Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
Overshadowed by recent events in Ukraine and the Middle East, Russia has been increasing its economic and military presence in the Western Hemisphere in recent months. Likely in response to America’s expanded presence in Eastern Europe – particularly in Poland and the Baltic States – Russia has been deepening relations with both old and new partners. Politically, economically, and militarily, it is likely that Moscow will continue to spread its influence in Latin America.
Putin’s Latin America Tour
In summer 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated a series of diplomatic visits to countries in Latin America. Starting with Cuba, Putin finalized a new agreement on oil exploration in the Caribbean Sea which (will be managed by the state-owned Rosneft company). Russia also signed off 90 percent of Cuba’s $32 billion Soviet-era debt in order to “…provide support to our Cuban friends to overcome the illegal blockade of Cuba.”
Putin proceeded to make an unscheduled stop in Nicaragua where he met President Daniel Ortega. Ortega described Putin’s visit as a “Ray of Light.” In a phone interview with The Moscow Times, Ortega explained his geopolitical worldview: "Russia wants to counterbalance the U.S., but it wants to do so together with China and other BRICS countries. Russia positions itself as a separate pole of power, but not as a single alternative.”
The Russian President then visited Argentina where he and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner signed a peaceful nuclear power deal. Increased Russian investment and trade in Argentine oil and minerals was also discussed.
This was followed by Putin’s attendance of the BRICS Summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, which officially established the BRICS bank with a starting pool of $100 billion. The Russian President took the occasion to attend the 2014 World Cup, where he sat next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and later congratulated her on her nation’s victory.
Russia has been expanding trade relations with various Latin American countries as a result of ongoing Western sanctions. An increase of imports from Brazil and Uruguay has already been agreed to and Russian officials are confident that these will develop into other long-term relationships. Russian energy giant Gazprom has also signed extensive deals in Brazil and Bolivia. The aforementioned developments in Cuba are part of this strategy and additions to existing trade relationships.
Moscow’s vision of a multi-polar world includes central roles for both Russia and Brazil. Consequently, economic relations between the two will become increasingly important in the coming decades. It is highly likely that further agreements will be made as a result of this strategic thinking.
Also important for Moscow are their military relationships in Latin America. New bases in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua have already caught the attention of U.S. officials. It is likely however that this is part of a larger Russian strategy to increase their military presence worldwide to prevent isolation attempts on behalf of Western powers. New cooperation efforts with Vietnam, the Seychelles, and Singapore are being pursued concurrently with efforts in Latin America, reflecting such a strategy.
Likely Moves and Countermoves
It is likely that Russia will continue to deepen military cooperation with Latin American countries so long as the United States does the same along Russia’s borders. Furthermore, it is highly likely that Russia will strengthen economic cooperation in the South America in order to counter Western sanctions. This trend will continue regardless of Western pressure, especially as the region’s economies and emerging markets continue to grow.
Brazil in particular has emerged as a regional power, forging extensive relations with China, India, and sub-Saharan Africa. Brazil has engaged Africa to such an extent than some have even labeled her the ‘New China.’ Russia will therefore find in Brazil a profitable business partner and likely seek to expand Russian influence in the region.