As a native Costa Rican and Professor of political science, Constantino Urcuyo Fournier has a unique perspective into Russia’s increasing involvement in Latin America. As opposed to China’s growing economic activity in the region, Urcuyo Fournier says Russia is building strategic relationships to irritate the U.S., but he warns the U.S. government against reacting too drastically to Russia’s presence there.
The Cipher Brief: Russia has been growing its presence in Latin America since about 2005. Where is Russia most active in Latin America? Would you characterize this activity as mostly commercial or security-related?
Constantino Urcuyo Fournier: Russia has been very active in the Caribbean Region, especially in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. At the same time, Moscow has strong relations with Brazil and also with Argentina.
Brazil is a strategic partner because of its BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) affiliation. Argentina has mostly been a political relationship, but that relationship is going to change now that the new center right president, Mauricio Macri, took office in December.
Russia’s Caribbean presence seems to be more security oriented, but not in the sense of creating a direct and immediate threat to the U.S. This presence has more to do with power projection and creating irritations in response to the U.S. presence in the Russian neighborhood, such as in Ukraine and Georgia.
The levels of commercial exchange between Russia and Latin America are low and much more security related than business related. The Russian presence, however, is asymmetric according to the region (South America versus the Caribbean), and so Russian security and commercial activity differs accordingly.
TCB: How would you assess the Russia-ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) partnership? How might this affect or destabilize the balance of power in Latin America?
CUF: When comparing Russia’s relationship with different Latin American countries, it is probably strongest with the ALBA nations due to historical ties dating back to the Cold War and, in some cases, shared ideology. Again, Russia’s relationships with Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua—all ALBA members—are the strongest.
These growing relationships, however, will not change the balance of power in Latin America in the short term. The one exception may be Venezuela. In general, Russia does not have the economic means to go further with its policies in Latin America. Russia has made many security commitments and commercial deals to these countries, but with its own weakening economy and ruble, they will likely fall through. Meanwhile, Putin will try to take advantage of the ideological contradictions between these countries and the U.S., but the core of ALBA is Venezuela, which is weakened at this time because of internal politics and low oil prices. Russia does not have the means to prop this back up.
TCB: How are Latin American countries benefiting from the increased Russian presence? Overall, would you characterize this increased Russian involvement as a net positive or negative for Latin America?
CUF: It is not black and white. From the point of view of military cooperation and strategic confrontation, Russia’s involvement is negative. Russia contributes to changing internal dimensions and influences Latin American internal conflicts by framing them in the context of superpower confrontations (i.e. Russia’s friends versus the United States’ friends).
There are aspects of technical cooperation, however, that could be seen positively. One such example is electricity generation. In fact, Russian-produced turbines account for one quarter of the total power generation in Argentina.
TCB: What does Russia gain from its increased involvement in Latin America?
CUF: Russia’s gains are threefold, but related. First, is power projection. Russia’s increased involvement in Latin America gives the idea that Russia is back in the superpowers club in the international arena. Remember the power politics that took place in Latin America during the Cold War.
Second refers to domestic support. Putin is garnering domestic support by trying to show Russians that the humiliation of a lost empire is a matter of the past. Building stronger relations in Latin America builds Russian nationalism.
And third is showing to the U.S. that Russia can create problems, even if only small ones, in the U.S. area of influence. In this sense, Russian activity in Latin America is retaliatory.
TCB: What is the general Latin American impression of Russia compared to that of China and the U.S.? How should the U.S. react to this Russian growth?
CUF: Whereas Russia involvement in Latin America is mostly security-related, China is interested in trade. Of course China also wants to show that it is a global power, but it is building commercial relations now and politically playing the long game.
The U.S. reaction should be according to the nature of the threat. Thus far, Russia has not created enough of a threat to challenge the U.S., and so the U.S. should not react drastically. That being said, the U.S. should draw a clear line showing where Russian military activities are unacceptable and have gone too far before it is too late.