During the special emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on March 2nd, only five Latin American states renounced from condemning Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. Although none voted ‘against’, four abstentions from Bolivia, Cuba, El Salvador and Nicaragua, plus Venezuela’s refusal to participate in the voting, triggered questions about their position on the crisis. Composed of leftist, if not populist regimes, recurrently sanctioned due to allegations of human rights violations, these states, openly antagonistic towards US hegemony, have long relied on Russia’s provisions of military equipment, financial support through loans and hydrocarbons imports, and rhetorical validation, while some relationships are reminiscent of the Cold War period. Here, once again the geopolitical implications of East European politics are reflected at the Latin America space, for instance, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov’s recent tour in Latin America, specifically Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, to court regional partners and to lay groundwork for support, even if rhetorical, amid rising tensions in the region. As such, what are these states’ positions in the Ukrainian issue? And what is at stake for them?
La Paz asserted that the escalation of the conflict was caused by ‘the lack of dialogue and understanding’, yet avoided naming Russia directly. Here, Bolivia reenacts its neutral tradition while disapproving Western-led sanctions on Russia. As stated by Freddy Mamani, vice-minister of Foreign Policy, the international community should ‘not guarantee the security of some states at the costs of the insecurity of others’. Bolivia’s abstention from condemning Russia comes as no surprise, given its synchronism during previous international conflicts, specifically on the Crimea issue in 2014, along with Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, and during Bolivia’s non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) over the Syrian issue in 2018. Such positions expose La Paz’s endeavors to court Russian concessions for economic and security cooperation. Specifically, since 2006, Bolivia’s reproachment with Russia highlighted the exploration of natural gas, oil, and lithium, mainly led by the Russian state-owned Gazprom. Likewise, Bolivia has long desired military modernization via arms trade with Russia, for combating narcotrafficking purposes, yet such deals have been dragging on for years.
Since the rebooting of bilateral relations with Russia in 2008, cooperation in infrastructure and industrial investment, and financial loans have provided a lifeline for the Cuban regime to alleviate the effects of a US-led economic blockade. As such, the Cuban ambassador at the UN, Pedro Luis Cuesta, has fiercely accused the US and allies of influencing the Ukraine government into launch a military operation against Russia; thus, Cuba dubs Moscow’s behavior as reactive, if not preemptive against the progressive expansion of NATO. Here, Cuban rhetorical support for Russian’s military operations appears as a means to secure the continuance of economic and diplomatic sponsorship. Specifically, such statements came short after Russia’s ratification of the agreement to postpone an over USD 2 billion debt payments until 2027 after Yuri Borisov’s visit in February 22nd. Developments related to the Kremlin’s opposition to the West have previously reverberated in the Caribbean, for instance, the port call in Havana bay by the Russian warship Viktor Leonov SSV-175 in 2014. More urgently, redeployment of Russia’s military assets to the region are “neither confirm[ed] nor exclude[d]”, as recently stated by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
El Salvador relations with Moscow are the least expressive among the abstainers. Up to date, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of El Salvador has avoided any official comments on the issue, representing its preference for neutrality, if not disinterest in European power politics. For instance, El Salvador has equally refrained from a collective declaration proposed by Guatemala at the Organization of American States on the February 25thcondemning Russia’s actions as “unlawful, unjustified, and [an] unprovoked invasion of Ukraine”. However, its absence has been noted. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has called for a clearer position from President Nayib Bukele, urging El Salvador to follow the majority of the international community and “opt for a total isolation of Russia and hold President Putin responsible for this aggression”.
Managua’s abstention at the UNGA was expected, where President Daniel Ortega’s assertive comments praised Putin’s moves while transferring the blame to NATO’s expansion endeavors. Jaime Hermida Castillo, Nicaragua’s ambassador at the UN, condemned economic and political sanctions from the US and its allies, noting NATO as ‘launching mass destruction bombs against the Russian Federation”. Nicaragua has historically backed Russia’s position on geopolitical issues on the region, for instance, Ortega was quick to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia when they broke away from Georgia in 2008. In exchange for political support, Moscow continued its position as the major supplier of military equipment to the Nicaraguan regime, a total of USD 143 million since 2009 (over 90% of total arms’ supply), composed of TIGR armored cars, T-72 tanks, Mi-17 helicopters, among other weaponries. Arguably under the premise of security cooperation focused on anti-drug enforcement operations, specifically the Moscow-backed counterdrug center facility, security relations have fostered joint training projects with Russian and Latin American states’ operatives. A crucial factor of the relationship is Moscow’s access to Nicaragua’s ports with the add-on of naval patrols, a needed appendage for potential, yet limited force projection in the region.
Nicolás Maduro similarly condemned NATO’s ‘destabilizing actions against Russia’ during a phone call with Putin in early March. Héctor Constant, Venezuelan ambassador to the UN, clearly backed Moscow at the UNGA session by refusing to participate in the voting while calling the NATO expansion a ‘progressive hostile attitude against Russia and its territorial integrity”. Emerging as a strategic move to offset US sanctions stemming from the Hugo Chavez era, Caracas quickly became Russia’s major strategic cornerstone in South America, resulting in expressive weaponry imports as well as joint naval exercises. Here, Maduro’s hosting of Russian nuclear-capable TU-160 strategic bombers in 2013and 2018, and a potential redeployment of Russian military to Venezuela, are conducive for support of Russia’s strategic power projection activities in the Western hemisphere, Washington’s backyard. Russia has a steady presence as an investor in the Venezuelan hydrocarbon sector, specifically oil exploration by Rosneft, which in turn, paired with financial loans and diplomatic support, were vital to keep the regime afloat, particularly under the heavy Washington criticism amid the Venezuela crisis in 2019.
The overall explanation for a few specific Latin American states’ refusal in condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is mainly geopolitical and ideological. These five states have long operated at the margins of the US regional orbit, if not in seclusion. As such, the survival of such often dubbed authoritarian regimes rely on the longevity of Russia’s financial cooperation, for the likes of Cuba and Bolivia, and more importantly, the security and diplomatic patronage, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua. Likewise, looking at regional major powers, although supportive of the UNGA resolution, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina have handpicked lukewarm statements to avoid upsetting Russia. Mexico, while displaying empathy for Ukraine, refused to imposed economic sanctions on Moscow. Similarly, following President Alberto Fernández visit to Russia, Buenos Aires also refused sanctioning Russia, potentially due to its high hopes for fulfilling the promised strategic cooperation with Putin firmed in 2015. President Jair Bolsonaro, also returning from his visit to Moscow, would have preferred a more balanced statement from the UNGA, whereas concerns over imports of Russian fertilizers is identified. In turn, the US seems puzzled with their positions, particularly on Bolsonaro’s stating ‘we [Brazil] are solidary with Russia’, as Washington certainly hoped for greater support from its major non-NATO allies, Brazil and Argentina. Finally, should Russia’s position deteriorate along its European periphery, Venezuela and Cuba could be once again mobilized, as it occurred in 2008 and 2014 due to the crisis in Georgia and Crimea respectively, to leverage Moscow’s position via geopolitical pressures on the US by escalating military presence in the Western Hemisphere and America’s backyard.