On what appears to be a hurriedly organized tour of Latin America, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is using growing relationships in the region to demonstrate that Russia has allies around the world, even as the West pressures Moscow over the crisis in Ukraine.
At his first stop in Havana, Cuba, Lavrov decried the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich as a Western-backed coup. He also promised to reinvest into Cuba the remaining 10 percent of Havana's debt to Russia that Moscow did not forgive in December 2013. In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega made statements in opposition to Western sanctions against Moscow — comments echoed by Peruvian officials in the lead-up to Lavrov's visit there.
As Lavrov travels on from Nicaragua to Peru and Chile, he will push for concrete steps to build bilateral negotiations, including sales of military equipment. But for Moscow, Lavrov's trip to Latin America primarily serves as an opportunity to demonstrate positive ties with countries in the immediate U.S. sphere of influence at a time when Russia is under a great deal of international pressure.
Russia's involvement in Latin America has been growing over the past several years, alongside that of China. Unlike China's involvement, which is primarily based in commercial trade, Russia's interactions in the region have centered on military deals — they are more strategic in nature. Mirroring the Soviet Union's involvement in the region during the Cold War, Russia uses Latin American relationships to put diplomatic and strategic pressure on the United States.
Russia is by no means in the same position as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. Moscow cannot, for instance, afford to subsidize economies like Cuba's in the interest of securing a strategic ally. Russia has nevertheless found allies among Latin American countries with an interest in cultivating relationships with a U.S. rival, including Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia.
Russia's relationships in the region are not limited to those countries sitting on the left side of the Latin American political spectrum. Russia is negotiating with many Latin American countries, primarily in the defense industry, selling military helicopters to Peru, civilian aircraft and military armaments to Chile and Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missiles to Brazil. Russia's defense industry is not the only one looking for clients in the region. Latin America's militaries have been systematically re-equipping their militaries after two decades of underinvestment, making Latin America one of the only regions that is aggressively pursuing arms purchases, and European, U.S. and Chinese firms are all actively angling to secure defense sales in the region.
Lavrov Visits in Latin America
Lavrov's choice of countries, and the public statements that are part of his sweeping push to engage the region this week, indicate that one of the goals of the trip is to secure a deal with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (known by its Spanish acronym, CELAC) on visa-free travel. The idea for a Latin American visa-free regime was first floated in mid-2013 at a meeting between Russia and CELAC, and it remains a priority for Russia. Such a deal would be a diplomatic and symbolic victory for Moscow in light of the European Union's recent refusal of a visa-free travel agreement and persistent disagreements between several Latin American countries and the United States over high U.S. barriers to entry.
It would also represent a unique diplomatic victory in the Latin American context. CELAC was formed in 2011 as part of an effort spearheaded by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The group's express intention was to provide an alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States and to exclude the United States from the regional grouping. CELAC is unique among Latin America's many intergovernmental organizations because all Latin American countries are members. Given its wide representation, its ability to decide on meaningful policy is relatively limited since competing interests complicate the pursuit of agreements. Russia, however, has already established bilateral visa-free travel agreements with Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela, making an extension of the agreement to the rest of the region perhaps more feasible. Furthermore, should Russia successfully convince all Latin American countries to agree — even on such a small issue — it would demonstrate Russia's increasing regional influence.
The last-minute organization of Lavrov's trip indicates that it is likely an effort to secure a diplomatic win while undermining the interests of the United States in its near abroad. The trip was not announced in advance, and details, including the itinerary, have emerged gradually over the past several days. This makes it seem like the trip was planned at the last minute and lends a sense of urgency to Lavrov's visit.
From a strategic perspective, the key question ahead is whether and how much Russia is able to use its influence in Latin America to counter the United States. By supporting CELAC, Russia is lending its credibility to the group's original mission as articulated by Chavez. The fact is, however, that Russia remains heavily focused on its immediate periphery. Moscow must consolidate its influence there before it can exert real influence halfway across the world.