As U.S. Popularity Declines, Putin Gains Foothold in Latin America

Just as he was ratcheting up his conflict with Ukraine to justify an invasion, President Vladimir V. Putin has been busy expanding Russia's influence in Latin America.

This is part of Moscow's strategy of "strategic reciprocity," said Vladimir Rouvinski, Director of Interdisciplinary Research Center at Icesi University in Cali, Colombia, who has lived in both Russia and Colombia.

"This is reciprocity for what is happening in Ukraine," he told Newsweek.

But for Russians, "reciprocity" means something much closer to "retaliation" than the give-and-take people in the West associate with the term.

"Russians still believe that Latin America is a backyard of the United States and that it should be considered their exclusive area of influence," Rouvinski said. "So they want to reach out to this area precisely to carry out reciprocal actions."

He explains that many Russian elites see the world in terms of spheres of influence, and believe the United States is encroaching on theirs with unpopular actions in countries like Belarus and Ukraine.

"Vladimir Putin and the Russian elites believe that parts of Eastern Europe and some Central Asian countries naturally belong to the Russian sphere," Rouvinski said.

"They believe that nothing should happen there without the explicit or implicit permission of Russian authorities," he added.

American involvement in these places has led the Kremlin to plan their own retaliation.

But instead of exploring direct military interventions or investing billions into local infrastructure projects, Russian officials have relied on trade, diplomacy and media savvy to expand their influence in Latin America.

Russian trade in the region has increased by 44% since 2006 to nearly $12 billion in 2020. Over the past year, high-ranking Russian and Latin American officials have met much more frequently to discuss collaboration and negotiate bilateral trade agreements.

Just last week, Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro visited Moscow to discuss a strategic partnership between the nations.

"We jointly strive to develop political, economic and humanitarian ties," Putin told a news conference at the conclusion of the meeting. "We closely cooperate on the international stage."

Bolsonaro followed up, saying the two countries "share common values, such as the belief in God and the defense of family."

Russia has continued to form relationships with nearly every nation across Latin America and the Caribbean, Rouvinski said. While still relatively low, Latin American respondents' views of Russian power were far more favorable than those they held for that of its European and American counterparts, according to a study conducted by Pew Research.

Rouvinski said that much of this Russian favorability is being driven by anti-American sentiment in the region.

"Latin America has a difficult relationship with the United States," he said. "For a long time, the United States was perceived as a superpower and recognized as a world policeman."

This role was used to justify multiple instances of direct political intervention in the region, along with state-sponsored coups throughout the 21st century.

"Here in Colombia, or the other Latin American countries, some people still very much like the United States, because they believe it is a way to guarantee the security of the established order," Rouvinski said.

"But some others do not like the policeman," he added.

Russia has sought to engage the sentiment against the U.S. "policeman" and leverage it to make diplomatic inroads in Latin America.

In a written response to questions on Russian partnerships in the region, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Latin America "was and remains for us a region of political goodwill, economic opportunity, cultural closeness and a similar mentality."

In a jab at previous U.S. foreign policy decisions, the statement said that "Russia never participated in colonizing the region, in exploiting the peoples that populate it, or in any conflicts, wars or other uses of force."

The Kremlin has offered Latin America the vision of a multipolar "new world order" where the "West" no longer dominates and sovereign nations are able to develop without fears of international interference, Rouvinski said.

It is a message that appeals to many. But it remains to be seen how Russia's invasion of a sovereign Ukraine, which had done nothing to provoke it, will play out in Latin America.

After a meeting with Putin earlier this month, Alberto Fernández, president of Argentina, said he wants his country "to become a door of entry for Russia in Latin America, so that Russia comes in in a more decisive manner."

Speaking on Argentina's economic future, Fernández, whose country owes more than $45 billion to the International Monetary Fund for loans, said, "I'm determined that Argentina must stop being so dependent on the Fund and the United States."

While Russia lacks the capital to directly invest in projects like the United States and China, it has done a masterful job at using diplomacy, media platforms and thoughtful propaganda to expand its influence.

Moscow has worked steadily to expand its state-controlled media platforms in nearly every Latin American and Caribbean country. Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News, Russia's two major state-controlled media networks, have grown sizable viewerships in countries across the region.

These stations are known for broadcasting disinformation and propaganda, Rouvinski said.

"They broadcast everywhere and contribute to the perception that Russia is a great power and important for Latin America," he said. "It stresses the idea of this new world order arrangement where the United States will not be able to play their familiar role."

In addition to print media, Russia has also been accused of using fake accounts and bots on social media platforms, designed to spread misinformation about the Kremlin's role on the global stage and discreetly influence political outcomes.

Former U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster said that the United States saw "a sophisticated effort to influence the ongoing Mexican presidential campaign" in 2018. Two years later, Colombia's own vice-president, Maria Lucia Ramirez, explicitly condemned Russia and Venezuela's "foreign hand" for fomenting social unrest on social networks.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied these accusations by intelligence officials.

Despite these denials, Rouvinski urges American policymakers to recognize this as a significant issue. He warns that the combination of these strategies has already influenced an immeasurable number of people in the region.

"There is an underestimation of the power of Russian media, because many independent and corporate outlets believe that it is just meaningless propaganda," Rouvinski told Newsweek. "But in many cases they do not offer fake news or wrong facts. Instead, the way they interpret things is false and misleading."

With U.S. attention focused on the intensifying and spreading conflicts in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, a region many Russians believe belongs in their "sphere of influence," Rouvinski said that U.S. officials must be aware of the ways Russia's soft power in Latin America, particularly through broadcast and social media, can potentially evolve into a significant national security threat for the U.S., one that is much closer to home.

"One of the mistakes is underestimating the power that this is making on the brains of many young Latin Americans," he said.

"I think that it is important for America to pay attention," Rouvinski said, "and really understand the danger of ignoring what is going on here."

Russian President Vladimir Putin speeches during his
"Russia never participated in colonizing [Latin America], in exploiting the peoples that populate it, or in any conflicts, wars or other uses of force," the Russian Foreign Ministry said. In this photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his talks with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (not pictured) in Brasilia, Brazil, November 14, 2019. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images