Putin Is Still ¡Muy Popular!

The Russian president's tour of Latin America shows that the leftist south still has love for Russia -- and the BRICS are willing to play ball.

Photo by EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin’s six-day Latin American tour this past week reveals that, in the face of tougher economic sanctions by the United States and perhaps the European Union over the Ukraine crisis, the Russian president will not be quiescent. Anticipating an intensifying showdown on Ukraine, Putin took advantage of a meeting of the BRICS countries in Brazil to pursue a diplomatic initiative and call on political support in Cuba, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Brazil.

Latin America, generally — and this set of four countries, for different reasons — offers hospitable terrain for Putin’s aims. Although all these governments prize sovereignty and nonintervention when it comes to dealing with the United States, none is prepared to strongly condemn Moscow for its aggressive behavior toward Ukraine.

Whatever their ideological stripe, the governments of Latin America have to weigh the continued reservoir of goodwill for Russia, dating back to the Cold War, among sectors of the left. At the same time, however, with few exceptions they are loath to extend the degree of solidarity Putin seeks and instead prefer to remain on the sidelines. Posturing aside, most do not want to risk economic and political relationships with the United States and Europe over Moscow’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis.

What most unites all of the Latin American left — in fact, virtually the only issue that brings together the whole region, across the political spectrum — is the fierce opposition to the long-standing U.S. embargo against Cuba, the country that Putin shrewdly made the first stop on his trip. For many Latin Americans, sanctions are associated with what they view as Washington’s anachronistic and counterproductive policy toward Cuba. (The sanctions being considered in the U.S. Congress against the Venezuelan government for human rights abuses similarly arouse anti-American sentiment across the region.)

Putin used his Havana visit to announce the decision to forgive roughly 90 percent of the debt Cuba incurred during the Soviet era, or about $32 billion. Reports that Russia had, in exchange, decided to reopen a surveillance post in Lourdes, Cuba, that had been used to spy on the United States were denied by Putin, who claimed that Russia can "meet its defense needs without this component." Putin, in his meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro (Putin also met with Fidel), discussed offshore energy exploration (just a few dozen miles from the U.S. coast) as well as projects to modernize the maritime port of Mariel and create a "grand transportation hub."

The geopolitical narrative of the Cuba visit, like that of the rest of Putin’s tour, was unmistakable. Much of it had to do with Russia trying to flex its muscles and project power in an arena traditionally regarded as the strategic prerogative (often called, pejoratively for Latin Americans, the "backyard") of the United States. The not-so-subtle message of the trip: Despite U.S. and EU sanctions, Putin is determined to counter any attempt to isolate him. But in Havana, it was far from clear that the lofty promises of higher levels of economic engagement between Russia and Cuba will materialize.

Putin’s geopolitical swing in Latin America continued with a surprise visit to Nicaragua. As President Daniel Ortega — Washington’s bête noire since the 1979 Sandinista revolution of 1979 — rapturously told Putin upon his arrival, "It is like a ray of light, like a flash of lightning. This is the first time a Russian president has visited Nicaragua." Nicaragua, which voted against the U.N.’s condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, welcomed Moscow’s offer to aid the ambitious (though dubious, according to some experts) Chinese-funded venture to build a canal across the country.

But Putin may have found the most enthusiastic reception for his cause, amid the growing tension with the United States, during his visit to Argentina. Although press reports called attention to the series of agreements on nuclear energy and other projects between Russia and Argentina, the backdrop for Putin’s encounter with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was undoubtedly the Argentine government’s contentious battle over restructuring its debt. Both the sanctions against Russia and the legal rulings against Argentina were treated by both leaders as unwarranted, punishing actions by the traditional poles of global power. In Putin, Fernández may have found a bedfellow.

However, it was in Brazil, Putin’s final stop on his southern jaunt, that the most serious diplomatic and business deals took place. Putin and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff talked about arms sales, and specifically the possibility of a $1 billion anti-aircraft missile system. Although Washington’s relations with Brasilia are not as troubled as they are with Buenos Aires — and certainly not with Moscow — ties between the Western Hemisphere’s two major powers have badly frayed, the result of the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance and, in 2010, the Obama administration’s hammering of Brazil’s offer with Turkey to lead a controversial nuclear proposal on Iran.

Most significant for Russia’s pursuit of greater global clout was Putin’s participation in the BRICS meeting — a summit that included Rousseff, Chinese President Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi (making his Latin American debut), and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. The long-anticipated launching of the bloc’s development bank, to which each member government will contribute $10 billion to a special fund, was the most important announcement involving Russia during the visit.*

True to form, Putin didn’t miss an opportunity to draw connections — however far-fetched — to the issue that was plainly weighing most heavily on his mind. In an interview, he urged Brazil, China, India, and South Africa to draw "substantive conclusions" from the current situation, referring to sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in the Ukraine crisis. He said it is time to dilute the dominance of the U.S.-led West and the dollar by boosting the role of the BRICS on the global stage.

In Putin’s geopolitical chessboard and balance-of-power mindset, Russia’s association with the BRICS has turned out to be extremely useful. But if Putin sought forceful expressions of solidarity from his emerging partners on the Ukraine question, he was probably disappointed. Rousseff insisted that the BRICS grouping did not aim to challenge other countries’ interests.

China, which has the preponderant role in the BRICS (the development bank will be based in Shanghai), evinced little interest in making Ukraine a high priority and is not about to risk its relationship with the United States over this issue (neither is Brazil). Indeed, President Xi’s visit to the region (he went to Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, and Brazil) was chiefly about deepening economic relationships with Latin America and thus stood in sharp contrast to Putin’s notably geopolitical agenda. China’s economic contribution to the region — not only in trade and financing (roughly $100 billion since 2005) but also investment — is highly significant, unlike Russia’s negligible role.

In the end, Putin’s visit probably had a marginal impact on Latin America. No government changed its position as a result. Still, the Russian president was able to convey his gratitude to those who stood with him and ensure that they would at least stay neutral on the Ukraine issue. But the tour revealed that Russia’s capacity to forge strategic alliances in the region is limited. Putin’s Russia will not be ostracized in Latin America as a result of its intervention in Ukraine — but it will also not be warmly embraced and supported by most countries.

Putin, who attended the final game of the World Cup in Brazil, may now have some ideas for the next one, which will be held in Russia in 2018. He got to witness firsthand the mania and strong passions for soccer throughout Latin America — and its spreading popularity globally. No one should be surprised if he is already calculating how to derive maximum geopolitical advantage from that spectacle four years from now.

Correction, July 18, 2014: Each BRICS country will contribute $10 billion to the bloc’s new development bank, for a total of $50 billion. An earlier version of this article said each country would contribute $50 billion. (Return to reading.)

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