Old loyalties die hard

Latin America’s Ukraine reaction exposes sharp regional divisions.

Latin America’s reaction to the Ukraine crisis has been broadly split into two camps. Russia’s closest allies in the region – Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba – have been broadly supportive of Moscow. On the other hand, US-allied states such as Colombia have proffered strong condemnation whilst Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia have given more tepid responses.

A pentagon adviser and Army War College professor explained, “Venezuela is the one to watch as the crisis develops. There is no question that Russia’s influence in the country has grown markedly in recent years, writing off debt, supply arms and making strategic investments in the oil industry. The role of Moscow has morphed from one of partner to adviser. Similar, though scaled down relations, exist with Cuba and Nicaragua and to a lesser degree, Bolivia.”

“Venezuela is the one to watch as the crisis develops. There is no question that Russia’s influence in the country has grown markedly in recent years.”

Pentagon adviser and Army War College professor

The leaders of these countries have close personal ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin which has helped to dull what might otherwise sharper condemnation of his geopolitical leanings. In return, Moscow has provided not just physical assets and capital flows from its state entities but has also used its influence at the UN – Russia is a UN Security Council member – to provide diplomatic cover for the region’s autocrats. “Putin’s main interest in its incursion in Latin America is to counteract NATO’s advance to the East,” explained the professor.

In January, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, threatened to send troops to Cuba and Venezuela. True Russia’s economic interests in the region pale in comparison to those of China but it has successfully carved a niche for itself in the realm of military sales, oil production and nuclear energy.

The response to the Russia-Ukraine crisis from governments across the region has exposed sharp divisions. This reflects both the region’s diverse approach to geopolitics as well as the personal and political motivations of its political class. On the UN General Assembly resolution demanding that Russia end its military operations in Ukraine, Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Bolivia abstained.

The response from the region’s larger diplomatic powers has been more condemnatory but still tepid. Brazil which, along with Mexico, is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and Argentina chose not to endorse a statement published by the Organisation of American States on 25 February condemning Russia’s actions. It is little coincidence that both Argentine President Alberto Fernández and Brazil‘s President Jair Bolsonaro visited Vladimir Putin in the weeks before the crisis – both have declined to directly criticise Russia’s leader.

“[Latin American] administrations will play the long game and be guided by political and economic opportunism in their response to it.”

Brazilian academic and adviser to China’s communist party

A Brazilian academic and adviser close to China’s communist party explained, “Latin American foreign policy mandarins know that Ukraine is not Estonia or Latvia. Ukraine is too big and significant for Russia to have ignored – regional administrations will play the long game and be guided by political and economic opportunism in their response to it.”

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