According to the Spanish think tank, Real Instituto Elcano, Russia’s interests in Latin America are growing as it seeks to build influence – if only to disrupt US leverage of regional state governments and events.
Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently sees the polarised political landscape across the region as a window to destabilise and confront US power and its push for a multilateral agenda under US President Joe Biden.
According to a senior Venezuelan business executive, now living in New York, “Russia’s approach is more political than economic. Its priority is to strengthen alliances with governments that are willing to maintain an independent or even challenging attitude towards the US. Military cooperation is high on Russia’s agenda, not only for arms sales, but also for the recruitment of important military figures from those countries under the influence and protection of Russia. For example, some sources say that the Minister of Defence of Venezuela, General in Chief Vladimir Padrino López, has become ‘Moscow’s man’ in Caracas.”
“Russia’s approach is more political than economic. Its priority is to strengthen alliances with governments that are willing to maintain an independent or even challenging attitude towards the US.”
Senior Venezuelan business executive, New York
However, Russia’s precarious economic situation severely constrains its room for manoeuvre in Latin America. President Putin is aware of Russia’s limitations in the region and has promoted a soft ‘virtual’ power strategy with organised online disinformation campaigns to push forward Russia’s interests and promote bilateral cooperation, mainly with Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru to secure support in international forums to block Western interests.
Russia’s limited economic engagement with Latin America has been mostly focused on supporting Venezuela’s Boliviarian regime, both during Hugo Chávez’s presidency and currently with President Nicolás Maduro in power. Russia has financed USD 3.15 billion of Venezuela’s foreign debt while the Russian state-owned energy company Rosneft acquired a 49% stake in the Citgo refinery, a US-based Venezuelan state-owned refinery, to add financial muscle to the country’s oil sector. However, Russia’s stance in Venezuela is purely pragmatic and Moscow will not endanger its economic performance for the sake of regime-stability in Venezuela.
Russia and China pursue parallel strategies in military and energy cooperation in Latin America but both countries perceive each other as competitors in the international arena and, thus, opportunities for co-operation are limited by their lack of mutual trust.
According to the head of an important political studies institute in Venezuela, “There is no coordination between Russia and China in Venezuela or elsewhere in Latin America. They have different and independent strategies. Russia’s is focused on identifying and consolidating specific political allies willing to challenge the United States, while China’s strategy encompasses the entire continent, without asking for an alignment against the United States in return.”
“There is no coordination between Russia and China in Venezuela or elsewhere in Latin America.”
Head, political studies institute, Venezuela
In contrast to Russia’s approach, China’s interests in Latin America are primarily economic with little or no political partnerships in the region. In 2020, China amounted for 15% of Latin American total foreign trade while Russia stood at below 1%. Beijing aims to expand its own infrastructure and networks to advance its interests in the region and there is no evidence to suggest that they are willing to share with competitors, like Russia.