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Vladimir Sudarev

Doctor of Political Science, Deputy Director of the RAS Institute of Latin America

Latin American region has recently been often mentioned among new priority dimensions of Russian foreign policy. Despite the difficulties of both objective and subjective nature, the comeback of Russia to Latin America can provide it with new reliable partners and strengthen its position in a nascent multi-polar world.

Latin American region has recently been often mentioned among new priority dimensions of Russian foreign policy. Despite the difficulties of both objective and subjective nature, the comeback of Russia to Latin America can provide it with new reliable partners and strengthen its position in a nascent multi-polar world.

The nineties can be regarded as lost years for Russian policy in Latin America. In fact, Russia didn’t pursue any policy there. Traditionally, as in the Soviet times, this region stood low on the national foreign policy agenda. Of course, there have been undertaken some successful actions – for example, in 1996-1997 Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov paid visits to the region during which the whole package of agreements on cooperation with Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, and, most importantly, with Brazil (about strategic partnership in the 21 century and creation of a greater Russia-Brazil committee) were signed. But these actions were only sporadic, and the signed agreements turned out to be suspended.

What is more, it was in the early 1990-s after Russia’s withdrawal from Cuba, with abandoning the construction of about 500 major facilities and decreasing 30-fold trade turnover with this country [1], when West-oriented Russia started to be perceived in Latin America as an unreliable partner. The U-turn in Russian foreign policy after 9/11 contributed to it greatly. Having declared about the readiness of Russia to join the US-sponsored anti-terrorist coalition, President Putin on October 17, 2001 announced the withdrawal of the country from the only overseas strategic site - surveillance radar station in Lurdes on the outskirts of Havana – without prior notification of the Cuban side [2].

Make-or-break moment in the relationships with Latin America region countries occurred in the wake of the Yeltzin era. Latin American countries themselves seem to have contributed a lot to it. Already in 1999 the Rio Group uniting the region’s leading states turned out to be, actually, the only grouping in the world which condemned the bombing of Yugoslavia and pointed out in its declaration specific articles of the UN Charter violated by the NATO member- states [3]. In February 2003 Mexico and Chili as non-permanent UN SC members, in fact, vetoed the second Anglo-American resolution authorizing Iraq intervention, despite their economic dependence on the USA.

These actions seem to have made the Kremlin look at the perspectives of cooperation with Latin American countries at a new angle. Thus, in March 2003 President Putin received in Kremlin the delegation of the Rio Group and held official talks with them. Both sides agreed not to confine themselves to regular contacts (launched in 1995) within the framework of the UN General Assembly, but also conduct meetings in Russia and countries of the Group member-states.

By mid-decade the exchange of high level delegations between the sides had intensified. Only one example, in November 2008 President Medvedev visited four countries during his tour of the region - Peru, Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba.

Commenting on his visit, President Medvedev remarked: “…we visited the states which previous Russian leaders had never been to… It means only that we failed to pay due attention to these countries before, and, to a certain extent, it is only now that we are starting a full-fledged and I hope mutually beneficial cooperation with the heads of these states and between our economies. он отметил: We mustn’t be shy and timid and be afraid of competition. We must boldly engage in the battle”.

In order to display its interest to the presence in the region Russia resorted to a number of un-common and spectacular actions. In November 2008 a warship squadron with the fleet nuclear-powered cruiser “Peter the Great” of the Russian Navy as a flagship entered the territorial waters of US-hostile Venezuela to participate in joint naval exercises of the North Fleet of the Russian Federation Navy. Simultaneously, within the framework of the resumed patrolling of the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans two Russian long-range strategic bombers landed at a Venezuelan naval base.

The so-called comeback of Russia to Latin America was to a great extent preconditioned by the “leftist drift” in the region which resulted in the emergence of the group of states that viewed the expanding relations with Russia as an important lever for strengthening their position in conflict relations with the USA. Many of these countries perceived Russia as the successor of the former USSR might and influence, with the vision of a new world order of both sides being practically identical – it should be multilateral, not individually tailored to the interests of a single superpower. This position was set out in numerous joint documents signed at the summits – practically all the leaders of the most prominent Latin American countries paid official visits to Moscow during the first decade of the 21st century.

