Russia in Latin America: A Challenge to the U.S.

Michael Sulick
Former Director, CIA National Clandestine Service

With global attention focused on Russia’s role in the Syria quagmire, the media is barely covering Vladimir Putin’s aggressive maneuvers in Ukraine, let alone his foreign policy in America’s own backyard—Latin America.

Since Putin came to power, he has attempted to restore Russia’s superpower status around the world, especially in Latin America, a region that provides him an ideal venue to counter the United States.  Russian foreign policy has traditionally relied on symmetrical responses to perceived attacks against the nation’s interests. After U.S. condemnation of Russia’s role in the Georgia crisis of 2008 and, more recently, in Ukraine, Putin significantly increased Russian engagement in Latin America. The symmetry was perfect: if the U.S. interferes in Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin would challenge the U.S. in its own backyard.

Latin America provides fertile ground for Putin’s ambitions because a number of countries are either Cold War allies, like Cuba and Nicaragua, or are now run by populist governments that share Russian animosity to the U.S., among them are Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia. More importantly, those countries are keenly interested in the two most powerful instruments Putin uses to expand Russian influence around the world: military cooperation, especially arms sales, and energy.

In the arms arena, Russia has sold advanced weapons systems and aircraft to Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and Peru, whose arms supply relationships date back to the Soviet era. Venezuela, the primary buyer of Russian equipment in the hemisphere, has spent over $11 billion on arms in the past decade. Putin’s regime, angered over U.S. sanctions, has threatened to escalate this military cooperation beyond arms sales. During a February trip to Latin America, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu urged Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua to provide ports for maintenance and resupply of warships, and airbases to refuel strategic bombers. This potential projection of Russian military power is intended as a symmetrical response to U.S. and NATO plans for expanding their presence in Eastern Europe.

Despite these aggressive moves, Russia may soon face difficult challenges due to the changing political landscape in the region. The populist policies of Putin’s Latin American partners have ruined their economies and sparked a reversal of the so-called “pink tide” that swept leftist candidates into office.

One of the most noteworthy reversals was the recent election of center-right candidate Mauricio Macri to the Argentine presidency, a rejection of the autocratic populism of the Kirchner regime that has already begun to reverberate throughout the region. In this month’s midterm elections, the opposition in Venezuela trounced the ruling socialist party of Hugo Chavez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro. In Brazil, the approval rating of President Dina Rousseff has plummeted to ten percent, her government is beset by corruption scandals, and she now faces impeachment proceedings. Cuba will certainly remain a close ally of Russia, but the relationship will be somewhat tempered—the Castro regime, after all, wants to gain potential benefits from its normalized relations with the U.S.

All of these developments could augur a setback to Putin’s plans in Latin America. Macri has already claimed he will ‘rebalance’ Argentine relations away from Russia and Iran, and towards the U.S., Europe, and more pro-U.S. regimes in Latin America.  Energy, however, may offer Putin a means to solidify his gains in the region. The Putin regime has effectively used this trump card in Europe to maintain its domination in the market despite EU attempts to diversify oil and gas supplies. State-owned energy companies, especially the two conglomerates Gazprom and Rosneft, have built an extensive pipeline and purchased refineries, power plants, and gas distribution networks to gradually acquire control of as much energy infrastructure on the continent as possible, thus ensuring Russia’s continued influence in the market.

Russia has employed the same tactic in Latin America, a region with rich, yet untapped energy resources. In addition to nuclear energy deals, Russian companies have signed exploration and development agreements regarding large shale deposits in Argentina; oilfields and a possible trans-South American pipeline in Venezuela; and deposits in Brazil’s Amazon River Basin and offshore of Cuba. Even if leaders more sympathetic to the U.S. eventually replace Putin’s allies, the new governments will still confront shattered economies and will sorely need foreign investment. As a result, they will have a difficult time rejecting energy cooperation with a Russian regime that has already established a foothold in the region’s energy sphere.

Most of these agreements are still in a nascent stage, and Russia’s ability to finance Latin American energy projects remain limited due to Western sanctions and low fuel prices. Although the U.S. government reduced its own involvement in the region given crises in other areas, now is the time to re-engage and urge U.S. energy companies to expand their presence to counter Russia’s heightened influence in our backyard. 

The Author is Michael Sulick

Michael Sulick was the director of CIA's National Clandestine Service and is currently a senior partner at Threat Pattern, an intelligence and security company that assists corporations in countering insider threats. While at the CIA, he was also Chief of Counterintelligence and Chief of the Central Eurasia Division where he was responsible for intelligence collection operations and foreign liaison relationships in Russia, Eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union. He has... Read More

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