by Evan Ellis

Evan Ellis, Phd, is a research professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute with a focus on the region’s relationships with China and other non-Western Hemisphere actors.  He has published more than 190 works, including the books China in Latin America: The Whats and Wherefores (2009), The Strategic Dimension of Chinese Engagement with Latin America (2013) and most recently China on the Ground in Latin America (2014). He has presented his work in a broad range of business and government forums in 25 countries on four continents and given testimony on Chinese activities in Latin America to the US Congress, and appears regularly as an expert on Latin America-China relations in the media.

The article below was originally published in the journal Global Americans on December 6, 2017, and is re-published with permission of the author.

In the final months of 2017, the most significant advance in Russia’s relationship with Latin America was arguably the inclusion of eight Latin American teams in the 32-team field for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Russia was almost absent from media coverage of the BRICS+ summit in Xiamen in September 2017 and Vladimir Putin’s address to the APEC summit in Da Nang, Vietnam in November did not even mention Latin America. In contrast to high-profile Russian political and military initiatives in Latin America in 2008 and 2013-2014, its engagement with the region in 2017 has been uneven. But with United States leadership in the hemisphere on retreat on multiple fronts and an increasing interest by Russia and China to engage and invest in military, security and infrastructure projects in the region, Latin American relations with their Eurasian counterparts will likely change in 2018.

In contrast to Chinese activities in Latin America, Russian engagement is focused on a limited set of countries and economic sectors, led by arms sales. While Russia sends tourists to the Caribbean and purchases agricultural goods from the Southern Cone, businessmen and political leaders in the region simply do not dream of access to vast Russian markets, loans and investments, as they do with their Chinese counterparts.

Russia currently has a limited number of commercial projects in the region in petroleum, mining, nuclear energy, construction, and space services. It also sells a modest number of vehicles and other goods to Cuba and select other economies, but beyond military goods, the competitiveness of Russian products and services is minimal.

In the past year, Russia has lost ground with a number of partners in the region with whom it was building relationships. In Argentina, the election of pro-Western President Mauricio Macri sealed the fate of several already troubled projects including the nation’s purchase of Su-24 interceptor aircraft, the installation of GLONASS satellite communication facilities, and a contract to build a nuclear reactor in the Atucha nuclear complex.

In Brazil, important Russian arms deals have remained stalled, including the Pantsir S-1 air defense system, although the government did purchase a large number of Igla-S (SA-24) air defense munitions, delivering the last units in April 2017.

Even in Venezuela, its main arms client in the region, Russia appears to have lost ground. There, the financial collapse of the country’s socialist regime appears to have forced it to make a choice to invest in engine overhauls and other work to maintain the operational capability of the existing fleet of Russian combat aircraft and helicopters, putting on hold the acquisition of an additional 13 Su-30 interceptors.

While Russian setbacks in the region may encourage U.S. complacency, they actually mask dynamics in the region through which Russia could expand its presence more rapidly than is commonly recognized.

Development opportunities for Latin American-Russian relations

In Mexico, whose Army has numerous senior officers who have been indoctrinated (and presumably evaluated) in Russian military institutions, the political tension with the U.S. creates an incentive for Mexico to move closer to Russia as a counterweight and warning to the U.S. The Russian dual-use manufacturer Kamov has already sold Mexico ANSAT helicopters, and Mexico is reportedly re-evaluating the purchase of more Mi-17s. A victory by leading leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) in the July 2018 presidential elections could push Mexico even further toward collaboration with the Russians…. Continue Reading