia and Nicaragua as the only countries in the region to oppose the resolution. Abstaining were 10 countries from the region: El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil (perhaps reflecting a benefit for Moscow from Bolsonaro’s February visit), as well as Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.

By the summer and fall, when the United Nations General Assembly met in September, the positions of Latin American countries toward Moscow hardened amid mounting evidence of Russian atrocities and war crimes in Ukraine. Brazilian Foreign Minister Carlos Alberto Franca criticized the Russian invasion, saying “The continuation of the hostilities endangers the lives of innocent civilians and jeopardizes the food and energy security of millions of families in other regions, especially in developing countries.” Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard was even harsher, declaring the invasion a “flagrant breach of international law.”

In a General Assembly vote to allow Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy to address the September gathering remotely, only Cuba and Nicaragua among Latin American countries opposed the invitation, joining a gallery of rogue regimes including Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria. And a UN General Assembly resolution October 12 supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories, won the votes of 143 countries; most Latin American countries voted in favor though Nicaragua opposed it while Bolivia and Cuba abstained.

Russia’s ability to extend its position, expand its influence, sell more arms, and prop up regimes in the Latin America has been compromised. Bolstering Russia’s physical presence in Latin America, whether through traditional or non-traditional actors, is unlikely for the foreseeable future. The botched invasion of Ukraine and the need to scramble to staunch the bleeding there — literally and figuratively — have exposed the limits on Russia’s power projection capabilities. That is bound to have an impact on Russia’s profile in Latin America.

Even Russian disinformation and propaganda in the region, which for years has promoted an anti-American narrative, might have to take a back seat to an all-hands-on-deck approach to the situation in Ukraine. RT en Español, headquartered in Chile with more than 3.5 million Twitter followers before the invasion, may be strapped for resources and more limited in its ability to win over Latin American audiences and sow doubts about America’s reliability as a partner, given that RT is struggling to win over audiences closer to home with its twisted propaganda. The sanctions and their effects on the Russian economy and revenue streams will make resourcing RT more challenging.

In short, Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine is affecting Russia’s position in Latin America. In light of the massive sanctions regime imposed on Putin and Russia, dealing and doing business with Russia are and will remain much more difficult than it was before. Russian firms sanctioned by the United States and other allies are essentially off limits for Latin American counterparts who would otherwise risk being hit with secondary sanctions, even if countries in the region have not adopted sanctions themselves against Russia.

The fact that Russia is bogged down in Ukraine means it is less likely to have the resources — political, economic, military, even human — to extend much further into Latin America. The temptation to stick it to the United States in what Moscow perceives as America’s sphere of influence will be considerable, but the ability to match that temptation with actual capabilities will be limited.

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