Putin, godfather of the outcasts

vladimir putin

In the face of the conflict in Ukraine, it is worth reviewing Russian foreign policy, from its most fundamental logic to its ramifications in the hemisphere that concerns us here at The Americanist.

Russian foreign policy has little or nothing to do with the ideological affinity or form of government of its allies. This is easy to lose sight of; whether on the strength of the neocon narrative; the division of the world into left and right; or the division between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes.

  • Russia's strategy differs from China's - which is more commercial - and from the US - which promotes or imposes its political and economic model. Moscow is simply interested in grouping markets and allies in order to establish itself as a rival to Washington. And it is succeeding.
  • Formally, Russia respects the internal affairs of each country, which translates into the possibility of allying itself with any kind of politician, from Bolsonaro to Al-Assad to Ortega and Maduro (informally, it mediates according to its interests, like any power).
  • In this way Putin has become the godfather of all those chief executives isolated from the mainstream international community for being extreme.
  • Multipolarity has long been central to Russian diplomatic discourse: as the Eurasian bloc consolidates, an increasingly weakened US provides the perfect opportunity to constitute other civilisational poles under the Kremlin's aegis - and constant vigilance.
AFP/EVARISTO SA - El presidente brasileño Jair Bolsonaro
AFP/EVARISTO SA - Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro

Brazil is perhaps an atypical occasion for Russia's presence in Latin America, as Slavic custom has been to align itself with leftist leaders on the continent. But it is not atypical from a global perspective, given the prevailing goal of multipolarity. Russia has not aligned itself with the Latin American left, but against the hegemon and the 'West' and its way of doing things. Thus, in other latitudes, Moscow has moved closer to Iran, Syria and Hungary.

  • For some time now, Putin has widely praised Bolsonaro and invited him to visit him in Moscow, a trip that took place during the week of 17 February. Bolsonaro seems to have been driven into the arms of the Kremlin, in the face of the hatred that "the West" has for him.
  • Within the BRICS bloc - Brazil, Russia, India, China, India, China, South Africa - the two leaders have already held talks and, although the large Russian investments in the South American country are relevant, what is really striking is Russia's ability to play "between two waters" and its capacity to project itself as the leading power of the "excluded" countries.

Venezuela is the operational centre from which Russian activity emanates towards the rest of the continent. Relations between Moscow and Caracas were accentuated under Chávez and have intensified under Maduro. Russia's military presence in Venezuela is not simply a reality recognised by the international community, but there are also recent statements by dissident Chavistas that the presence is even greater than what is known.

REUTERS/MANAURE QUINTERO  -   El presidente de Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, habla durante una conferencia de prensa en el Palacio de Miraflores en Caracas, Venezuela
REUTERS/MANAURE QUINTERO - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a press conference at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela.
  • Russian troops march in Venezuelan military parades and arms deals are the order of the day: this has been going on for some time.
  • It may be curious how relations of a different kind have taken root: Russian tourists are increasingly being seen on Venezuela's Caribbean beaches, some have appeared in the slums of the country's major cities, others have opened small and medium-sized businesses, and Russian music is played at state concerts.
  • Not surprisingly, Russians are particularly comfortable with the abstract, oligarchic capitalism of the new chavismo. In this sense, the Russians have not failed to ignore the already foreseen possibility of a gradual privatisation of the Venezuelan oil system: they want to be there when it happens. That is the legal thing to do.
  • On the other hand, Russia's murkier business interests in Venezuela, which no one is quite sure how they operate, are focused on the Orinoco Mining Arc, a sensitive security zone where multiple armed actors, including common criminals and Colombian guerrillas, converge, but where hundreds of thousands of tons of diamonds, gold and coltan lie underground. The Russians are looking to the future: their presence in Venezuela means not only a military presence close to the US, but also natural resources to the hilt and direct access to Amazon water.

It is Russia's oldest regional friendship, inherited from the Soviet Union. The Missile Crisis and Fidel's visit to Moscow almost sixty years ago are well known. Although it has modulated in intensity over time, it is a reality: the Russians are just over 140km from Florida.

AFP/ALEJANDRO ERNESTO  -   Fotografía de archivo tomada el 11 de julio de 2014 muestra al presidente ruso Vladimir Putin y al presidente cubano Raúl Castro
AFP/ALEJANDRO ERNESTO - File photo taken on 11 July 2014 shows Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Cuban President Raúl Castro.
  • Beyond the tired rhetoric with which all news reports on the issue are flooded, the Cuban press has been reporting for months on the constant arrival of Russian humanitarian aid to the island, hundreds of millions of tonnes of all kinds of supplies.
  • Although the Russian footprint in Cuba has been dissipating, the focus of the cooperation, reiterated a couple of days ago by the leaders of both countries, is, of course, the military industry. In early December last year, the head of the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation announced that although Cuba possesses "sufficient weapons", it is necessary to "raise the level of its competence, provide training and transfer the technologies we have".
  • Beyond a tenuous cooperation at the commercial and private tourism levels, the relationship does not seem to transcend the purely geopolitical.

The Russian presence is articulated in an interesting way. Apart from the typical military cooperation agreements, the Slavs operate - incidentally very close to the US Embassy - a satellite described by the Pentagon as an "espionage satellite", similar to the one they have in Argentina. On the other hand, a couple of months ago a Nicaraguan delegation comprising Ortega's sons signed a bilateral cooperation agreement in Moscow on nuclear energy.