Russia’s war against Ukraine has diverted observers’ attention away from its policies in Latin America. While the blockade of the Black Sea and ensuing weaponization of both Russian and Ukrainian exports has triggered significant attention to, in and around great-power rivalries in Africa, nothing of the sort has taken place regarding Latin America. However, this should not lead observers to think that Russia has pulled back or diminished its activities here. Indeed, Russia has continued to enhance its ties with many states on the continent—including Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela—while probing for openings elsewhere throughout Latin America.
Furthermore, Latin American policy apparently enjoys high-level protection in Moscow. According to Igor Sechin, the most likely “curator” of Russian policy in Latin America, Putin “directly and personally supervises everything related to bilateral policy” in relations with Cuba (Translatingcuba.com, March 6). And this style of supervision is unlikely to stop with Cuba. Once the war in Ukraine began, Moscow vastly stepped up its already robust and continent-wide information warfare against the United States (Dialogo-americas.com, February 18, 2022; DW, April 13, 2022). Moreover, this information campaign is connected to direct Russian attempts to intervene in the 2022 presidential elections in Colombia, a US ally in the region (Infobae.com, March 28). This approach clearly sought to sway votes for then-candidate Gustavo Petro (Latinoamerica21.com, January 23). At the same time, the Mexican newspaper El Universal has released reports on cyber hacks against Latin American security services that reveal connections between Russia and local criminal actors (El Universal, October 4, 2022). Indeed, Russian radars have shown up on Colombia’s border with Venezuela (Archdye, February 27, 2022), and Russian forces and contractors have been reported in the area (La Patilla, February 22, 2022). In yet another case, a Russian national connected to the Mexican Special Forces trained and provided weapons for a self-defense force in the southern state of Guerrero.
Meanwhile, disturbing signs are emerging that Latin American dictators are using Russian help and models to consolidate their domestic rule. In Venezuela, the government of Nicolás Maduro has expanded military and intelligence cooperation with Russia, so much so that mercenary forces from the notorious Wagner Group are now being deployed in Venezuela (Riddle Russia, January 9). Furthermore, Maduro’s regime has also increased signals intelligence and cyber cooperation against the internal opposition, foreign nongovernmental organizations and Colombia. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Foreign Minister Eduardo Gil Pinto, in March 2023, told Lebanese television station Mayadeen that Venezuela cooperates closely with both Russia and Iran (Memri.org, March 2). Most recently, Russian and Venezuelan officials came to an agreement to establish “a direct maritime corridor” between the two countries “as soon as possible” to facilitate trade and further deepen relations (Sputnik Mundo, April 7).
In Nicaragua, the Daniel Ortega regime, with Russian assistance, is building a comprehensive dictatorship (Havana Times, February 7). Moscow plays an active role in Managua’s cyber intelligence, and Colonel Oleg Surov, who reports directly to the Kremlin, is setting up a cadre of pro-Russian intelligence officers who will be able to operate throughout Latin America and as a domestic police force. Russia has 250 troops in the country, and Nicaragua actively maintains a Glonass telecommunications satellite, thus integrating itself into Moscow’s cyber network structures (Havana Times, February 7). In addition, the regime now uses Russia’s SORM (System for Operative Intelligence Activities) network for domestic surveillance (Confidencial, February 16).
Finally, in Cuba, the current regime, permanently afflicted by subpar economic performances imposed by the Castro brothers’ socialist policies, yet no longer bound to their legacy, has instead opted for the Castros’ other pillar of their rule: emulation of Russia. Members of the Cuban elite have met with the Russian elite to discuss founding a center to prepare “economic changes” in Cuba based on the development of private enterprise (Havana Times, January 28). This hardly means that Havana will renounce its political power, quite the opposite. Instead, it will attempt to emulate Putin’s Russia all the more. Therefore, the creation of a center for economic transformation and Cuba’s apparent decision to launch economic reforms under Russian auspices will, according to the independent outlet Cuba Siglo 21, result in a “Russian mafioso market” under Muscovite hegemony.
Thus, Russia is unceasing in its efforts to set Latin America ablaze, by inciting conflict and waging an unrelenting information war to undermine Washington’s friends and position on the continent. In truth, Moscow may carry out moves in the region similar to what occurred in 2008 and 2014 in reaction to US opposition to Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Crimea. Yet, at the same time, Russia’s domination of domestic and intelligence developments inside its allies or client states—including Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua—seems to be growing. Apart from the past record of Russian efforts to expand influence, leverage and strategic presence in Latin America, Moscow’s current activities reflect the continuing disposition to use all the tools of its trade—economic, military, cyber and diplomatic capabilities—to achieve results and integrate its Latin American policies into the overall new priority of concentrating on the Global South (i.e. Africa, Asia and Latin America) (see EDM, January 6).
Indeed, the Kremlin’s policies in Latin America demonstrate that the war against Ukraine is only part of a larger and primarily non-kinetic, but no less serious, war against the West. And given recent developments, that war is nowhere near its end.
By the Jamestown Foundation
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