The breakthrough happened also in the military and technical field. Starting from 2004 Venezuela has begun purchases of scale of the Russian arms to the amount of over $4bln. Russia established military and technical cooperation with other countries of the region apart from Venezuela: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia also procured Russian military hardware.

Russia tried to establish closer economic ties with its major partners in the region. At the end of the decade Russia’s oil and gas producing companies LUKOIL and GASPROM were already operating in Venezuela. RUSAL made heavy investments in bauxite industry of Guyana. ROSNEFT got its chunk for oil exploration in Cuban shelf of the Mexican Gulf.

Trade between Russia and the countries of the region has been roaring recently – over the last decade trade turnover has tripled and amounted to $15bln [4]. However, despite the qualitative changes in the structure of Russian export – the share of machinery and equipment has a little increased – it still leaves much to be desired. Take Brazil, for example: mineral fertilizers have made up 90% of Russian export, while Brazil has been exporting to Russia mostly meat and tropical goods.

Largely, Brazil has always been the weakest link of Russia’s regional policy despite its participation in the BRIC group. At any rate, the role of Brazil in Russia’s foreign policy is much smaller than those of China and India. It should be recognized that Russia has failed so far to establish strategic partnership with Brazil, which had been planned for as early as 1997.

It can be largely attributed to the fact that Russian leadership has no priority system in interacting with this country. The latter, from our perspective, is explained by poor understanding of how much inter-complimentary could be the interests of the two resource-rich countries in the decades to come.

Unfortunately, China, and lately India have been much more economically active in the region than Russia, filling the niches in the market that could have been well filled by Russia.

Another question is why Brazilian dimension of Russian foreign policy is much weaker than the Chinese one? Why do we transfer to China, the relationships with which in the 20th century were abundant with conflicts including the armed ones, unique military aircraft building technologies, while denying this to Brazil with which we have never had conflicts or clashes on the international arena?

Perhaps, it is the residual principle inherent of the USSR leadership and successfully inherited in 1990-s by the Russian leadership that is applied to this region. But, while the USSR used to have Cuba as a strategic partner, the Russian Federation, having curtailed the ties with the Island of Freedom, didn’t bother to start looking for new partners and paid as little attention to the relations with Brazil as with any other Latin American country.

If Russia is really interested in serious and politically influential partners, then it is the Brazil dimension that should be prioritized as the major vector of Russian policy in the region. It means establishing a special system of partnership which will include an overhaul of the current system of trade and economic relations, an introduction of a new system of preferential terms of advanced know-how transfer and exchange, particularly in aerospace field. For that sake it’s necessary to maximally intensify the relations with Brazil’s leadership and take them to a higher level, with the head of state or the government taking control of it.

However, the growing understanding of the Russian upper echelons of power of the necessity to shift the focus of economic cooperation with the countries of the region on to scientific and technical sphere arouses certain optimism. It is in the field of advanced technologies where Russia is most competitive, and no wonder that the main emphasis during the April 2010 visit of President Medvedev to the countries of the region was laid on this very issue.

Low competitiveness of Russia vis-à-vis other countries undertaking huge efforts with a view to building up their political and economic position in this region continues to persist. Besides, our investment capability is also much lower than that of USA, China, EU and even India.

Nonetheless, in spite of the difficulties, both objective and subjective, the trend of Russia’s presence expansion in the region may gain further momentum in the forthcoming decades, provided adequate efforts are taken. In this case Latin American dimension of Russian foreign policy has all chances to make it a separate independent direction which can win Russia new beneficial partners and enhance its position in a nascent multi-polar world.

2. Облик России – взгляд из Латинской Америки. М.: ИЛА РАН, 2009. С. 25.

3. Латинская Америка в современной мировой политике. М.: Наука, 2009. С. 203.

4. Таможенная статистика внешней торговли Российской Федерации: Сборник. Федеральная таможенная служба России. М., 2011. С. 7–13.

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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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