On Jan. 15, Douglas Farah and Liana Reyes of national security advisory firm IBI Consultants published an opinion piece for the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy.
In the article, the authors assert Pres. Vladimir Putin’s Russia poses a growing strategic problem for the United States in Latin America. Farah and Reyes argue that Russia is now stronger than it’s ever been in the region.
Moscow is building—and rekindling ties—with several governments wary or hostile of American influence. The Kremlin is also underwriting this support with large amounts of weapons.
“Given its current positioning, we argue that Russia now has more influence in Latin America than ever before, even including at the height of the Cold War,” Farah and Reyes write.
We’ve had a few thoughts here about the phrase “the height of the Cold War.” It’s a slippery term that is rarely specific or made clear. War Is Boring contributor Adam Rawnsley recently polled several Cold War historians about when the “height” actually was—they generally agreed on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
When the Soviet Union placed 158 nuclear warheads in Cuba, along with thousands of troops, dozens of fighter jets, helicopters and at least a half-dozen Il-28 nuclear-armed bombers. It’s the closest the world came to Armageddon.
That alone should throw a bucket of water on the idea that the Kremlin poses a comparable strategic challenge today in Latin America.
But let’s pretend the Cuban Missile Crisis never happened. Does Russia still pose a greater challenge than the Soviet Union?
The caveat here is that Russia does have selective influence. The Kremlin developed close ties with Venezuela under former Pres. Hugo Chavez, and these links continued after Chavez’s death in 2013.
Pres. Nicolas Maduro recently visited Moscow seeking aid following a sudden and dramatic drop in oil prices—which is hitting Venezuela’s economy hard.
Venezuela is one of Russia’s largest buyers of military hardware. The National Bolivarian Armed Forces received most of its AK-103 battle rifles from Russia. Moscow sold nearly 200 T-72 tanks and more than 100 BMP-3 armored fighting vehicles during the past decade.
Caracas has bought advanced air-defense weapons, helicopters and 24 Su-30 fighter jets—all from Russia.
But it’s one thing to buy weapons. It’s another thing to develop the doctrine, skills and know-how needed to use them. Venezuela has little need for most of this equipment, and the exports are likely a means for Moscow to bargain for oil-drilling contracts.
It’s also doubtful all of Russia’s weapons exported to Venezuela are still usable.
Opposition critics have also accused the Kremlin of supplying faulty weapons that suffer from “widespread malfunction, breakdown and an endemic lack of operational readiness,” the UPI news agency reported in 2013.
Even if the many of the weapons are faulty and won’t likely see much use, it still allows Russia to extend its influence in the country and the rest of Latin America. Well, not exactly.
The problem for the Kremlin is that the rest of the region is moving away from Venezuela.
“Around Latin America few leaders have shown more than superficial interest in copying either Chavez’s political or economic models, while Venezuelan foreign policy influence remains limited to the relatively few countries to which it gives highly subsidized oil,” Gregory Weeks—a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina—wrote for Al Jazeera last year.
But a warning sign, according to Farah and Reyes, is the growing economic relationships between Russia and Latin America overall—particularly Argentina. This not new. By 1989, Buenos Aires was Moscow’s largest trading partner on the continent.
Argentina—although ruled by right-wing military regimes for much of the era—was also a prominent member of the Non-Aligned Movement, and frequently tried to counterbalance American influence in the Western Hemisphere.
In the post-Cold War era, Buenos Aires has built closer ties with the U.S., not weakened them.
And while American trade with the region has decreased in relative terms, in absolute terms, it’s increased sharply … as Latin American trade with the rest of the world booms with it.
But the biggest mistake is assuming Latin America has a zero-sum relationship with its giant neighbor to the far north. The U.S. has the first or second largest economy in the world—depending on how you crunch the numbers.
Many Americans have cultural, business and family ties to the rest of the Hemisphere. Proximity matters.
At the same time, Latin America is growing less dependent on the U.S. as the region asserts an independent identity. And this doesn’t constitute a relative gain for Moscow at the expense of Washington.
Russia in the 21st century—like the Soviet Union in the 20th—is simply too far away and considers Latin America too low on its list of priorities to amount to a strategic challenge.
So don’t panic.