RIO DE JANEIRO – Amid his brinkmanship over neighboring Ukraine in recent weeks, President Vladimir Putin has also been busy trying to extend Russia’s influence thousands of miles away: in Latin America.
Talk to Daniel Ortega, The strong president of NicaraguaFor the first time since 2014. He also called the leaders of Venezuela and Cuba. The President of Argentina, Alberto Fernandez, who Pledge during the Kremlin visit To reduce his country’s dependence on the United States.
On Wednesday – the same day US officials said it could be the start of a Russian invasion – Mr. Putin is scheduled to meet with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is traveling to Moscow despite repeated pleas from US officials in recent weeks to delay his trip as the West seeks to pressure Putin over Ukraine.
The outburst of personal diplomacy that Mr. Putin directed at Latin America during his tenure in high stakes often draws on relationships dating back to the Cold War and highlights the global nature of his ambitions: exerting influence even over distant regions. It ramps up engagement and builds relationships with an expanding swath of the Western Hemisphere — including countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, that have traditionally been close to Washington.
The intense outreach came as Mr. Putin threatened to take unspecified “military-technical measures” if he did not get the security guarantees for Eastern Europe he demands from the United States and NATO. Kremlin officials have dropped hints that such measures May include military deployments in the Western Hemisphere, prompting analysts and state-controlled media to indulge in frenzied speculation that the moves might include bold steps, which Russian officials do not rule out, such as deploying nuclear missiles to friendly countries in Latin America.
As usual, it is difficult to read Putin’s true intentions. His outreach to Latin America may be a trick, or a way to complicate the West’s response to his threat to invade Ukraine. At the same time, Latin American leaders have their own political agendas, and may be using Mr. Putin to gain influence with the United States, which, along with China, continues to enjoy much greater influence in the region in general.
But recent Latin American diplomacy is a reminder that for Putin the broader goal is paramount in his foreign policy: to restore Russia to the status of a superpower capable of challenging the United States.
“Vladimir Putin views Latin America as still an important region for the United States,” said Vladimir Rovinsky, a professor at Isisi University in Cali, Colombia, who studies Russia’s relationship with Latin America. “So this is reciprocity for what is happening in Ukraine.”
Mr. Putin’s flirtation with Latin America has been years in the making. He was able to take advantage of relations dating back to the Soviet era, domestic resentment against the United States and the whims of certain leaders. During the pandemic, when rich countries stockpiled Covid-19 vaccines, the Kremlin got another chance: in at least five Latin American countries – Argentina, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Paraguay – the Russian Sputnik V vaccine was the first to arrive.
Understand Russia’s relationship with the West
Tensions are rising between the two regions, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and assert his demands.
“I was there, while the rest of the world wasn’t,” Mr. Fernandez told Putin at the Kremlin last month.
In a written response to questions, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Latin America “was and remains for us a region of good political intentions, economic opportunities, cultural affinity and a similar mentality.”
The ministry said that “Russia has never participated in the colonization of the region, in the exploitation of the peoples inhabiting it, or in any conflicts, wars or other uses of force.”
Despite Russia’s efforts, the United States and China have much greater economic ties to the region. In 2019, for example, South America exported $5 billion to Russia, compared to $66 billion to the United States and $119 billion to China, according to data compiled by Harvard University.
China’s influence has grown, in particular, thanks to its financing of tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects across Latin America, from Elevated metro in Colombia To the space station in argentina. This economic leverage has put its diplomatic power in the region on par with the United States.
Russia’s specialty in the region was political support for countries that had become isolated on the world stage. Mr. Putin has been the diplomatic lifeline for the authoritarian leaders of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. And for Mr. Bolsonaro of Brazil, who has been highly critical of China and questioned President Biden’s electoral victory, Putin made a call when it seemed that many other countries would not.
During Mr. Trump’s presidency, the United States and Brazil have been as close as they have been for decades. But when President Biden arrived at the White House, he did not communicate with Mr. Bolsonaro, who publicly questioned whether Biden had won the 2020 election and was makes his own efforts To undermine the next Brazilian vote.
Eventually, Mr. Bolsonaro began asking US officials for an invitation to Washington or at least a phone call from the new president, according to two senior US officials who insisted on anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly. Officials said Bolsonaro warned that if he did not hear from President Biden, he would seek a summit with another world power.
Putin at the time was making more and more intense openings to Mr. Bolsonaro. US officials said the two presidents discussed possible expansion of trade and agreements on science and security.
Then, in December, with no phone call from Mr. Biden and rising tensions in Eastern Europe, Mr. Bolsonaro accepted Mr. Putin’s invitation to Moscow. The White House was not happy. Senior US officials twice contacted Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration to express concern that it was a bad time to travel to Moscow given the ongoing negotiations over Ukraine.
When asked recently about the lack of contact between Mr. Biden and Mr. Bolsonaro, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, Referring to conversations Between Foreign Minister Anthony Blinken and his Brazilian counterpart, he stressed “the need for a strong united response against further Russian aggression against Ukraine”.
Mr. Bolsonaro told the Brazilian press that the Russian summit is important to his administration and that It will not bring Ukraine. His government said in a statement that given the relationship between Brazil and Russia, the continuation of the dialogue was “more than expected – it is necessary”.
However, Bolsonaro faced heavy criticism over the trip, including from some allies.
“I think this is wrong in many ways,” said Ernesto Araujo, Bolsonaro’s foreign minister until last year. “In other circumstances, it is okay. But with the looming crisis, it is not so.”
The most exciting step that Putin could take is to provide military support or deploy weapons in the region. When asked in mid-January about the possibility of Russia placing military infrastructure in Venezuela or Cuba, the Russian deputy foreign minister said he would not rule out anything. Within days, Mr. Putin held calls with the leaders of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua – and the Kremlin said the talks confirmed the two countries’ “strategic partnership” with Russia.
The State Department dismissed talk of possible Russian deployments, calling it a “threat”.
“If we see any movement in that direction, we will respond quickly and decisively,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
Latin American analysts suspect Mr. Putin will deploy weapons in the region, in part because doing so could destroy much of the goodwill Russia has worked to create across Latin America.
Nevertheless, Russia has been instrumental in arming its closest allies in Latin America. Russia sold weapons and tanks to Cuba and Nicaragua, and aircraft and anti-missile systems to Venezuela. It also conducted bilateral military exercises with Venezuela.
US officials believe Russia is helping the Venezuelan military, in addition to using it for intelligence operations and money laundering, according to a senior US official.
The United States is also concerned about Russian efforts to intervene Colombia election in May, Perhaps to help the left-wing frontrunner, who could be a friendlier negotiating partner to Putin than the current right-wing administration. US officials have previously noted Russian influence operations online Trying to sow turmoil in South America.
But analysts said the most important benefit to Russia from Latin America would likely be diplomatic support in the near term.
Earlier this month, the president of Argentina, Mr. Fernandez, visited Moscow and China on a tour aimed in part at looking for new donors. Argentina owes the International Monetary Fund more than $40 billion, and is cut off from international capital markets. Prior to his visit, Mr. Fernandez gave an exclusive interview to the Spanish-language arm of RT, the Kremlin-funded television network that now reaches around 20 million viewers in Latin America weekly.
“I am determined that Argentina must stop relying on the Fund and the United States,” Mr. Fernandez told Mr. Putin. “This is where Russia seems to me to be a very important place.”
Jacques Nicas reported from Rio de Janeiro, and Anton Troyanovsky from Moscow. Michael Crowley, Flavia Mellorence, Danielle Politi, Essien Herrera and Jubilca Mendoza contributed to the report.
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