Thursday, October 02, 2008

Russia and Latin America

The media is playing up the idea that we might be entering a new Cold War of some sort, which among other things entails deep Russian involvement in Latin America. Russia is playing this up, with Venezuela deals and military maneuvers, discussion of a closer relationship with Bolivia, and rumors about Cuba. Boz had a good recent post on the topic.

There is one point, however, that I never see mentioned but which is important and has historical precedent: Russia is primarily interested in the United States, and so all of these alliances are contingent upon relations with the U.S. If U.S.-Russia relations improved, Putin would feel no compunction about backing off and/or ignoring promises he's made to Latin American leaders. The Soviets screwed Fidel Castro and humiliated him more than once. Putin doesn't care about Latin America. He is not trying to "compete" in any significant way in the hemisphere, and likely won't in the future either.

If I were a Latin American president, therefore, I would hop on the bandwagon as quickly as possible and get some goodies before they're gone. My hunch is that Hugo Chávez is well aware, and so is successfully milking the situation while it lasts. I doubt he has any illusions about brotherhood with Russia (or Iran, for that matter). Thomas Shannon, who has been one of the few people in the Bush administration to talk sense about Latin America, argues that Russia-Venezuela ties are no threat and "aren't likely to endure."

So let's see what signals the next administration sends to Russia. That will tell us a lot about what Russia does next in Latin America.


Anonymous,  8:58 AM  

A better option for several Latin America states might be to leverage Russia's military interest in the region in negotiations with the US over economic and security matters.

Greg Weeks 9:23 AM  

Also true. In general, use the situation to your own advantage. 10:33 AM  

All good points, Greg. However, isn't the fundamental issue the reactionary attitude of the United States toward Hemispheric relations? If the United States adopted a less colonialistic (as many Latin American Countries see it), imperialistic (ditto) attitude towards hemispheric relationships, the need to turn to Russia would disappear. At the same time, it may drive the cost of those relationships up if the hemisphereic relationships are simply using them for financial gain. Either way, the US defeated the Soviet Union economically, not militarily. Thus, it seems to argue for a radical change in US Hemispheric foreign affairs policies. Just a thought.

Anonymous,  10:53 AM  

Thanks for this interesting post. We do quite a lot of blogging about Russia-Latin America relations, and while I generally agree that this isn't exactly a new Cold War, I can't quite dismiss this diplomatic initiative so easily.

For one, their point man on establishing these relations is Igor Sechin, who if you take the time to investigate a little bit, is one of Russia's most serious (and dangerous) players.

Two, we have to acknowledge the energy play here. A while back Russia intelligently discovered that it could not climb back into global influence through military might, but rather increasing control over oil and gas. Gazprom has locked down significant deals in both Bolivia and Venezuela, and is helping in the first stages of building the "Hugoducto" pipeline to send Venezuelan oil to the South. It is believed that Gazprom has long-term plans to make a major expansion into the United States (they have opened an office in Houston), and may be looking to divert Latin American energy suppliers away to other markets.

Lastly, it is myopic to look at the Venezuela relationship as just a poke in the eye or some sort of quid pro quo to get the United States to stop supporting Georgia. It is a direct long-term challenge of the Monroe Doctrine, and Russia, believing that American soft power has completely collapsed (thank you very much, Mr. Bush) is seeking to redraw some traditionally held lines about exactly what they are allowed to get away with.

Now neither Robert Amsterdam nor I hold any illusions about the historic damage wrought by U.S. empire in the hemisphere, but Russia's willingness to back authoritarian states and their habit of always defaulting toward the central power is not a trend that bodes well for independent civil society in the region. Furthermore, one would be hard pressed to see any ideological synergy between Russia and the vanguard Left of Latin America. It is much more opportunistic than that.

Anonymous,  11:36 AM  

Good post, Greg. You raise very good points here.

Greg Weeks 11:47 AM  

James, I will have to take a look at your blog. You raise several points, but my main response would be that I am focusing on the "threat" aspect being emphasized (particularly in the media). Gazprom can invest without Russia sending bombers. If U.S.-Russian relations warm up, then the former might continue but the latter would not.

Regarding the Monroe Doctrine, I tend to see current Russian actions as a signal that each country has its sphere of influence, and Russia is reminding the U.S. that each must respect the others'.

I fully agree with your last point, which I think dovetails with my argument. There is no ideological affinity, which is why the talk of "alliance" or "Cold War" is just talk.

Anonymous,  12:23 PM  

Good post, Greg.

I agree with James that more than anything else, this is a response to the US poking around in Georgia, the "Stans", and the missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Oil and gas certainly plays an additional role here. As for the administration's response to Russia, as long as Putin remains calling the shots, relations with Russia will continue to deteriorate, no matter who wins on November 4. It seems that the US will accept an autocratic regime in China, but we became drunk with the idea that Russia would actually be a democracy, and now that it has gone in the other direction, no one is sure how to respond.

Miguel Centellas 2:40 PM  

While this may not be *exactly* a new cold war, I think it's something like it. Or, at least, something like the competition for spheres of influence in the hemisphere around the 1900 mark (then it was a rising Germany, not Russia).

I do think that Russia's expanding influence in the region is a challenge to US hegemony (not saying hegemony is a good thing, I agree it's imperialistic). It also speaks to the current administration's carelessness towards America's own "near abroad."

I also don't think it's fair to say that Russia abandoned Cuba callously. In the 1990s, Russia was in no position to keep it's Cuban satellite. But now that Russia's back on is feet, the story might change.

I do agree w/ Greg that there is mostly just saber rattling. And we do the same. Expanding NATO to Ukraine & the Caucuses is such a move. As is a nuclear technology deal w/ India (we sell tech to other countries, why can't Russia?).

Greg Weeks 2:45 PM  

I don't really agree. The question is whether Russia really *cares* about expanding its influence in Latin America. I am not convinced that it does. Maybe some gas deals, but IMO the military show is about NATO and Georgia and not so much about being friends with Venezuela.

Also, the Soviets totally screwed Castro in the Missile Crisis, and Castro hates Gorbachev with a passion for the way he pulled the plug.

Anonymous,  5:54 PM  

Interesting point about the expediency of the military presence - however I'd be really careful in comparing the decision making process of the USSR with today's Kremlin. Just because Castro got ditched in the Cuban Missile Crisis doesn't mean that Chavez would similarly be so easy to get rid of. For one, he is financially independent. Two, Russia's third largest export after oil and gas is arms - which explains why they answered Washington's $1 billion aid package to Georgia with a $1 billion loan to Venezuela - except Caracas is required to spend it on Russian weapons.

In other words, it's good business to have a military alliance with Venezuela. Putin, like Bush, is also quite dependent on maintaining the image of external enemies to justify his consolidation of power.

Tomorrow we'll be publishing an exclusive interview with one of the leading academics on this issue. Stay tuned...

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