President Barack Obama used his microphone time before the UN General Assembly last week to take a swipe at Russia’s expansionist aims in Ukraine and denounce the new aggressiveness of strongman president Vladimir Putin as a growing national security concern. But the White House has given little noticed over the past two years to Russia’s rapid and continuing expansion here in the Western Hemisphere, where Putin has clear geopolitical goals.
Russia, now firmly allied with the ranks Latin America’s authoritarian and virulently anti-American leaders, currently has more influence in the region than the Soviet Union had during the height of the Cold War. Back then, the Soviet bloc could count on Cuba and little more, save the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and a handful of armed groups.
Today Russia has growing political, military and economic influence among hemispheric partners that traditionally have been within the U.S.’ sphere of influence. Russia’s allies today include Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba and Argentina.
Over the past decade Putin had courted and sold weapons to the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and predictably supported the anti-U.S. and anti-democratic aspirations of strongmen Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and old friends Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, and the Castro brothers in Cuba.
But over the past two years Russia has expanded it dealings at an accelerated pace. The expansion includes: a newly minted “strategic alliance” with Argentina; plans to open a major new embassy in El Salvador by the end of 2014; and the construction of a new regional Russian counternarcotics and police-training center in Nicaragua to displace U.S. efforts. Russian weapons are again flowing into the region, and Russian navy ships and long-range bombers visit regional allies. At the same time, cocaine flows from Latin America to Russia — largely originating in countries Russia supports — are increasing dramatically.
In July Putin visited Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil and Argentina, where he forgave some $30 billion of Cuba’s Cold War debt, promised support for a new international bank to counter the World Bank, promised military security for the Nicaraguan canal project, and parceled out other gifts. His visit stands in contrast to Obama’s record of visiting only six Latin American countries in six years, amidst shrinking U.S. aid and interest in the region.
The surprise star of the Russia’s new push into Latin America is Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who has emerged as Putin’s staunchest defender and closest partner in South America. Fernández de Kirchner’s strident anti-U.S. stance has grown increasingly aggressive as her government’s economy founders and the nation remains largely locked out of the Western financial markets after defaulting for the second time in two decades.
The default resulted from a U.S. court decision, upheld by the Supreme Court, to side with debt bondholders who have been trying to force Argentina to pay them in full — some $1.2 billion—rather than the discounted rate accepted by most of the other bondholders. Both sides stipulated that U.S. courts would have jurisdiction, but Fernández de Kirchner believes Obama should have intervened in the judicial process (much as she would have done, given her long history of meddling in judicial affairs) to bail her country out.
As the her legal case and economy have gone south, Fernández de Kirchner has looked east and found a kindred spirit in Putin, with whom she shares a disdain for independent media and judicial systems, along with a sharp distaste for the rule of law and a fondness for the use of state resources for private gain. The Argentine president publicly defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its aggression in Ukraine and tweeted extensively about her telephone calls with Putin to express solidarity (also, his return calls to express gratitude).
Putin has not wasted the opportunity to team with a willing partner. He reciprocated by declaring Argentina his nation’s “principal strategic partner in Latin America.” During his dinner with Fernández de Kirchner in July, the Russian leader promised collaboration on nuclear power and to move aggressively to invest in Argentine energy and agricultural centers.
Because of her abysmal record on abiding by international law and ruling on foreign investment, Fernández de Kirchner is desperately seeking foreign investment from like-minded governments. In addition to her expropriation of Spanish and Brazilian companies, the Argentine president recently made a move that would have made Putin proud — she threatened to apply anti-terrorism laws to a U.S. company, RR Donnelly, alleging that the firm’s claims to bankruptcy was part of a campaign of economic terrorism fomented by the United States.
To curry more favor with Putin, Fernández de Kirchner approved the 24/7 broadcast of the Spanish-language version of Russian state-owned international news channel in Argentina, giving Russian propaganda a regional platform.
In the current multi-polar world it is not surprising that Russia would seek to expand its sphere of influence. But now the true nature of Putin’s expansionist and anti-Western doctrine is clear, and the strategic threats his doctrine poses is understood. So we need to pay more attention to where his influence and allies emerge in what used to be the primary theater of U.S. engagement.
Douglas Farah is a national security consultant who has worked in Latin America for 35 years, including 17 as a correspondent for the Washington Post. He is a senior non-resident fellow of the America’s Program at CSIS.