Latin America – Russia’s Game in 2021: an Outlook

Latin America – Russia’s Game in 2021: an Outlook

Latin America is at a turning point and there will be a lot at stake for Russia’s influence building in the region in 2021. The instability created by an unprecedented recession and an increased political polarisation in what promises to be a hectic electoral year as well as a more active US foreign policy after Trump’s neglect will probably increase Moscow’s appetite for the subcontinent. How will this assertiveness materialise in the short term?

Russia’s strategy in Latin America will be shaped by a number of factors in 2021. The political polarisation induced by an unprecedented recession will be propitious to Moscow’s political game in what will be a hectic electoral year for the subcontinent. Additionally, the expected return of the US under President Biden to South American politics after Trump’s administration’s neglect is likely to prompt Putin to become more confrontational so as to challenge America at its doorstep. On the commercial front, 2021 is not likely to bring substantial change.  

Economic crisis and political polarisation: windows of opportunities to advance Putin’s interests

Latin America has been disproportionally hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. As of late 2020, the subcontinent accounted for nearly 24% of the reported cases worldwide despite only representing8.5% of the global population. The IMF is forecasting a recession of 8% for the region, with Peru and Argentina hitting a skyrocketing rate of 12% and 14% respectively. The crisis has completely undermined the recovery of the past decade: the poverty index is now the same as it was 15 years ago and sovereign debts are rapidly increasing.      

Although the pace of vaccinations will play a large role in the speed of recovery, progress is likely to be slow in 2021. This vaccination question has already been firmly answered by Russia. In the absence of other actors, it has positioned Sputnik V as the main vaccine to be distributed in the region. Several Latin American countries are currently rolling out phase III of trials for this vaccine, whose development is funded by the Russian Direct Investment Fund. Mexico and Brazil have already ordered 32 and 50 millions doses respectively. A rather clear sign that Russia is leveraging the health crisis to affirm its role in a post-Covid Latin America.

2021 will also be a hectic electoral year in Latin America, as many countries will go to the polls in a context of social unrest and growing polarisation that Russia, in all likelihood, will seek to exploit. Five countries (Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Honduras and Nicaragua) will hold general elections. The centre-left governments of Argentina and Mexico will have to endure the test of congressional midterms elections too, and Brazil and Colombia will gear towards presidential elections of 2022. In every election, populism will be on the ballot.

The recession is solid gold for populist, anti-austerity leaders, and, by extension, Russia. Although it is too early to assess the significance of Luis Arce’s recent victory and the return to power of the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism, Evo Morales’ party) in Bolivia, the anti-IMF rhetoric of Arce’s campaign worked well. The popularity of the two main populist presidents of the region – Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico – has increased despite their poor management of the pandemic, whereas the popularity of more traditional, conservative-leaning leaders like Ivan Duque in Colombia is eroding. 

Russia is poised to use disinformation to interfere in upcoming elections

In 2021, Putin will seek to turn this disrupted political environment to Russia’s advantage. Moscow will undoubtedly meddle in this and next years’ elections and continue to use disinformation to further fuel social unrest and increase the chances of populist leaders. Russia-affiliated trolls and Twitter bots have already been active as protests surged across the region according to the US State Department. In January 2020, Colombia’s vice-president Maria Lucia Ramirez Colombia’s vice-president Maria Lucia Ramirez explicitly condemned Russia and Venezuela’s “foreign hand” for fomenting social unrest on social networks. The Kremlin will surely intensify pro-Bolsonaro disinformation in Brazil ahead of the 2022 election, especially as his path to re-election might be narrower than what his recent surge of popularity suggests. 

Disinformation is a long-time instrument of Russian foreign policy – it is also particularly cheap and efficient, using social media and state-backed media to spread pro-Russian narratives. In Latin America, the impact of these disinformation campaigns is all the greater since the penetration rate of social media in the region is extremely high (~80%). Russia has also increased its presence in the regional media landscape since 2010, thanks to television channels controlled by the Kremlin, in particular Sputnik and Russian Today. 

A more assertive Russia under Biden’s presidency: the pursuit of Moscow’s line of defence in the Caribbean

While Russia benefited from Trump’s sympathy and his neglect for the region to fill the void without much resistance, Biden’s administration is set to take both a tougher stance on Russia and a more collaborative approach towards Latin America, as prevailed during the Obama years. While this position is likely to strengthen Putin’s appetite to challenge America in its “near abroad”, a more active US foreign policy could restrict the tools available to the Kremlin to strengthen its influence.

This “US rebalancing act” might take some time to materialise though. The mistrust towards the US is still widely perceptible: the level of confidence that Latin American people place in the US was as low in 2018 under Trump as it was under Bush in the early 2000s. Even though it is possible that Biden re-engages in a form of Détente with Havana and Caracas –  which could impact Russia’s ability to leverage its influence within the “countries under sanctions club” – Biden’s administration might not want to be too flexible as a re-normalisation with Cuba for example could upset many Latinos in key states for the Democrats. In the short term, Putin will be able to surf on the anti-American wave, the same way it has used economic sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela under Trump and his hard stances against Mexico on immigration and drug trafficking under Trump to further undermine the image of the US. 

In a region which could very plausibly become the theatre of confrontation between Russia and the US, Moscow is likely to grow its defence footprint, by accelerating its industrial-military cooperation with left-wing military regimes such as Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela – in terms of troops presence, intelligence-capacity building and arms sales. Such client states are familiar with Russian weapons, the former two having started to use them in the 1960s and throughout the Cold War. Latin America also represents a sizable market for Russian weapons, sold in seven countries, including countries who until recently would only buy weapons to the US and European companies. Russia could soon perform large-scale military exercises in the Caribbean to send a clear message to the US. At the moment, there is also no reason why Russia would stop providing military assistance to Maduro’s regime. 

Continuity on the economic front, a secondary yet growing tool of influence

Although Russia has improved its trade with many Latin American countries, it still represents a tiny portion of the region’s foreign trade (0,7% as of 2018), especially when compared to China (15,2%). In the short term, Russia will probably continue to invest in targeted partnerships, in particular in the energy sector, for example building on bilateral cooperation between Argentina and ROSATOM on civil nuclear energy. The collapsing Venezuelan’s oil sector remains a key focus for Russia, whose influence, if not control, is growing thanks to Venezuela’s trading contract with Russian giant Rosneft (renationalised in March 2020 to skirt US sanctions).

Finally, Russian investments in new technologies in Latin America will remain an area of scrutiny in 2021 and beyond. While China’s focus is on infrastructural projects and the US prefers Latin American countries to use its own networks, Russia presence is growing in innovative sectors, such as pharmaceuticals – it will be interesting to see whether or how the R&D in Covid-19 vaccines will boost this sector – and telecommunications, a strategic area enabling Moscow to access regional information flows, and easily use them for defence and disinformation purposes. 

In the short term, despite limited resources in Latin America and its overall economic decline, Russia will use a targeted and cost-effective strategy to build its influence, prioritising election meddling, strengthened military presence and targeted economic partnerships. An important part of Russia’s strategy will depend on the US ambitions in the region, which will become clearer in the next months.

Categories: Latin America, Politics