Russian Influence Grows In Latin America

The symbolic gesture of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ‘resetting’ relations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in March 2009 has been engrained in the minds of most people.

With the push of a button, all would be made right between the United States and the Russian Federation. Well, not exactly.

Russia’s forays into Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria are all well-documented. However, Russia is on the rise elsewhere and it’s not where you might think. Russian influence, under President Vladimir Putin, is growing in Latin America and it concerns the United States.

Daniel Wiser of the Washington Free Beacon suggests that Russia’s expansion into Latin America, including Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and, of course, Cuba, is due to President Obama’s negligence in the United States’ own backyard.

As the United States pulls economic, and military resources out of the Americas, Putin sees the chance to once again take advantage of American weakness abroad.

Putin has established strong relations with the nations of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), an intergovernmental organization established by former Venezuelan dictator, Hugo Chavez. The organization was created in opposition to the United States-backed Free Trade Area for the Americas, which has been seen by many Latin American and Caribbean countries as a form of American imperialism.

The Russians send large quantities of weapons to Bolivarian Alliance nations, as well as training their militaries and police forces, share intelligence, and have offered financial assistance to them. 

In fact, between 2008 and 2011, Russia has sold more than three thousand surface-to-air missiles to Latin American countries, Venezuela receiving the largest share -- no doubt to prevent United States operations against the socialist government of authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro.

Argentina’s former president, Cristina Kirchner, was one of the few world leaders to support Russia’s aggression in Crimea. Russia, in an apparently successful attempt to gain favor, has helped Argentina complete a third reactor as part of a nuclear power plant.

Putin has forgiven Cuba’s Soviet-era debt, and has performed naval drills with Venezuela and Nicaragua, and has negotiated arms deals with all three.

In Nicaragua, the Russians have established a counter-narcotics training center that some observers say could eventually rival the United States’ longstanding commitment to anti-drug operations in the region.

In an interview with Daniel Wiser, Jose Cardenas, a former George W. Bush administration official and assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said in an interview that:

On a geopolitical scale, the side obviously with the United States and its allies in NATO overwhelms whatever Putin can assemble on his side of the scale. It’s his attempt to pretend that Russia can project its operations into the Western Hemisphere—just like the United States can project its power into Central and Eastern Europe. There’s a lot of sizzle and very little steak. 

Cardenas also believes that Russia, not to mention Iran and China, sees a vacuum in Latin America to fill, brought on by the disengagement of the United States in the region.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), a Cuban-American Congresswoman and former Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also expressed concerns about Putin’s actions. She has stated that:

During his trip, Putin met with the Castro brothers, the worst human rights violators in our hemisphere, and forgave some of Cuba’s debt, signed a nuclear agreement with Argentina, and reaffirmed economic cooperation with Nicaragua. Russia continues to undermine our foreign policy objectives throughout the world and its presence in our own hemisphere can destabilize the region and is meant to thumb its nose at the United States.  

According to Dr. R. Evan Ellis, a research professor of Latin American Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, Russia has sold nearly $14.5 billion worth of weapons to the region between 2001 and 2013, about $11 billion of which went to Venezuela. Large quantities also went to Peru and Brazil.

It is arguably Russia whose activities in the region most openly challenge U.S. national security. In addition to seeking access to ports and airfields, Russian leaders have also expressed interest in military aircraft patrols in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, reopening the Russian Signals Intelligence collection facility at Lourdes, Cuba, and providing “security” for the transoceanic canal that possibly may be constructed across Nicaragua.

Make no mistake, Putin is projecting Russian power abroad, not for the furthering of democratic principles, or to simply assist other nations as a moral endeavor. Instead the Russians see an opening to exploit for their national interests. 

Russia furnishes vast amounts of weapons, intelligence, financial and technological assistance, not to mention providing non-aligned Latin America countries with a voice on the U.N. Security Council, in exchange for having access to ports and airfields in the region. This relationship, like in Africa, gives Russia support in international agreements or conflicts. 

Of the eleven countries that voted against the United Nations’ resolution condemning the Crimea referendum after Russia invaded the peninsula, four were in Latin America: Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. In addition to those states, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Ecuador publicly abstained from voting.

There is no question that the United States military is concerned about the Russian military maneuvers in the region, as well as other operations and the flow of resources into the region from Russia.

Retired Marine Corp General John Kelly, former commander of United States Southern Command, sees a benefit to Russian involvement in the region, but worries that the Russian military activity in the region will eventually be an issue with regards to American hegemony.

The general has stated:

While Russian counterdrug cooperation could potentially contribute to regional security, the sudden increase in its military outreach merits closer attention, as Russia’s motives are unclear.

Since President Obama has taken office, there has been a precipitous decline in American power and influence around the world. However, it is most concerning in the Western Hemisphere.

The Western Hemisphere has witnessed European influence in varying forms for centuries. Since 1823, when Secretary of State John Quincy Adams crafted the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has experienced mixed success in curtailing foreign influence in the Americas. 

The United States finds itself in an era where failing to project strength in the Americas will cost it in influence that we can ill afford.

However, the time of American timidity must come to an end, and we have the chance to plot a new course for our foreign policy and our nation.

The United States is the hegemon of the West, not to mention the world. We better start acting like it again.